Culinary 101: Knives pt.1 – know the difference and how to properly use them

I wanted to start off this series by talking about the most important tool used in the kitchen: knives. They come in all shapes and sizes, categorized by specific tasks (filet knife, butcher knife), and ideally should be your best friend in the kitchen.

When it comes to cooking and/or baking, my rule of thumb is to learn how to properly use certain kitchen tools BEFOREHAND. I strongly believe that people should have fun and be confident when cooking up a storm, and the last thing anyone needs is an injury due to mishandling.

I’ll go more in detail about different kinds of knives used in the food industry on another post, but for today let’s focus on the widely known and universally used chef’s knife.

What is a chef’s knife and why do I need one?:

  • Also known as a multi-purpose knife, it’s known simply for its versatility. If you’re a beginner, this knife will help you out tremendously with all kinds of tasks ranging from breaking down a whole chicken to simply dicing an onion.
  • The blade on an average chef’s knife is about 8-8 1/2 inches in length and about 1 1/2-1 3/4 inches in width. There are some chef’s knives out there that are longer than 8 inches (14 inches being the longest I believe), but those aren’t ideal for beginners as the weight of the knife itself and the width of the blade can feel uncomfortable in the hand.

In order to get a full understanding of the knife, let’s take a look at the different parts:

  • Point: This part is located at the end of the knife where the blade becomes narrow. There isn’t a specific way to utilize the point, but it’s great to pierce into a packaging with! (for filet knives, you’d use the point to pierce into silver skin from meat)
  • Tip: Following the point comes the tip. Again, not much can be done with the tip except when you’re trying to finely slice something delicate.
  • Edge: This is where 95% of your cutting will take place. All of the weight that you put into the knife will a be concentrated here. Personally for me, I make use of the edge by placing the tip down on the cutting board first and bringing down the handle as I cut into something (creating a rocking motion with the knife). Doing this motion will prevent the knife from getting dull too quickly.
    • One thing I DO NOT RECOMMEND is to use your knife like it’s a hatchet. I know you see that in a lot of movies, but this is not ideal. Not only will you ruin the edge by making it dull, but a lot of knives are made out of different compounds and metals. You should always treat your tools with care like you would with a car; the more love you show, the better it’ll function.
  • Heel: When looking at the blade of the knife, the heel tends to be a shy thicker than the edge and tip. The only time I ever see anyone use this part of the knife is when they’re trying to crack open a coconut.
  • Spine: The spine is the thicket part of the blade; this helps with the control of your knife when cutting into something. Again, I’ve only seen the spine used to crack something open.
    1. Usually when you see a thick spine, it’s assumed that the blade is heavy and best for breaking down large cuts of meat and chop vegetables. In this case, the handle of the knife will be lighter in weight in order to allow the blade to do all the work.
    2. When the spine isn’t as thick, simply that means the knife is more for delicate work and the weight of the knife is concentrated in the handle.
  • Bolster: This is where the handle and blade meets. The bolster is where you control the balance of the knife when cutting. It also acts as a protective barrier from your fingers sliding up the blade and potentially cutting yourself
  • Tang: I look at this part of the knife the handle’s version of a spine. It’s simply an extended part of the blade that’s thicker and allows you to put more force into the knife when cutting.
  • Scale: Also known as the handle, this is where your dominant cutting hand is placed. The scale can be smoothed out or have little grooves to provide more traction.
  • Rivets: The metal pins that hold the scale and tang together.
  • Butt: We saved the cutest part last! (not really lol) The butt is the back end of the knife. Depending on the knife brand, it can be either flat or curved. I don’t know about other countries, but I would always see my family and a lot of cooks in South Korea use the butt to roughly ‘chop’ or break up garlic cloves or ginger.

Are all Chef’s knives the same?

  • Not necessarily so! Depending on the brand and style (Japanese, European, American), Chef’s knives come in all different styles. Below are 3 kinds of chef’s knives I have in my own kitchen:
Top: From Ikea with a rubber scale; point is at a downward curve
Middle: I received this knife when I was in culinary school, every culinary student was given a knife kit; point and tip are raised
Bottom: My mother’s Wusthof that she purchased 15+ years ago; there’s no definition between the edge and tip either due to improper sharpening or worn down from being used for a long period of time.

Should I invest in a good chef’s knife? If so, where should I look?

  • It really depends on a lot of things. If you’re wanting a chef’s knife that’ll get the job done without breaking budget, I know for a fact that IKEA makes awesome and affordable knives! I own a couple and they’re still in great shape and treated with care.
  • But if you are looking to broaden your culinary horizon, then I would consider on purchasing a well crafted knife like a Shun, Global, Wusthof, Kramer, and many more. I suggest going on the following sites when looking for the perfect knife!
  • *If you’re a culinary student attending CIA, JWU, and ICE I do know for a fact that William-Sonoma has a program knocking knives down 50% for ‘chefs/upcoming chefs’.*

I know there’s a lot of information on this post, but I hope this comes to be resourceful for others. If I missed anything or if you have any questions about knives, feel free to reach out at hausofko@outlook.com and I’ll respond accordingly!

Cheers!

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