Anatomy of the Chef Knife
1 The mid section area of the blade is used to cut either firm or soft food. The gentle curve of the blade in this part of the knife is ideal for mincing of vegetables and herbs.
2 The front of the blade is suitable for many small cutting jobs. It is particularly useful for slicing onions, mushrooms, garlic and other small vegetables.
3 The spine or back part of the blade can be used to break up small bones or shellfish.
4 The heel of the blade: The weight distribution here is optimal is used to chop through extremely firm food objects.
5 The wide flat surface of the blade can be used for flattening and shaping of meat cuts such as filets as well as for lifting of the chopped product.
The Science Behind Knife Skills
The blade of a chef knife is usually made from either carbon steel or stainless steel.
Carbon steel is an alloy of iron that is approximately 1% carbon. It is both easier to sharpen than stainless steel and holds an edge longer, but it is vulnerable to rust and stains. Over time, a carbon-steel knife can acquire a dark patina, and carbon steel (unlike stainless steels) rusts if not cared for properly. Some chefs find that the extra sharpness is not worth keeping the steel clean and polished; others find that carbon steel's sharpness qualities outweigh the additional maintenance requirements.
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron, approximately 10-15% chromium, possibly nickel, and molybdenum, with only a small amount of carbon. Lower grades of stainless steel are not able to take as sharp an edge as carbon steel, but are resistant to corrosion, do not taint food, and are inexpensive. Higher grade and 'exotic' stainless steels (mostly from Japan - as used by Global, Kasumi and others) are extremely sharp with excellent edge retention, and equal or outperform carbon steel blades, but they are expensive.
High Carbon Stainless Steel is stainless steel with a certain amount of carbon arbitrarily deemed "high", and is intended to combine the best attributes of carbon steel and ordinary stainless steel. High carbon stainless steel blades do not discolor or stain, and maintain a sharp edge. Examples of such steels include 440C, AUS-8, AUS-10, ATS-55, and many others. It is typically used in higher-end kitchen knives, though some very expensive Japanese knives use carbon steel.
Well-designed knives are an extension of the most important of all culinary commodities - the hand. The knife is actually a complex simple machine when used properly; it is a wedge and lever. When the tip is held stationary the heel serves as the resistance force. Mechanical advantage increases with the length of the blade. That is why it is best to use the largest chef knife that you feel comfortable with. Chef Norman Weinstein of the Institute of Culinary Education recommends the 10" Chef Knife from Wusthof.
"A good knife balances near the bolster," Mr. Weinstein said, referring to the shank or transition point where the handle meets the blade. Like many professionals we encountered he holds his knife by pinching the blade between thumb and forefinger, just ahead of the bolster, curling his other fingers lightly around the handle. "A knife is a tool designed to take the work out of muscles. The heavier your knife, the more work it will do for you. It's a myth that a smaller person needs a smaller knife. Would you give a small person a smaller hammer?"
The Other Knives
paring knife is a small knife with a plain edge blade that is ideal for peeling and other small or intricate work (such as deveining a shrimp, removing the seeds from a jalapeño, or cutting small garnishes). It is designed to be an all-purpose knife, similar to a chef's knife, except smaller. Paring knives are usually between 2½ and 4 inches, as anything larger than about 4 or 5 inches is typically considered a utility knife (although the distinction is somewhat vague).
Utility A utility knife is a medium size knife that can be used for a myriad of tasks (although many chefs will claim that a cook with a chef's knife and a paring knife can achieve these tasks just as well). Utility knives can either have a plain edge blade or a serrated blade, some of which are considered tomato knives. They are usually between about 4 and 7 inches in length.
A boning knife is used to remove bones from cuts of meat. They have a thin, flexible blade, usually about 5 or 6 inches long, that allows them to get in to small spaces. A stiff boning knife is good for beef and pork, but a flexible boning knife is preferred for poultry and fish.
The serrated knife edge works better than the plain edge for slicing cuts, especially through hard or tough surfaces, where the serrations tend to grab and cut the surface easily. Some of the cutting power of the serrated edge is due to its format alone; thus, even a dull serrated edge knife will often perform competently at slicing jobs.
A cleaver is a large knife that varies in its shape but usually resembles a square-bladed hatchet. It is largely used as a kitchen or butcher knife intended for hacking through bone. The knife's broad side can also be used for crushing in food preparation (such as garlic).
Knife Skills Courses
If there is one cooking class you should take -- even if you have been cooking at home for many years -- it is a course in 'knife skills'. Although there are several interesting videos online and descriptions of proper knife skillson many websites, we highly recommend a knife skills class with an experienced instructor.
Recommended Knife Skills Class:
If you are in the NYC area, the Institute of Culinary Education offers a series of Knife Skills classes taught by Norman Weinstein.
Knife Skills I:
This is a course every home chef should take. Chef-Instructor Norman Weinstein has been teaching everyone from first-time cooks to professional chefs how to better select and use knives for more than 20 years. He’s been profiled in Wine Spectator and The New York Times Magazine, and has appeared on the Food Network. He was the 2003 honoree of the New York Association of Culinary Professionals.
Knife Skills 2
In Knife Skills 2, you’ll polish your carving techniques. You’ll learn the art and technique of carving roasts and fowl so that they go from cutting board to table in neat servings.
For more information see the Institute for Culinary Education website.