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Knowing knives

A primer on how knives are made and different types of blades. A glossary of some of the primary knives in a kitchen. And the choice metals used in knives.

The Blade

The most frequently used material for blades is high-carbon stainless steel. The higher percentage of carbon allows the blade to take and keep a keener edge; the fact that it is stainless steel means that it will not discolor or rust readily. Metal knife blades are either forged or stamped. Forged blades are made by heating a rod of high-carbon stainless steel to around 1700° F. The heated metal is dropped into a mold, then struck with a hammer to pound it to the correct shape and thickness. One advantage of a forged blade is that its thickness tapers from the spine to the edge and from the heel to the tip, which gives it the correct balance. After the blade is shaped, it is tempered to improve its strength and durability. Forged blades are generally more durable, better balanced and of good quality. Stamped blades are made by cutting blade-shaped pieces from sheets of previously milled steel.

These blades are of a uniform thickness and may be lighter than some forged blades. Today’s stamped blade knives are better balanced than their predecessors, and improved techniques for tempering the metal used has also improved their durability and quality. Once the blade is shaped by either forging or stamping, several edges can be made, depending upon intended use. Taper-ground blades are forged out of a single sheet of metal and ground so that they taper smoothly from the spine to the cutting edge, with no apparent beveling. The angle of the “V” can be gentle or extremely severe, almost wedgelike.

Taper-ground blades are well-suited to general-purpose knives and those used for heavy cutting and chopping work since they keep the blade quite stable. Hollow-ground blades are made by combining two sheets of metal. The edges are then beveled or fluted. The sides of the blade near the edge are ground away to form a hollow, giving the blade an extremely sharp edge. The greater the arc of the hollow, the sharper the edge. Hollow-ground blades are well-suited to carving and slicing tasks. Although hollow-ground blades often have very sharp edges, the blade itself lacks the balance and longevity of a taper-ground blade.

Chef’s or French Knife

This all-purpose knife is the most often used item in any knife kit. It is designed and manufactured for wide-ranging general use in the kitchen. The blade is shaped and worked so that it can peel and trim, slice, chop, mince, fillet fish and fabricate meats and poultry. The blade typically ranges from 8-12 inches in length and about 1.5- 2 inches wide at the heel or bolster. A good-quality chef’s knife should be wellbalanced, with the weight of the blade equaled by the weight of the handle.

Utility: This smaller version of the chef’s knife is used for light cutting, slicing and peeling. The blade is shorter than a chef’s knife and also thinner and lighter, making it useful for slicing smaller items.

Paring: The second most-often-used knife, used primarily for paring and trimming vegetables and fruits, it has a 2-4- inch blade. Some blades taper to a point, others have a curve or bend at the tip.

Boning: Used to separate raw meat from the bone. The blade is thinner and shorter than the blade of a chef’s knife— about 6 inches long—and is usually rigid. Some boning knives have an upward curve, others are straight. The blade is narrower than a chef’s knife blade to make it easier to work around bones, muscle groups and under gristle and silverskin.

Filleting: Specifically designed for filleting fish, this knife is similar in shape and size to a boning knife, but has a more flexible blade. This permits you to separate the delicate flesh of a fish from the bones easily.

Slicer: Used for slicing cooked meat, a slicing blade has a long, narrow blade in order to make smooth slices in a single stroke. The type of edge (either taperground or fluted) on the blade is designed to make a particular food easier to slice. Some blades are quite flexible and others are rigid.

Cleaver: Used for chopping, the cleaver is often heavy enough to cut through bones. It has a rectangular blade and varies in size according to its use. Japanese- or Chinese-style cleavers are used for the same applications as a chef’s knife—to slice, chop, trim, dice, disjoint birds and rabbits, fillet and portion fish and so forth. These cleavers usually have a single-sided edge.

Scimitar: The long curved blade of a scimitar makes it well-suited to the slicing action required to cut through large cuts of raw meat when portioning them into steaks, cutlets or medallions. The blade can range in length from 12-16 inches.

The Metals

Carbon steel: Holds a better edge than either stainless steel or high-carbon steel, but loses its sharpness quickly. Prone to discoloration, rust and pitting. Metal is brittle.

Stainless steel: Stronger than carbon steel and doesn’t rust or discolor. Difficult to get a good edge, but once there is an edge it will last longer.

High-carbon stainless steel: Takes and keeps a cleaner edge due to the carbon. Does not discolor or rust readily due to the stainless steel.

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