In every cook’s life there will come a time when they become sick of using their cheap supermarket kitchen knife and feel the need to upgrade. Cheap knives, made with cheap steel always seem to be blunt, often have poor ergonomics and in the end yield poor results when it comes to fine knife work. However, once you open Pandora’s box and begin to research high quality kitchen knives you are bombarded with endless information and questions. In the end what you should be considering is blade size, shape, balance and feel, handle and blade material.
Buying a new kitchen knife is a complex and personal decision, but to answer the question of price $150USD (£100 or €135) should get you a good quality knife in a reasonable quality steel. However, as you will find it all depends on your needs. Better steels can yield better results in terms of sharpness and edge retention, better steel cost more money. There is also craftsmanship; high-end, hand forged knives tend to have better ergonomics and balance and once again this costs more money. Finally, aesthetics, typically the hand forged blades simply look amazing and at a certain point your simple, practical kitchen knife can cease being a simple kitchen tool and become an artwork. So in the end the sky is the limit in terms of price, but we think $150USD (£100 or €135) is a good starting point if you are looking for something that will last a life time (with care) and maintain a reasonably sharp edge.
Blade shape, size, balance and feel (ergonomics)
The Japanese have a myriad of different shapes from the Gyuto, Nakiri and Santoku to more obscure blade shapes like the Maguro Bocho (Tuna Knife), Soba-giri bocho (Soba Noodle Knife) and Hamokiri (Conger Eel Knife). There are over 20 Japanese knife shapes and variations that we are aware of and surely many more. If you look at the western shapes you have the classic Chef’s Knife or Cook’s knife, Paring knife, Boning knife, Filleting knife, and many more and we haven’t even discussed the various Chinese shapes or those unique to other countries. So do you need all of them? Certainly not.
Typically, a cook will only need a good Chef’s knife or some variant like a Gyuto or Santoku and a Paring knife or similar. However, if you are regularly breaking down whole animals you may wish to look into a good Boning knife or in the case of fish a Japanese Deba and in the case of vegetables a Nakiri is a handy knife to have around, but you can achieve a lot with a good old fashioned Chef knife or Gyuto.
These two are very similar both are long, wide blades, but where the Chef knife is typically a long curved blade with a flat section near to the hilt the Gyuto is a long flat blade with a curved section nearer to the tip. Basically you need to try them both out if you can, as both can achieve the same results. In the end it comes done to ergonomics and personal preference. If you tend to use a rocking action then you will prefer the Chef knife shape, if you tend to use a slicing or chopping action you will prefer the Japanese Gyuto. The Santoku is a nice option if you are used to working with a shorter blade length, but in the end the shorter blade length is less versatile. Santokus have similar feature of the Gyuto, but they are shorter and have a wider blade. The wide blade makes them great for the chopping action, but the short length means they are not so good for slicing.
Petty, Paring or Both?
A Paring knife is a short flat bladed knife usually about 8-10 centimeters in length. This is a great knife for cleaning and preparing vegetables. The compact, short blade makes it perfect for fine detail work. The Petty is a little bigger and mirrors the shape of a Gyuto, usually around 12 centimeters. We think its handy to have both, but if you have to choose the Petty is capable of accomplishing everything the Paring knife can do in terms of vegetables and can also be used as a boning knife in a pinch, it’s slightly more versatile. However, the Paring knife is much easier to work with on those intricate jobs like peeling potatoes or lifting onion skins.
Ergonomics comes down to two key points. The first point concerns grip, is the handle comfortable to hold in both full grip and pinch grip? Is the spine of the blade rounded over to help ensure it is comfortable when held in pinch grip or is it sharp giving way to potential blistering? The second key point is about balance. Essentially we are talking about the knifes construction here. Is the knife a full tang or half tang, how thick is the blade at the hilt and how thick is it at the tip, what is the width from blade to spine at the hilt and so on. However, at the end of the day you can only determine this by holding and using the knife and in most cases you will only truly understand how well balanced your knife is after prolonged use. The best choice here is to only buy your knife from a reputable dealer.
Handle and Blade Materials
Above all the materials your knives are made from are the most important consideration for you as a cook. These materials dictate how sharp your knife will be, how long it will remain sharp, how much care you will have to take in using and maintaining your knife and how comfortable your knife will be.
Knife handles are made of a wide variety of materials, essentially it comes down to personal preference. However, you should be concerned with durability and if you are working in the food industry it may be important that the handle is made out of an approved material. Some Japanese knives are fitted with a “Wa” handle. One clear advantage of this style of handle is that it can easily be replaced.
The elements that make up the steel in your kitchen knife will determine characteristics like rust resistance, hardness, edge retention and sharpness. The basic elements used in steel are Carbon, Chromium, Cobalt, Molybdenum, Vanadium and Tungsten. These materials blended in varying different ways to make up the different steels used in kitchen knives. You don’t need to know the exact percentages of each your knife has, but it is helpful to know that there are two main formula types, Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel. Both of these steel types have their advantages and disadvantages and both brands or formulas with varying popularity.
One of the key differences between Carbon steel and Stainless steel is that Carbon steel will rust if not properly cared for. This does not mean that this steel is not going to last as long as stainless steel or that it is not as good, but it does mean you will have to spend a little more time caring for it. Essentially it is important to keep these knives in a dry place and when using with high acidity ingredients like citrus you should rinse and dry the blade immediately after cutting and generally after use. Any small amounts of discoloration or rust will not affect the food you cut with it. Ok so why should you buy a carbon steel knife? Sharpness and edge retention. Carbon steel is famous for its ability to achieve a super sharp edge easily and to retain that edge for an extended period of time.
There are a lot of Carbon steel formulas in the market like White #1 and #2, Blue #1 and #2 and Aogami Super (sometimes called Blue Super Steel). We advise you go for the Aogami Super if you are leaning towards a Carbon blade as it has the highest durability and has the best edge retention and sharpness, but essentially #1 is better than #2 in both white and blue and blue is better than white. At Modern Cooking we don’t offer any Carbon steel blades at the moment. This is simply because we do not believe that the added sharpness is noticeably superior to a high quality Stainless steel or Powder steel.
Stainless Steel (Powder Steel)
Essentially Stainless steel is defined by its Chromium content, an element which ensures resistance to rust, corrosion and general wear. Historically speaking stainless steel has a reputation for poor edge retention. Essentially Stainless steel was developed by adding Chromium and reducing Carbon. However, in recent years a number of high carbon stainless steels have been developed, which match carbon blades for their edge retention and sharpness while also offering the lower maintenance of stainless steel.
There are two quality tiers in Stainless steel, standard formulas like VG-10 and SUS-410, and Powder Steels like SG2 and ZDP-189. While both of these steel have amazing edge retention and sharpness, Powder Steels like SG2 have a superior hardness and therefor are capable of superior sharpness and durability.
In the end a high quality, well maintained and sharp knife will last you a lifetime, is safer to use and makes your cooking experience more enjoyable. At Modern Cooking we only stock knives produced out of VG-10, SUS410 and SG2 Powder Steel (sometimes called R2). If you are in the market for a new knife check out our range and if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch.Thanks for reading!
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