Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Right Knife For The Job

One of the most basic but important hand tools for any Chef is the knife. A quality knife, matched to the task at hand can increase productivity and provide superior results. With such a wide variety of knives available, it is sometimes difficult to decide which is best. Each knife has a specific use and it is important to use each piece only for its intended purpose.

Most commercial kitchens aren't full of high end, expensive knives but rather the more economical, stamped blade construction. These commercial kitchens will probably produce more food in a day than you will in three months and they manage to slice and dice in a fast paced environment - all the while keeping their knives sharp. Quality, commercial grade knives can be affordable ($40-60), if you don't need a forged blade which will cost up to $200 or more. There are many brands of commercial knives on the market. Woodgrove Center in Nanaimo has a 'House of Knives' store where you can see and feel different manufacturers, styles of knives and price range. A higher price does not mean the best knife... 'Cooks Illustrated' has held the Victorinox Forschner Fibrox 8" Chef's Knife as their "favorite inexpensive chef's knife" since well before 2009, and I agree!

My personal preference of knives (for professional and home use) are the lighter, stamped blade with a wooden handle and no bolster, made by 'Victorinox' (makers of the original Swiss Army Knife). Their 8" French Knife easily served me through an 8 hour shift in commercial kitchens. However, I have a 35 year old, Victorinox 10" Serrated French Knife that is my go-to, work horse for heavy cutting jobs! 

The bottom line in choosing a knife is subjective to the user; different makes, blade lengths, construction and materials for balance, comfort and size in the hand, how you hold the blade and knife skills must all be considered. And remember, there is no one perfect knife for everything. If you are considering giving a professional knife as a gift this season, may I suggest a Gift Certificate or a surprise visit to The House of Knives for the user to choose, based on the criteria listed above.

Types of Knife Edges
There are four common types of blade edges available on commercial knives...
Straight, Granton, Serrated Edge
  1. Straight Edge sometimes called flat ground is the most common and is formed by grinding the blade in a straight line so it tapers to form a razor sharp edge.
  2. Granton Edge Knives feature hollowed out sections running along both sides of the blade. These 'dimples' create air pockets between the knife and food while slicing for reduced friction and suction. This decreases prep time when slicing and cutting because foods slide easier off the blade without binding or sticking. When slicing meat, the grooves fill with fat and juices which permits more contact between the meat and blade.
  3. Serrated Edge Knives may also be referred to as wavy or scalloped edge. They feature teeth along the blade edge which easily penetrates the tough outer crust or skin of the product product being cut while protecting the soft, inner part form tearing. Ideal for cutting bread and fruit.
  4. Hollow Ground Edge is created by grinding just below the midpoint of the blade to form concave sides that come to a very thin cutting edge. Since this edge is so thin, it is easily dulled. Hollow Ground edges are ideal for fine cutting such as skinning, preparing sushi or peeling and slicing fruits. (not in photo)
Types of Knife Handles
There are three different handle options available; wood, stainless steel and plastic. All knife handles are ergonomically shaped to fit the contours of a person's closed fist, reducing hand, wrist and forearm strain.
  1. Wood Handles are arguably the most attractive and provide the best grip out of all handle types. However, they can crack and fall apart if not properly maintained and are prone to bacterial contamination.
  2. Stainless Steel Handles are virtually maintenance free and give the knife extra weight to counterbalance a heavier blade. However, they can become slippery when wet or during use.
  3. Plastic or Composite Handles are the most popular knife handle and are available in color coded sets to help reduce the risk of cross contamination... red for meat, blue for fish, yellow-poultry, green-vegetables, white-dairy. However, they can crack over time and they can become slippery when wet or during use. 
Because of their shape, edge or blade length, certain knives are best suited for certain tasks. Knowing which knife to use for every job and how to use it will make prep work safer, faster and easier. It will also show in the dishes you prepare. Foods that are cut uniformly cook evenly, look more professional and are pleasing to the eye.

French, Chef's or Cook's Knife is one of the most commonly used, versatile knives in a commercial kitchen. Available in sizes ranging from  6" to 14" (8" to 12" is most popular). The French Knife features a wide blade with symmetrical sides that taper to a point. It is used for a wide range of tasks such as chopping, slicing and mincing. (Photo below; the top three knives are French Knives; first is a Serrated 10" French Knife with a wooden handle, no bolster, hands down my favorite knife for heavy tasks! Next is a Straight Edge 10" French Knife with a wooden handle, no bolster; my favorite all round work horse. Below that is a Straight Edge 8" French Knife with a plastic handle, no bolster... notice part of the plastic handle has broken off exposing the tang (the metal that runs through the handle) rendering this knife awkward and unsafe to use.
Paring Knives rate second in versatility after a French Knife in a commercial kitchen. There are several common styles: 
Spear Point Paring Knives are great for removing corn from the cob, breaking up heads of cauliflower, peeling and slicing small produce, removing stems and other small precision cutting tasks. (Photo, with red plastic handle just below 8" French Knife)
Sheep's Foot Paring Knives feature a blunt blade tip that maximizes contact between the food and the blade. These knives are used to slice small foods like shallots and garlic. (Red plastic handle, center paring knife in photo.)
Serrated Edge Paring Knife also called wavy edge parer is used primarily to slice small small fruits and vegetables. (Red plastic handle, bottom paring knife in photo.)
Bird's Beak or curved paring knives also referred to as tourne knives feature a downward arching blade that makes peeling round fruit and garnishing a breeze.(not in photo)

Santoku Knife is an all purpose knife best suited for slicing, dicing and mincing. This knife can be used for the same functions as a Chef's Knife. (Photo; Granton Edge 7" Santoku with blue plastic handle and smaller Granton Edge 5" Santoku with stainless steel collar bolster.) The 5" Granton Edge Santoku is great for cutting up mango, slicing tomatoes, cucumbers and sushi prep.
Slicing Knife features a long, straight blade designed for slicing cooked meats, sushi and sashimi, and breaking down large fish. Generally longer than a carving knife and often feature a Granton Edge and a round, blunt tip. The long, thin blade promotes maximum contact between the food and the blade, for producing very thin slices.(Photo; Straight Edge 12" Slicing Knife with Fibrox plastic handle.)

Bread Knives may have a straight or slightly curved blade and are available in a variety of sizes from 7" to 10". They have a serrated edge that is ideal for bread and hard rind fruits.
(Photo; Serrated Edge 10" Bread Knife with Fibrox plastic handle.)

Boning Knife is a type of meat knife that is available with flexible, semi-flexible or stiff blades ranging from 3" to 8" and are used to separate meat from bone. Flexible blades are typically used by experienced butchers for boning roasts, whole hams, filleting fish etc. Semi-flexible blades allow for enough bend to keep the edge close to the bone. Stiff blades are perfect for making precise, straight cuts and are also great for jointing. (Photo; Straight Edge 5" Stiff Blade Boning Knife with Fibrox plastic handle.)

Cimeter Knife is similar to a butcher knife and is primarily used to break down large pieces of meat into smaller cuts. The blades are usually around 10" and are curved to create leverage to break through tough skin, cartilage and small bones and trimming fat off meat. Also an excellent knife for slicing roasts, turkey and more. (Photo; Straight Edge 10" Cimeter Knife with Fibrox plastic handle.)

Sharpening Steels are made from a high carbon steel which is much harder than that used for knife blades. (Photo; 14" steel with coarse grooves) A steel acts as a file removing burrs from the knife's edge. (An Oilstone, not shown, is used to hone the knifes edge to keep them really sharp.) The finer the steel is, the gentler the action. For efficiency the blade of a steel should be longer than the knife blade. A 10-12" butcher's steel with fairly coarse grooves is a good kitchen tool. 

Forged vs Stamped Knives
Every commercial knife is constructed using one of two methods; forging or stamping.
  1. Forging is a steel shaping method that has been used for hundreds of years. The process starts with a metal bar also called a billet or blank. The bar is heated and hammered into the desired shape. Modern forges use a hydraulic hammer press to pound the steel into a die or mold. This produces a thicker, heavier blade than stamping and has a bolster between the heel and handle. They are considered superior in strength and balance and are therefore more expensive than stamped knives.
  2. Stamped knives are created by passing a steel sheet under a hydraulic press. This press cuts the desired shape out of the metal, similar to how a cookie cutter cuts shapes in dough. The resulting blade is thinner and lighter than forged and do not have a bolster and are less expensive than forged knives.
Types of Knife Steel 
There are three types of alloys (metal mixtures) used to create commercial knives.
  1. Carbon Steel is the most common for commercial use. Its high carbon content makes the blade strong and easy to sharpen. However, it is not stain resistant and can become discolored if not properly maintained.
  2. Stainless Steel produces brittle blades that do not hold an edge very well and are difficult to sharpen. 
  3. High Carbon Stainless Steel produces blades that are strong and easy to sharpen. Although the most expensive steel type, it is sought after by those who want an easy to maintain kitchen knife. The blades will remain lustrous and stain resistant.
Till next week, Bon App├ętit!

Photos by Sally Rae

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