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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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03.01.06

Oh My, Is That a Full-Tang?

Do I Need a Pastry Torch?: Kitchen Gadget Reviews


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knife with chopped asparagus

In every cook’s arsenal lies one trusty tool for every mission. More often than not, that tool is the knife.

Sleek, sharp, and deadly.

Norman Bates showed us how useful it could be in the shower. Men all over the world cringed uncomfortably at Glen Close’s deft handy work in Fatal Attraction. An no one could forget how our beloved Julia Child demystified haute cuisine in the 60’s by showing men and women everywhere how to properly wield a sharp French blade.

The chef’s knife has long been the workhorse of the kitchen and unfortunately it often receives the sort of treatment usually reserved for an old nag. Here we will explore the vast world of knives, from bolsters to tangs, high carbon alloys to whetstones and everything in between.

A knife is an extension of your arm. Whether you’re cutting up a whole chicken for the grill, or carefully trimming the stem off of a pint of strawberries, the knife works in concert with your arm. If there were any point that should be made clear before buying a knife, it is that you should be completely comfortable with your knife.

What goes into the construction of a knife that makes one better than the next? Consider the ever-popular Ginsu. We’ve all been seduced by the late night infomercials exalting the virtues of surgical stainless steel. But what does that mean, and more importantly, why do I need to be able to slice through my tennis shoe while I’m whipping up a fruit salad?

The first ingredient that goes into a knife’s recipe is the steel itself. Stainless steel, surgical or not, offers a hard durable medium from which to construct a knife. It can be honed to an impossibly sharp edge and it’s durability allows for that edge to stay sharp over many sessions of cooking and tin can slicing.

The draw back of stainless is that it’s very hard to bring that edge back to it’s former glory once it becomes dull. In most cases you need to take it to a professional sharpener; a store like Northwest Cutlery in Chicago.

For those of you into archaic kitchen tools and other implements of torture, you may be familiar with knives made of carbon steel. These were the first tools to be adopted by the chef community at large. Carbon steel is very soft, and thus loses its edge easily. It is also very prone to pitting and staining, which makes for a rather unattractive tool to carve the Thanksgiving bird. Its softness makes it very easy to sharpen on your own though. Think leather strap hanging off of a barber’s chair. It only takes a few swipes of the blade to return the knife to its precise sharpness.

What a dilemma. We would all love to be able to slice a tomato while we’re hanging drywall, but nobody wants to make a special trip to a professional just to sharpen a knife. And we can all agree that the ugly pitting and staining that occurs with carbon steel outweighs the convenience of sharpening an edge with a leather strap. So why not look for the best of both worlds?

There are a whole host of materials and metal alloys used to make high-end knives. You’ll want to focus on a knife that is made of high carbon stainless steel. It allows for the convenience of cleaning and upkeep, coupled with the ease of sharpening.

Now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s discuss the various sizes and shapes of knives. Staring into a glass case full of the sharp shimmering silhouettes of knives, one can easily get lost. Remember that comfort factor. Choosing a knife is rather like choosing a mate. Look for stability, integrity, and most importantly sexiness. Yes, having a sexy knife is important. Your confidence level plays a crucial role in the success of your endeavors in the kitchen. If you have a knife that excites you at the thought of pulling it out of the block, then you will already be one step ahead.

You are going to want to put the knife in your hand. Is it too heavy? Does the shape of the handle fit your hand? Can you comfortably move through the motion of say, cutting a carrot? These are all questions that you are going to want to ask yourself when choosing a knife. If you don’t, you may end up with a tool that you never want to use.

Look at how many chefs are divorcees. If they only put as much careful thought into choosing a mate as they did in choosing their knives…Well that’s another subject all together.

This may be embarrassing, but does size really matter? Yes.

I’m speaking of knives of course. If you aren’t overcome by the romantic idea of preparing meals with your lovely 12-inch German chef’s knife, then it might not be the right tool for you. Remember the comfort factor? If you pick up a huge chef’s knife and it doesn’t feel right, let it go, and move on to the next one. Never walk away from the store thinking that you will eventually get the feel of a knife. You don’t walk out of the wedding chapel saying to yourself, “I’ll get used to him.”

When the time comes to make the investment (You must realize that a good knife should be considered an investment.) in a high quality knife you now know where to start. Comfort first, then sexiness, and lastly variety.

Variety? Yes, one knife alone can’t be counted on for every single task in the kitchen. But I would like to emphasize that rushing into a complete set of knives would be a rash decision. Also, as a side note, resist the temptation to purchase a knife from someone who shows up on your doorstep with a sack of potatoes and a brief case of sharp kitchen implements. After all, it’s never a good idea to invite a stranger with a case of knives into your home.

Think of the tasks that you frequently tackle in your many kitchen endeavors. What sorts of knives do you need to make it through the day? Do you need to have a set of 23 knives neatly stowed away in and exotic wooden block? Or could you get through the preparation of a whole meal using just a chef’s knife and a paring knife? You should use the desert island analogy when choosing your tools. What three knives would you never be able to live without?

Consider a chef’s knife of some sort, be it a traditional European shape or a more exotic Asian Santoku shape, and a serrated knife for slicing into an artisan loaf of crusty French bread. Finally, choose a wild card knife that suits your most specialized needs, perhaps a paring knife for small vegetables or a boning knife for butchering. It’s up to you.

Now lastly, because now you should be confident enough to walk into a knife store and pick out the right knife for YOU, you should learn what all of the knife parts are called. I wouldn’t want you to be offended when the salesman asks you, “How does the bolster feel in your fingers? Isn’t the tang nice and smooth?”

Go here: Kitchen Knives. All of the boring details are spelled out in plain English. Soon, you’ll be able to proudly walk up to the counter and say, “I believe I’m looking for a German model with a full tang, thick spine and a smooth shaped butt.”

Check out some of our favorite knives:

Wusthof Santoku, Global Cleaver, Global Paring, Wusthof Offset Bread Knife

4 Comments on "Oh My, Is That a Full-Tang?"

Dee Dee

Great article Sean. I think it is time to retire my Ginsu knife to the craft room and get serious about using the proper knife in the kitchen.



Erin S. O’Connor » Blog Archive » links for 2006-03-01

[...] Hungry Magazine - Oh My, Is That a Full Tang? - Knives I have no good knives. This needs to change. (tags: knives hungrymag kitchen_tools cooking) [...]



Sharon

Very enjoyable and informative. Knives surely aren’t boring. I will always look at them differently now. Thanks for the education.



Brent

I can’t believe that I actually laughed while reading about cooking knives. Who knew that size DOES matter? (Damn!)



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