Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit III: The Chef's Knife

The Chef’s Knife

The Chef’s Knife is the all-around mack daddy of the cook’s knife kit, designed to perform all tasks asked of it. Originally it was meant to slice and disjoint big cuts of beef, but over the years it’s evolved into more of an all-purpose blade, or what the knife nerds call “general utility” It can be used for mincing, dicing, julienne work, slicing, chopping, and disjointing; you can even turn it sideways and crush garlic, ginger, or spices with it. It is not a specialty tool, but one that is designed to perform reasonably well at many different tasks. 

Usually the blade length ranges between 6 and 14-inches in length, with 8-inches being the most common. The width is normally 1½-inches, but it can be wider. With Western knives there are two shapes of blades. The German blade is deeply curved along its length, from bolster to tip, while the French blade is straighter along its length, curving towards the tip. The German blade is made more for a rocking style of cut, while the French blade is used more for a slicing and chopping style of cut. It’s all a matter of preference, depending on how the user cuts with their blade. A typical Western chef’s knife is sharpened to a 20 to 22° edge, while a professional bladesmith will fine tune that down to 18° or even 15°, if he or she thinks the steel can handle that angle; it takes a harder steel to hold a finer edge. Most Western chef knives are made of steel alloys with a Rockwell Hardness scale of 58 to 60 HRC, while a Japanese chef’s knife, known as a gyuto (which literally means “beef knife”) are typically more in the 60 to 62 HRC range. The Japanese chef’s knife has gotten more popular with chefs lately, and the price of the gyuto has skyrocketed.

The blade of a chef’s knife forms a wide elongated triangle tapering to what’s called a “center tip” point. The center tip means that both the back of the knife and the blade are gently sloped until they meet in a sharp point at the tip; the blade slopes from top to edge, and from front to back. The blade should extend all the way through to the end of the handle; this is called the tang. A full tang provides a stronger knife with a better balance to the blade, which makes it easier to use over a long period of time. The handle needs to be made of a dense, durable, waterproof material, and the handle needs to be shaped to comfortably fit your hand. If the handle is made from two pieces of wood or some other material (called “scales”), it needs to be drilled all the way through the tang, and securely connected with metal posts; these posts resemble rivets.

Lots of chefs hold their blades by gripping the sides of the blade near the handle. The thumb goes on the left side, just in front of the finger guard, and the index and middle finger are on the opposite side, with the index finger extending down near the end of the blade, where the bolster starts, and the middle finger tucked behind the finger guard and right by the bolster. You get better control of the blade that way, especially if it’s a longer blade. Longer blades can be harder to control precisely, but will cut faster, and process larger items. When you only grip the handle of a longer blade, the blade can rotate on the vertical axis easier, which isn’t very safe. Shorter blades are easier to control from the handle, and enable more precise cuts, but can take longer to get the job done during prepwork.

my Henckel, with knife guard

My current chef’s knife is a Henckel Twin 4-Star 10” Chef’s that I’ve had for decades (currently $120 online). Luckily, I recently had Travis Weige sharpen it to a 15° edge; it is razor-sharp and a serious kitchen tool to be reckoned with. Contrary to what every older relative and friend with dull knives in their kitchen drawer ever told you, a dull knife is MUCH more likely to cause an accident. Anyone that cuts themselves with a sharp knife did so because they have developed bad, dangerous knife habits from using a worthless dull knife. I used to diss my Henckel 10-incher, but now I really like it again, and it’s because I got it sharpened. Lesson learned, and one to pass on. Travis sharpens knives by the way….

A quick note about knife guards. ALL knives should be slotted in a knife guard when they're being transported or stored. A knife guard, sometimes called a blade or edge guard, is a slotted plastic sheath that comes in varying lengths and widths, to accommodate the size of the blade it is protecting. Compressive tension holds the guard on the blade, and some are lined inside with a thin felt coating which helps prevent slippage. Every knife company makes them, and they can cost more than you’d expect for a piece of plastic. I use a couple of cost-friendly brands made by Ergo Chef and Mundial. 

a Travis Weige custom chef's knife (photo by Travis)

But I’m all moist and tweaking from waiting on my Weige 11-inch custom chef’s knife that I commissioned Travis to build for me earlier this spring ($375, and a complete bargain considering the cost of custom chef’s knives out there). It will have a lacewood handle that is custom-formed to my grip and my hand measurements, bitchin’ cool handle posts made by Sally Martin, and the blade will be forged from 440c steel alloy. I’ve got several months to wait still, but I know I will be very proud to own it, and very, very happy to use it.  Go to Travis’ website, look at the gallery, and you’ll get a good idea of what my new chef’s knife will look like, and why I’m all worked up about getting it:

The chef’s knife ought to hold a special place in the working chef or serious foodie’s knife kit. It’s the one blade that can do it all, and the one blade that you really shouldn’t skimp on.  

For a good website link on parts of the knife, see this:     

For my previous Austin Chronicle article on my custom chef knife to-be, local Austin-based custom knife genius, Travis Weige, and a lot of background info on custom kitchen knives, go here:

Mick Vann © 

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