Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | March 2, 2009

Your chef’s knife 1: In 13 Parts

The chef’s knife. This is your workhorse, your go-to, your manual food processor. You can chop, slice, mince, carve, bone, and duel with it.

It has several parts.

1.    The point is the sharp-sticky part. You want it sharp enough to help you with the finer parts of prep, but honestly, you’re not going to use it very much.

2.    The tip is the top third of the blade, the part that includes the point. Generally speaking, most knives curve in this section, generally sweeping up from the belly to the point. There are some notable exceptions, but isn’t that always the case? Keep this part facing the floor when you move from station to station within the kitchen.

3.    The belly is the middle third of the blade edge. We’ll talk more about belly when we talk blade profile.

4.    The heel is the bottom third of the blade, usually it’s widest part. The wider this part is, the less likely you are to bang your knuckles on the cutting board when chopping, and a wide blade is also pretty nice when you want to quickly scoop chopped stuff to take it hither and yon. This is the part of knife you will use quite a bit.

5.    The spine is opposite of the edge. It’s supposed to be thicker than the edge, but when you pick your knife, the thinner the spine, the better – the goal is to cut the food, not chisel it.

6.    The edge is the sharp part you use for cutting, chopping and slicing, and goes from heel to point. Have this point away from you when you put the knife down to move to another task.

7.    Every edge has a bevel. This is the angle where the two sides of the sharpened knife come together. Many knives (and most Japanese knives) have two bevels. The primary bevel (aka, cutting bevel) is the part that makes first contact with the food. The secondary bevel (aka, back bevel) is the first major thinning of the blade from the spine toward the edge. The smaller the back bevel, generally speaking, the more chisel-like the blade. Chisels are great for shaping wood, but not so much for cutting tomatoes. You want a nice, gradual back bevel, which means that your edge is nice and acute. Too acute, however, and the edge will be too weak. Too obtuse, and the edge won’t cut. Cutting bevels are always less acute than back bevels, but not always by much. FWIW, German and French knives tend to be sharpened to a less acute angle than their Japanese cousins — which makes them more durable, perhaps, but is also why many consider Japanese blades to be far “sharper”. Also note that most knives have bevels on both sides of the edge, that is, they’re double-beveled. Double-beveled knives can be 50/50, or unequally beveled, say to 60/40 ratio, or 70/30 or even more. Why? I think the best answer here is “proprietary edge technology” — that is, whatever magic formula the manufacturer has hit upon for his particular offering. Is one geometry better than another? I have no idea. Anyway, however the double-beveled knives are cut, they are in contrast to traditional Japanese knives, which only have one bevel. In short, single beveled knives are twice as keen as double-beveled knives because, obviously, the cutting edge is at most half what a double-beveled edge is. My recommendation is to stay away from single beveled knives (or fancy unequally beveled knives) until you have some significant level of comfort with knife maintenance and sharpening.

8.    The ferrule is a feature on traditional Japanese knife handles that separates the handle from the knife blade. Typically, this is some kind of wood, plastic or horn, and is generally expected to be tougher than the handle itself as it gets marginally more exposure to use.

9.    The choil of the knife is what you see when you hold the knife up and sight along the handle looking down the blade toward the tip – it’s the back part of the heel that juts down from the handle.

10.    Now, in the Western handle, the ferrule is typically replaced by a bolster, which is generally metal, and quite likely welded to the blade itself. In many cases, it can be quite thick and run the entire height of the choil, from edge to handle (Wusthof, F Dick, Viking). Or it can run some fraction thereof, like ½ to ¾ of the heel for a Messermeister or your more expensive Henckels or Wusthofs, or the just the width of the hand itself for some Western-style Japanese knives, or none at all for knives with traditional Japanese handles. The point of the bolster is that it supposedly keeps you from injuring yourself on the corner of the heel or making the choil more comfortable when you use the knife. It’s also the thing that makes sharpening the knife on a whetstone pretty much impossible.

11.    Handle. Big, small, round, octagonal, d-shaped, oval, ergonomic, or some combination thereof. Wooden, plastic, righty, lefty or both. Filled with sand, hollow, filled with lead shot, or filled with the knife tang (see below). Lots of things to choose from here. Shoot for comfort above all else.

12.    The butt. This is the part of the knife opposite the point.

13.    The tang. This is the part of the blade embedded into the handle. Some times it runs the entire length of the handle, right up to the butt. A very well made knife has a “distal taper”, which means that the blade steel will gradually increase in width, from point to butt. This tends to balance the knife well. Some knives have a full tang, some don’t. No biggie either way.

For further info on Japanese knives and some of their little bits, see Kitchen Knife Terms on the Knife Forums site. There’s just a ton of stuff up there about steel types and what not that is just too good (and too tough) to replicate here.

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