Blade runner: Pick your next kitchen knife with tips from Swetha Sivakumar
A knife is all about the anatomy. Learn the parts, see why they matter, and get a list of what to look for when picking replicants next. In this week’s Sound Bites.
When I was studying for my Master’s degree, I could barely make ends meet on what I earned as a research assistant. So I signed up to be a part-time salesperson with a high-end kitchen-knives company. They trained me in how to demonstrate the superiority of these knives by cutting paper or thinly slicing vegetables. I began to appreciate the things you don’t notice right away in a knife: the ergonomic fit of the handle, the heft of a good blade.
I soon realised that cold calls and doorstep pitches were not my forte, but I stayed long enough to earn a set of blades, and 20 years later I still reach for those knives in my kitchen.
A knife is all about the anatomy, of handle, tang, bolster and blade. Let’s look at these one by one. A wooden handle is usually more expensive than metal or fibre, and looks beautiful, but is very high-maintenance. A knife with a wooden handle can’t go into the dishwasher or the temperature shocks will eventually cause the wood to split. For longevity, one must hand wash, wipe, and oil the handle frequently.
Metal handles look sleek and are easy to clean, but they can feel slippery and uncomfortable. Synthetic materials would be my top pick. They’re highly durable and easy to maintain. I find composites of elements such as rubber, plastic and fiberglass best. They look good, offer a good grip, and they’re durable.
Inside the handle is a piece of blade that extends down the middle, called the tang. In a full-tang knife, the tang extends all the way to the back of the handle. This is generally indicative of higher quality because the further the tang extends, the heavier the handle feels in the hand. This counterbalances the heaviness of the blade and makes cutting and slicing easier.
The bolster is the bump at the intersection of the blade and handle, put there for protection in case the hand slips from handle to blade.
Now for the blade. Most commercial kitchen knives today have blades of steel. There are two broad categories: stainless and high-carbon steel. Professional chefs prefer the latter. The high carbon content makes the alloy harder. The harder the blade, the thinner and sharper it can be made. But high-carbon steel rusts easily unless cared for expertly. These blades are also more brittle, and chip more easily.
Stainless steel is hardier. It doesn’t have to be wiped after each use. It may have to be sharpened more often than a high-carbon steel blade, but that’s not hard to do.
Now, when it comes to types of blades, those who know knives look down on serrated edges. But, for regular kitchen use, serrated edges work fairly well even when they have dulled. They don’t just slice through food, they tear at it. This tearing causes more cellular damage, which means enzymatic and browning reactions occur faster in foods cut with a serrated blade. (This is also why an onion sliced with a very sharp, straight-edged edge knife will cause fewer tears than one cut with a blunter or serrated blade.)
There are two countries particularly famous for their knives: Germany and Japan. Germany’s Western-style knives are hefty, with more metal in them, on average. The blades typically curve upwards to accommodate a tradition of cutting using a rocking back-and-forth motion.
Japan’s Asian-style knives have thinner blades, straight edges and are ideal for those who follow the “push-cut” method of chopping. Japanese knives are also ideal for precision cuts. (German knives do a good job of breaking down meat and large vegetables, and slicing and dicing.)
In the end, what matters is that you buy a knife that feels comfortable. Don’t break the bank. There are plenty of good brands in the medium-price range. But do put some thought into it. A good knife, for someone who likes to cook, is like a really good pair of shoes. You don’t really know what you’ve been missing until you find the right fit.
(To reach Swetha Sivakumar with questions or feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org)