The Chef's Knife

Using a chef's knife is one of the most important parts of the culinary arts. And given the amount of time it spends in your hand, it's definitely worth making sure you have a good one. Here's a quick guideline on the various parts of a chef's knife, what they do and why they're important:

Chef's Knives are measured in inches, and lengths of 8" to 12" are common. A longer blade lets you make longer single-stroke cuts when slicing. The so-called "German" style of chef's knife tends to have a more curved section at the front of the blade, good for chopping in an up-and-down "rocking" motion. The best chef's knives are forged from a single piece of high-carbon stainless steel, that runs the entire length of the knife. This is a very hard metal that keeps its edge for a long time and won't discolor or rust like ordinary carbon steel.

Chef's knife handles have traditionally been made of wood, but wooden handles present certain problems. For one, because wood is porous, knife handles made of wood can harbor bacteria that cause food-related illness. Knives with plastic or rubber handles (as pictured above) are increasingly popular. Additionally, some handles are made from a composite material consisting of wood that has been treated with plastic resin. That gives them the traditional appearance of wood, which many people find appealing, while avoiding the sanitation concerns associated with wooden handles.

The heel is the widest part of the knife, located at the rear of the blade where it meets the handle. This section of the cutting edge is used for chopping hard items like carrots, nuts or even chicken bones. Knives with longer blades produce greater leverage, thus generating greater cutting force at the heel of the blade. A heavier knife also increases cutting force, but it's more tiring to use, too.

Rivets are the raised, cylindrical studs that keep the handle securely attached to the tang portion of the knife. This type of construction is typical of knives with wooden handles. If rivets are present, make sure that their tops are smooth and that they don't protrude from the handle at all.

The bolster is the thick shoulder of heavy steel located at the front of the handle where it meets the spine, or the top (non-cutting) edge of the blade. In addition to balancing the knife, the bolster also helps keeps your fingers from slipping while you work, thus preventing hand fatigue and blisters. Not every chef's knife will have a bolster. A bolster indicates that a knife has been forged from a single chunk of steel, as opposed to being stamped out of a roll of sheet metal. These stamped knives are generally inferior to forged knives. The thickness of a bolster shows how thick the original chunk of steel was — and the thicker, the better.

I hope this helps you when you make your next purchase of a good set of knives.


    Barbara Williams
    Creative DVO Employee since 2007
    Email Barbara!

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