Some years ago I regularly organized culinary workshops. I often noticed that many students had no idea what knife to choose for preparing food. Some did not want to use large knives, and used tiny peeling knives for everything, even deboning a chicken. Others tried to cut raw tuna into cubes with a serrated knife, but used a smooth knife to cut bread. And they never checked whether the knife they were going to use was sharp.
The following is a translation from Dutch. Maybe I use wrong words to indicate parts of a knife, or techniques. Please enlighten me when I did that by sending me an email.
On this page is a description of several kinds of knives, what they are best used for, how to keep them safe and how to keep them in good condition. By the way, which knife one prefers, is also personal, and I am sure there are regional differences. There are just two general rules: use serrated knives preferably only for bread or tomatoes and such, and do not cut bread with a unserrated knife.
There are very expensive knive-sets, but it is not really necessary to buy them. On the other hand, just one small peeling knife is not enough. I have a motley collection of knives ranging from rather expensive to very cheap. There are some Global knives, Zwilling and Henckel, something from Sabatier, from Wusthof Dreizack, and a couple of ‘anonymous’ knives that I bought in a market stall. And I even have some potato peelers!
On the picture is a selection of knives in my kitchen. 1. Sashimi knife – 2. Vegetable knife – 3. Bread knife (serrated) – 4. Butcher knife – 5. Kitchen knife – 6. Fish knife – 7. Boning knife – 8/9/10. Several kitchen knives – 11. Tomato knife (serrated)
My first quality knife was a birthday present from a good friend of mine (#4 on the picture). I had to give her a penny, because otherwise our bond of friendship would be cut. Good knives can be recognized by having a full-tang: the metal of the blade runs the whole length of the handle. Some cheap knives just break off because the blade is not secured firmly enough in the blade, it has a partial tang.
Some people prefer their knives to be blunt, because then “it is less easy to cut oneself”. These people are foolish, because one has to use more force to cut with a blunt knife which will increase the chance of a cut. Also, a wound, caused by a sharp knife will heal cleaner and faster than a cut from a blunt knife.
A butcher knife (#4 in the picture) has a long, rather wide, smooth, unflexible blade. It helps if it has some eight of its own, the knife will cut easier through meat. When cutting meat, use the whole lenght of the blade. Do not cut with a sawing motion but dare to make one neat move. Just take care to keep fingers out of the way. This knife is perfect to slice and cut pieces of meat.
The blade of a fish knife (#6 in the picture) is narrower, and slightly flexible. That flexibility comes in handy when separating fish meat from the bones: by pressing the tip of the knife on the cutting board, it can cut exactly along the bones. I use this knife also for removing the white part from citrus peel.
A chef’s knife is robust with a long, wide, smooth blade. It can be used for anything from cutting meat to chopping herbs.
A bread knife (#3 in the picture) has a serrated blade. NEVER use serrated knives to cut meat or fish, it will damage the meat. On the other hand, never slice bread with a smooth knife, because that will become blunt very quickly. Use a breadknife only for bread.
I prefer my vegetable knife to be smooth also. It can have a wide or narrow blade, which is fixed and shorter than a butcher knife. However, you can cut vegetables with a butcher knife too. In the picture above is a Japanese vegetable knife (#2 in the picture), which is wider than most Western vegetable knives.
To cut tomatoes and other vegetables with a soft inside, a serrated tomato knife (#11 in the picture) works best, although a sharp smooth knife also works well. Using a blunt knife will result in smashed tomatoes.
With an all-purpose kitchen knife (#8-10 in the picture) anything can be cut, sliced or diced, as long as it is kept really sharp. These knives are smaller than a chef’s knife or vegetable knife, and have a smooth blade. I have several kitchen knives so I do not have to wash them when I cut different food (like strawberries and onions).
A cleaver always looks impressive. There are basically two kinds: the Western cleaver is heavy, sharpened on both sides of the edge, and meant to cleave carcasses and flatten schnitzels and such. The Eastern cleaver weighs much less, and is only sharpened on one side of the edge (chisel edge). The wide blade is used to scoop up chopped ingredients to add them to the pan. It is a universal knife, that can be used to cut meat, fish and vegetables.
In the picture the knife on the left is called a aardappelschilmesje (potato peeler) in Dutch, and what is called a potato peeler in English, the Dutch call a dunschiller (litt. thin peeler). I never use the small knife, I peel my potatoes, apples and cucumbers with the ‘thin slicer’.
Two special knives
The freezer knife is deeply serrated and looks impressive. However, it is better to avoid having to cut through frozen food by letting it thaw in a timely manner, or make smaller portions before freezing.
The electric knife actually consists of two serrated knives that are clipped together and make a sawing movement. The trick in using an electric knife is letting the knife do the work. Do not make sawing movements, just hold the knife still and press lightly down: the knife will sink through the food effortlessy. This type of knife is especially apt for cutting through food with different structures. I bought my first electric knife for slicing a terrine which consisted of filets of quail and vegetables in jelly of Port wine. I know I could have used a very sharp smooth knife, but with this knife the slices were beautiful.
How to store knives
Many knife sets are sold with a wooden knife block. Looks great on the worktop. But after a year of heavy use the slits for the knives have gathered dust and grease and it is practically impossible to clean. Not very appetizing!
Knifes can simply be kept in a drawer, but then the edges may be damaged by bumping against each other.
I personally prefer to use a magnet above the worktop. Easy to clean, easy to grab, and easy to hang out of reach of children.
Maintaining knives is not hard. Do not put them in the dishwasher, especially not when they have wooden handles. And maybe I do not need to mention this, but when cleaning knives, hold the sponge or brush at the spine of the knife, otherwise you’ll end up with two half sponges or a brush without bristles, and a blunt knife.
The edge of a knife becomes blunt during use. How quickly that happens, depends among other things on the surface on which it is used. On wooden cutting boards a knife will stay sharp longer than on a plastic cutting board.
Serrated knives stay sharp longer, and that is a good thing because it is difficult to sharpen them. They are best sharpened by a professional knife sharpener. They probably have stone ribbed cylinders to make a serrated edge. I also take my smooth knives once in a while to a professional sharpener. At home I use a honing steel or a whetstone. I have no experience with electrical sharpeners, so I will not describe these.
How often knives need sharpening depends on circumstances and personal preferences. Some people sharpen them every time before use. I just check my knife by pressing my thumb lightly on the edge. Every time a knife is sharpened, the blade becomes a little less wide. Look at the picture with knives in a butcher shop: these knives once had much wider blades.
If possible, always sharpen your own knives yourself, so it is being dome in the same manner every time. Someone else may be used to a different angle or use another method wich will result in unnecessary loss of metal, or a knife that is still blunt.
A honing or sharpening steel is a steel or ceramic or diamond-coated stick with a handle. By sliding the edge of the blade along the steel any deformations are being removed. The steel should be of harder material then the knives, otherwise it will have little effect. For knives from hard steel, use ceramic or diamond-coated honing steel.
Slide the knife several times along the honing steel, keeping the knife at a steady angle. How sharper the angle is, how sharper the knife will be. But will also become blunt again fairly quickly. An angle of about 20 degrees works best for me. The tip of the honing steels rests on the worktop, to make sure the angle keeps the same.
Sharpening with a honing steel is done like this. Slide the complete blade along the steel, from the tip to the heel, and starting at the top of the steel to the bottom (see pictures). To sharpen the edge on both sides, one can slide the knife alternately on the left and the right side of the honing steel, or slide the knife with the blade upward or downward. Just try what suits best.
Another manner of sharpening knives is using a whetstone. Just as with a honing steel, take care that the angle is constant and the complete edge is sharpened. There is a little gadget for that: a little clip that is fastened on the spine of the knife. A whetstone needs to be moistened before use.
A whetstone can have a coarser or finer grit, just like sandpaper. On the picture is a two-sided whetstone from Global. The white top layer is smoother than the red layer. The red layer is used to remove burrs, the white layer finishes the knife. Before use the stone as to be submerged in water.
Double-sided or chisel sharpening
Most knives have a double-sided edge. To sharpen these knives, they will have to be sharpened at both sides of the edge. But for example Japanese knives are chisel-sharpened. Only one side is sharpened, and that means that when you are a right-handed person, never let your knife be sharpened by a left-handed person, and vice-versa.
Dinner knives will also become blunt during use. Often, when I eat with other people or in restaurants, the table is laid with knives that are so blunt that I can press my thumb forcefully on the edge without getting even the smallest scratch. So, do not forget to sharpen these knives occasionally, or bring them to a professional sharpener when they have serrated blades. However, unless the sharpener uses the same sharpening stne and positions the blades in exactly the same manner, the blades will become less wide very soon. I therefore prefer smooth dinner knives, and only use serrated knives for bread. In my purse I always keep a small traveling honing steel and a (sharp) folding knife, to be used when I am expected to cut my steak with a blunt knife. Just in case.
More about sharpening knives
Much information on sharpening knives can be found on this page.
On the use and care of knives
Laatste wijziging 1 December 2019