- Written by Rob Galloway
A good cooks knife is one of the most essential tools in the kitchen and having good knife skills will improve your cooking and make your life easier. Before you start learning how to use a knife it is important to know what the parts are which comprise a good knife. Knives come in many different designs but can generally be divided into two broad categories, European ( German or French ) and Japanese; religious wars have been waged over which is best but both have their pro's and con's and at the end of the day the style of knife you select comes down to personal preference .. My view is that a well made knife, whatever its style, is a thing of beauty so choose one that is comfortable and balances well in your hand and that you like using.
The picture above shows my trusty workhorse, the Wusthof Ikon 20cm (8") cook's knife with the key components labelled.
The blade of your knife is the the carefully crafted steel which does the cutting for you. European blades are generally thicker and heavier than Japanese knives, have a more distinctive belly curve and a wider blade angle. Meanwhile Japanese knives are generally manufactured from harder steel, have a straighter belly, and have a narrower blade angle. If you wan't a lower maintenance, robust workhorse which is plenty sharp enough for the vast majority of tasks then I would recommend a Euro blade , If you wan't a razor sharp blade which is a bit higher maintenance and excels at fine slicing then Japanese is probably the right choice
If you simply can't choose you can always get both .. You will soon work out which one you reach for instinctively.
This is the cutting edge of the blade and is essentially what makes it sharp. I could go into a complex discussion about different edge types and their advantages an disadvantage but the reality is that the vast majority of cooks knives are ground to a symetrical bevel or V-edge. European knives are generally ground at between 20 - 22 degrees on each side giving a good level of sharpness with some resilience to accidental abuse whilst Japanese knives are often ground between 10 - 15 degrees giving a much sharper but somewhat more fragile blade.
This is where the spine meets the tip of the knife and forms a point and can be used for piercing.
This is the forward section of the blade which also forms a part of the point. The tip is used for delicate , detailed cutting.
The heel is the thickest part at the rear of the blade immediately in front of the handle/bolster. This section can be used for less delicate more robust cutting which requires a little more force.
The spine runs along the full length of the back of the blade and provides the knife blade with its rigidness. European knives tend to have a thicker blade resulting in a heavier more rigid knife.
A bolster is the raised bit of metal that sits between the back of the blade and the handle , the bolster is designed to provide strength, assist with balancing the knife and to provide some protection from the blade if your fingers slip. Knives are available with full, partial or no bolster at all. The knife in the photograph above has a partial bolster which provides the benefits of having a bolster whilst allowing the full length of the blade to be sharpened. On Knives with a full bolster the bolster goes from the spine to the cutting edge and over time will prevent the last few millimetres of the edge from being sharpened and can eventually (after many years of obsessive sharpening ) result in a "birds beak" at the back of the blade.
Selecting a knife with a well made handle that fits comfortably in your hand and allows good control over the blade with a relaxed grip is very important as you are likely to be spnding many hours using it. The size of the handle that feels comfortable for you will depend largely on your hand size but you need to be sure to select a knife style that allows enough room for your knuckles between the chopping surface and the handle.
Scales are the material which sandwich the tang of the knife and are shaped to form a handle which should fitt comfortably in your hand. Scale are often made of wood or synthetic materials. Synthetic materials are common and easier to care for and clean than wood but I prefer the look and feel of a wooden handle. The handle on the knife in the picture is made of African Grenadill wood which is very dense and water resistant.
The butt is the rear end of a cooks knife and depending on the design may or may not serve as an "end cap" which assists with physically securing the scales which make up the handle. Attempts to hold the knife behind this point are likely to result in the knife being dropped.
Rivets are generally cylindrical studs which go through the rear of a knife , firmly securing the scales to the tang to form the handle. RIvets should sit flush with the handle so as not to protrude and cause discomfort to the user.
Good quality knives will extend the metal which forms the blade into a tang which continues into the handle of the knife. Knives which are intended for kitchen use should have a tang which extends the entire length of the handle to ensure strength and balance.