Anyone else have a drawer filled with random foodie gadgets you never really use? And by never really use I mean never use. It’s so tempting to snag the next cool doodad that promises to make meal prep, cooking, and cleaning a breeze. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really incredible gadgets out there! BUT. There is no gadget that can replace a good set of knives. Which is why it’s important to have kitchen knives explained.
In my last post, 9 Cookware Basics, I made a case for NOT purchasing sets. Knives are no exception. It’s best to fight the temptation of a one and done boxed set in favor of creating the perfect collection suited for your specific needs. If you’ve ever owned a knife block, I know that you know there are 5 knives in that set you’ve probably never even touched!! At least.
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SO. MANY. OPTIONS. PLEASE. EXPLAIN.
One simple Google search is all it takes to feel overwhelmed with options. Can’t a girl just get a good knife around here?! Yes. You certainly can. And with just a few simple pieces of information we’ll get you on your way to slicing and dicing in no time.
Knives come in every size, shape, and color. Sold individually, in sets of 2 or 3, or in blocks that include 4-8 steak knives. You can score a set for as cheap as $50 or find that a single one costs hundreds of dollars. What gives? Why does it matter? What actually matters?
I’m gonna come at this a bit backwards for some, but I’m a firm believer in this concept: Whatever you actually use is what’s best. How many times have you made a purchase, not just for the kitchen but in general, and the thing has… well… sat there? We can all nod together in agreement on this one.
Basic Kitchen Knife Anatomy
First things first. Understanding basic knife anatomy so that you can carry a conversation with a shop, boutique, or knife maker.
It’s important enough that I made this graphic just for you! I found some of the stock diagrams to be either too simple or too complex. So I made my own and hope you find it helpful.
The most important piece of this whole image is the TANG. Simply put, the tang is a part of the actual blade that extends all the way through the handle. This creates one solid unit which is more sturdy and less likely to “snap” or “break” during use. Knives without a full tang are adhered to their handle, meaning they are less reliable and with a random wrong angle or too much pressure. BAM. You’re in for quite the unpleasant surprise.
What’s A Knife Made Of?
This could literally span an entire post of its own. And since I haven’t written one to link to yet, this in-depth article is perfect for all you researcher nerds! Of which I totally am. The Queen of Rabbit Holes. So if you click on that link, make sure to come on back and finish up this post. We’ve still got lots to cover.
Long story short, for you non link clickers, there are 2 main types of steel used when making kitchen knives: High Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel.
High Carbon Steel tends to be the choice of many quality knife companies, due to its ability to hold an edge (ie stay sharp), toughness (ie no breakage), and ease of maintenance (ie easy to hone and sharpen). These properties are all associated with the carbon part of carbon steel.
My #1 Piece of Advice For Choosing The Perfect Kitchen Knife
Now that you’ve got a solid base of anatomy and what type of steel you’ll most likely see on store shelves or in Amazon descriptions
Go get your hands on them. For real. Go to a kitchen boutique or store and ask to hold and use said knife before you purchase. You’d be surprised how different each brand feels in your hand. Your mom’s favorite chef’s knife might actually be too big or even too small for you grip. I spent months coveting a blade once, only to grab it and realize that every time I made a slicing motion the handle dug into my wrist. Really uncomfortable. The knife I couldn’t wait to purchase all the sudden became a hard pass for me.
I will say it’s still a good idea to do some reading/research before heading to the store. Which is what you’re doing right now, so congrats on winning at life already. There’s no need to be blindsided by a sales rep! You might not know exactly what you want just yet, but having a general idea will not only help ensure the best bang for your budget but also help you enjoy using your new tool regularly.
My #2 Piece of Kitchen Knife Advice
Take inventory on what types of foods and meals you actually prepare on the regular. Are you a meat and potatoer? Or do you eat a lot of water dense foods like cucumber, herbs and seafood? It matters. Certain knives are designed to handle hard root vegetables like turnips and potatoes (German Made) and others, to be nimble and precise (Japanese Made). Just think about what those two cultures eat as a whole… makes more sense when you think of it like that, right? The difference between beef stew and sushi.
It’s helpful to have the right tool for the job, making the task at hand easier and therefore more enjoyable. As always, if you’d like to geek out on all the subtle differences between the 2 most prevalent types of knives on the market, you really need to check out this article. It’s a to-the-point guide and you’ll learn a ton.
3 Kitchen Knives I Can’t Live With Out
I’ve had an 8″ German Made, Mercer for 10 years now. Not only does this blade hold a sharp edge, but the balance is perfect in my hand. A bit heavier towards the back which makes me feel like I have full control over what’s happening. I use it on melons, butternut squash, potatoes, and red meat. This type of knife is most commonly used to “rock” back and forth through your cutting board’s contents. Which is why the tip of the knife is angled upward… giving the shape of a rocking chair.
I’ve had a 7″ German Made, Wüsthof for about 2 years, and wish I had added it years ago! This knife is more evenly balanced in my hand without leaning too heavy towards the back or front. I use it specifically for slicing. Think onions, peppers, thin cuts of meat, cucumbers, and eggplant. Right now, this is my favorite knife to grab for. There’s nothing it can’t do- from smashing garlic, to prepping my Spicy Mushroom Fajitas, to creating a mean taziki for Greek grilled chicken bites.
Just look at how the edge of this knife differs from the Chef’s Knife. Totally different anatomy for a totally different task.
I actually have 2 of these, one that’s 4.5″ (Wüsthof) and one that’s 3″ (Mercer). I use all the time on fruits like strawberries and oranges, for slicing garlic, rough chopping herbs, and handling other small fruit and veg. I’ve had my 3″er from Mercer for 10 years and my 4.5″er from Wüsthof for 4.
I Use More Often These Days
About 4 years ago I started purchasing bakery fresh breads from a local shop and found myself in need of a bread knife. Instead of going the “traditional route” I ended up snagging a Wüsthof called the Super Slicers. Great for baked goods and meats! The blade is reverse serrated and beveled on one side only. Which allows for paper thin slices on everything from fish to citrus. I’m not sure it replaces an old school bread knife, but I’m still very happy with it’s performance as a whole. Especially now that I’ve started baking bread at home. Yes, I’m one of the 2020 sourdough starter converts.
There’s a whole list of knives I’d love to add one day, when budget permits. You can check out an extremely in depth guide to knife types right here. Super comprehensive and yet easy to digest.
It should be noted that I plan on adding knives to my collection as certain skill sets begin to develop. For example, I have never needed a fillet, because I don’t break down my own fish. I also have never needed a cleaver, because I don’t breakdown large pieces of meat at home. This could all change one day, and when that day comes you can bet I’ll be adding the appropriate knives to get the job done right.
Cleaning & Care
Ok. You’re back home with your prized possessions. Two new knives that are ready to take you to the places you wana go. Congrats on that, by the way!! After some serious slicing and dicing you toss in the dishwasher and… NO. NO you DO NOT toss those bad boys in the dishwasher. There’s no better way to quickly dull your new knife than this.
See, dishwashers are great, but not for everything. Like great grandmas china tea cups for example. And here’s the reason. The type of detergent used for dishwashers is super abrasive. Essentially blasting your contents with hundreds of little holes (called pits), which can weaken, expose, and eat away at a number of finishes. Ever wonder why your glassware looks scratched after a few years? Bingo.
It’s really best to kick it old school on items you care about. Like china, expensive knives, or crystal glassware. Warm soapy water and a quick scrub will do the trick! Towel dry immediately.
There are a few favorable options for storing knives. One is to purchase a protective plastic or silicon covering/guard that snaps or slides over said blade prior to storing in a drawer, and the other is to hang on a magnetic bar. While there are a variety of knife blocks available on the market, storing your blade in a block will dull those bad boys faster than you can say- dull those bad boys. The constant pulling in and out of wooden slots definitely won’t be doing your tomatoes any favors. It’s not the end of the world by any means, but drawer storage or magnetic strips really are the way to go.
In my kitchen, I use a magnetic strip and wouldn’t change it for the world. Form and function. But, I also am childless at this point in life (not by choice) so am not sure if I’d feel the same with littles crawling on the counter? If you must go the direction of a wooden block, simply flip your blade upside down so that the spine rests facing downward, not the edge. This will help keep that edge in tip top V shaped condition. More on that next.
Honing VS Sharpening
As soon as I started working on this post I threw up a questions box on my Instagram Stories… asking what you guys wanted to know more about when it came to kitchen knives. Sharpening was clearly something on everyone’s mind, so here you go!
First, and most importantly, is to understand the difference between sharpening and honing.
You know that random rod that comes with most knife sets? That’s for honing. See, when you use your knife for ordinary tasks like cooking, the microscopic “teeth” that make up the edge of your blade start to bend. Over time the once straight teeth get smooshed flat… which is what gives you a dull edge. What was once a V becomes a U. And U’s don’t cut very well. The easily slip and slide around which can put those fingers of yours in some serious danger.
Think of honing like braces. They simply set the teeth straight! When the teeth on an edge are straight they cut with precision.
Sharpening a knife is the act of removing steel and therefore creating a new edge. In theory you could sharpen a knife to the point of nonexistence by removing enough steel. Crazy. I know. Most home cooks don’t use their knives enough to warrant sharpening more than once or twice a year. I fall into this category and cook almost every day. Truth be told I don’t hone my knives as often as I should. It’s one of those kitchen tasks I always mean to do, but don’t. So yah, you’re totally not alone on this one and that’s way ok.
How To Hone
You’re not gonna look like the dude on TV with all the aggressive slashing and crisscross magic. Embrace it. Instead, grab a dish towel and place the bottom of your honing steel on it. This will majorly help with slippage. Grab your knife and hold the heel of blade at a 20 degree angle to the bar (about the size of a match packet) and pull towards you as the knife moves down the bar. Almost like a slicing motion, but on an angle. Repeat 7 to10 passes before switching sides. You don’t need a ton of pressure or force here, and there’s not need to move quickly. The idea is to nudge or knock the “teeth” back into place creating that coveted V shape.
If you’ve realized your knives have been neglected for a while… as in never honed or sharpened, it’s probably time to rectify that. There is nothing as dangerous in the kitchen as dull knife. For real. So if your knife isn’t slicing through an onion or tomato like a hot knife through butter, your tools are due for a little TLC.
Maybe you’re highly visual like me? Which is why I’m including this bomb video all about honing for you to check out!
How to Sharpen
First, you’ll need to know what type of knife you have. For example, German (20/22 degree angle) and Japanese (15 degree angle) made blades are sharpened at different angles. The angle matters!
Second, you’ll need to determine if you want to take on the responsibility of learning this skill set. There are a handful of ways you can sharpen including stone and belt. Electric and manual. OR my favorite. Professionally done. Most kitchen shops only charge $5-$7 a blade, and know exactly what they’re doing.
I don’t trust myself to get the precise angle correct, and if you know me, I’m the clumsiest person on the planet. Learning from a professional how to sharpen my own knives is a To Do list item for one day. But that day hasn’t yet arrived. Since I really only use 4 knives, professionally having them edged sets me back a whopping $20 a year, if that. Worth it.
Another bomb option, especially if you are spending under $200 per knife, is a simple manual pull through sharpener designed for your specific brand of knives. For example, if you purchase a Wüsthof chef’s knife it would make total sense to also purchase their handheld, manual pull through sharpener. While this won’t replace a professional sharpening once a year, it will help keep your blade in tip top shape without any new skill sets required. If I was going to sharpen at home, this is where I would start!
Before The Holidays
Random tidbit to consider. Get those knives worked on before it’s November and you’re trying to holiday prep. Often sharpening turnaround is several days during the holiday season instead of same or next day service.
I typically use the summer months to TLC up my kitchen tools and space so that when cooler days hit, I’m ready to enjoy the holiday season in all her glory. This includes conditioning wood cutting boards and utensils, deep cleaning exposed shelving, replacing any ripped/broken spatulas, double checking my stock of parchment paper, and giving my stove and oven a good scrub. I’ve never regretted taking the extra time over the summer months to do this! But always regret when I decide to skip.
Research & Shop
Whether you’ve been on the market for a new set of knives or haven’t been sure how to care for the ones you own, I truly hope you’ve found this Kitchen Knives Explained post helpful! Just enough information to get your feet wet but not too much to overwhelm. While there’s a whole knife world out there filled with technical jargon (which is super cool), the average kitchen newbie doesn’t need to start there.
Understanding the basics is always the best place to start. And you’ve now got a solid foundation for to start looking for based on what you and your family cook and eat most regularly.
Now, go get your hands on some different brands like Wüsthof, Mercer, Henckel, Shun, Global, or Misen for starters. Because if it doesn’t feel good in your hand, it won’t feel good while you’re cooking with it.
I found this guide for chef’s knives super helpful, and think you will too. Great place to start if you really have no idea what you’re looking for.
Let Me Know!
Whether you’re about to bust out that honing rod/steel or make a new purchase, go confidently. You got this! And if there are any other questions I can answer drop them down below and I’ll either answer or find you the help you need.
And while you’re at it, Save to Pinterest or Share on Facebook. Because sharing is caring, and I’ll need all the While you’re at the sharing and commenting, please Save to Pinterest or Share on Facebook. I need all the support I can get to keep on growing this dream of mine. A place where practical beats perfect- and simple, delicious food is a lifestyle. A place where together, we can begin filling homes and tables with joy.
Hugs, because handshakes are awkward~