What Makes A Good Chef's Knife?
Should I Care? What Style Is Best For Me?
For most people, the chef's knife, or Kitchen Knife, is an indispensable tool for preparing food. The Best Chef's Knife is the one that's right for you! It can peel, slice, dice, chop, and help get any meal ready for cooking in a timely and efficient manner. But why is this workhorse so good at so many tasks? Let's explore.
It takes a bit of thought and design, testing and planning, to produce a good chef's kitchen knife. The edge needs enough upward curve, or "belly", to facilitate the rocking chop motion common to most professional knife users. There should also be a small flat on the edge back toward the heel or handle end, to gently let you know that you've reached the end of this chop stroke and are ready to begin another. The handle should nestle in the palm of your hand with a little swell to provide a firm grip. It should also give a solid hold when using the pinch grip, my personal favorite! And of course there must be enough clearance under the handle, so your knuckles don't bump the cutting board!
There are three major schools of thought, and styles of chefs knives(or kitchen knives, or French knives). Read on:
The German style of chef's knife is thick and heavy, with the edge curve (belly) beginning somewhere behind the midpoint of the blade length. These knives are for heavier tasks and they're built tough.
French chefs knives are somewhat lighter and thinner, with the belly beginning well forward of the midpoint of blade length. This style of knife was so common in French restaurant kitchens that the entire style is often just called a French Knife or Kitchen Knife.
Japanese knives are thinner that their European brethren, and have slightly different profiles and completely different names. Two styles might come to mind when comparing to chef's knives, though. The Gyuto is similar in length, not so tall, with only a slight belly toward the tip. The Santoku has a gentle curve to the entire length of the blade, much like a chair rocker. Typical of Japanese kitchen knives are the non-stainless carbon steels with very high hardness, 63-65HRc.
Many mass produced chef's knives from MAJOR knife making companies gloss over the type of steel they use. Sure, they will tell you "premium stainless", or "high carbon", but almost never the exact composition, or even the hardness they ran it to. The steel, and the heat treatment of that steel, are forever the heart of your knife. You have the right to know WHICH steel, and WHAT HARDNESS it is. All of my stainless steel chef's knives are made of AEB-L steel (unless you request otherwise), developed for the razor blade industry and sold by Uddeholm Sweden for the. It has a very fine grain and carbide structure, EXCELLENT toughness, and can easily reach working hardnesses of 63HRc and more for kitchen use, which is my goal. With a manageable cost per blade, good edge retention and very easy to sharpen, I believe AEB-L to be the right choice for most kitchen knives.
The great and world renowned bladesmith Devin Thomas says this on AEB-L:
From Devin Thomas at devinthomas.com:
"Few know what AEB-L steel is, and those that do, only have heard that it is similar to 440B or 440A. The only similarities between AEB-L and 440B or 440A is the amount of carbon. The fact that AEB-L has only 12.8% chromium by weight compared to the 16-17% in 440A and 440B makes the steels quite different. AEB-L is more similar to a stainless 52100 than 440A. A copy of AEB-L called 13C26 is made by Sandvik. AEB-L naturally forms what is called the K2 carbide, the harder of the two chromium carbides, compared to the K1 carbide, which is formed in steels such as 440C. The K2 carbide is about 79 on the Rockwell C scale, compared to 72 for the K1 carbide. Through proper heat treatment, AEB-L has fine, evenly distributed K2 carbides. AEB-L lies almost perfectly on what is called the "Carbon Saturation Line", which means that all of the carbides formed are precipitated carbides, not primary carbides like are formed in 440C, and there is more carbon and a similar amount chromium in solution as compared to 440C. Primary carbides are very large. So, through a balanced composition, AEB-L has excellent toughness, edge retention, workability, ease of sharpening, and ease of polishing.
AEB-L was developed for the razor blade industry, is a stainless steel capable of high working hardness and extremely keen edges. An air hardening steel, it is one of the toughest stainless steels available. Cryogenic treatment in liquid nitrogen adds to strength and hardness."
I make my knives with a gentle "soft drink bottle" shaped handle, with a palm swell to fit into your hand. It seems easier to hold on to, and know where the knife is in your hand. For home chefs I use your choice of wood for aesthetics, as the wood adds warmth and another layer of beauty to the work. The wood has been stabilized, or impregnated with a polymer resin under alternating vacuum and pressure, then baked at a temperature to harden the resin. This makes the wood far less likely to swell and shrink with changes in moisture and humidity.
All knives are finished with a blend of oils and hardeners designed originally for gunstock use, called Tru-Oil. It is a hard use finish to further protect the wood and define the unique grain and colors of your handle.
Finally, I believe the difference between a good chef's knife and a GREAT chef's knife is in large part dependent on the thickness of the blade itself. Chef's knives are slicers, and as such should have a thin blade, ground and sharpened to a low angle for parting veggies and meats with little effort and great precision!
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Thanks for reading,