A knife is one of the handiest implements that humankind has ever made, and it was the natural next step after we, as a species, learned how to use tools. A knife can be a means of defense, but it can also help you in survival situations, which is why we’re still using them, thousands of years later.
In that time, we’ve managed to specialize our knives, so that there are now countless different kinds of blades that can be used to get a job done. Today, we’re going to discuss knives that are designed for use in the kitchen. However, we’ll particularly focus on chef knives, which are some of the most versatile blades used by cooks.
History of Knives
Humans have a unique relationship with knives since they've been around ever since we as a species could hunt. We would rely on knives not just for hunting but also for survival. Originally used as sharpened tools, knives have evolved to become the chef knife we employ in the kitchen nowadays.
The original knives were made out of flint, which is a malleable stone that humans would reshape as the pointy ends of sticks, fashioning a spear. Once we figured out how to work with metals like bronze, we took advantage of their superior physical characteristics (like hardness) to create a more effective weapon.
Technology and knives have a direct impact on one another since technological innovations allowed for stronger knives that allowed humans to achieve feats never thought possible. Iron was the metal that changed knives (and a lot of the world) forever, as it ushered in the iron age.
Keep in mind that thousands of years ago, knives directly had a hand in warfare. Today, they’re used for slightly more mundane tasks, including chopping vegetables and other ingredients. Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of knives that you’ll find in a professional kitchen, as the chef knife isn’t the only one.
Types of Knives in the Kitchen
The chef’s knife is one of the most versatile blades on this list, though it was originally designed to cut sides of beef, which is why it’s heftier than a lot of the other knives. Your typical chef’s knife will range between 6 to 14 inches, though a longer blade will sacrifice controllability for more efficient slicing.
This kind of blade can also be referred to as a cook’s knife, and it is used for most non-specialized cutting tasks in the kitchen, meaning that this is one that all chefs should have. If you only have a choice of a single blade, a chef’s knife will be able to do a lot of what the others can.
If you’re in a situation where a chef’s knife would be unwieldy, like if you’re cutting small vegetables or thin strips of meat, then you’ll want to use a utility knife instead. Utility knives range between 4 to 6 inches, and that makes them a lot lighter and more maneuverable than chef’s knives.
While a skilled cook can make do with a chef’s knife, if you’re willing to invest in a knife set, the utility blade can make your life a lot easier. Some utility knives also feature a scalloped blade, which helps them cut through harder ingredients without getting stuck halfway through.
The Santoku knife is essentially a Japanese chef’s knife, but it has a few key advantages over the traditional chef’s knife, that many western blades have adopted some of the design elements. The most recognizable part of a santoku knife is the row of dimples along the side of the blade.
Along with giving these knives a distinct look, the dimples help ensure that air pockets form as you're cutting through meat or other ingredients that would otherwise stick to the knife. This is due to the vacuum that is created between the blade and the meat, and these dimples help negate that vacuum.
Also known as a boning knife, this blade is designed to cut meat off the bone, not cut through bones as you may expect from the name. However, the long, thin blade of a boning knife also makes it an excellent choice for filleting fish and meat if you don’t have a dedicated fillet knife.
Some boning knives even combine their functions with fillet knives, making them more versatile and saving you money. These blades range from 3 to 8 inches long, and the smaller ones can even be used as paring knives. You also have a choice between flexible and stiff blades.
Bread knives may look silly when compared to some of the more intimidating-looking blades on this list, but they perform a crucial role when slicing bread. If you’ve ever tried to cut a slice of bread with another kind of knife, you may have noticed that it cut unevenly, or the loaf itself ended up crushed.
Bread knives are designed with serrations that will make it easier to cut through the bread without using too much pressure, much like a handsaw. When using one of these blades, you’ll have to exert far less pressure on the loaf of bread, reducing the likelihood of it getting compacted.
If you’re looking for the heaviest knife in the kitchen, then you’ve found it with the cleaver. As you would expect from the name of this blade, it is designed to cleave meat and other thick ingredients that you would have a hard time getting through by trying to cut them normally.
Cleavers can even cut through joints and smaller bones without any trouble. Their mass is designed to add force to the cutting motion. Cleavers are more versatile than you would expect, as you can even use them to crush up ingredients due to their flat, heavy blades.
A paring knife is another common sight in most kitchens, and it’s one of the most versatile small knives available for cooks. The blades on these knives are rarely longer than three to four inches, and they feature a pointed tip that makes it a lot easier to cut ingredients with added precision.
The most common uses for these blades include peeling fruits and vegetables, as well as cutting smaller ones. You can also use this blade to trim the fat off of meat and get the silver skin off before you start cooking it. The most common kind of paring knife is the spear point variety.
You've likely used this knife at the table, as well as in the kitchen, as steak knives are versatile enough to be used by both diners and cooks. As you would expect, this kind of knife is designed to efficiently cut through steak, and this is aided by its small, maneuverable dimensions, and the serrated edge.
However, there are non-serrated steak knives, and they often make a cleaner cut at the expense of needing to be sharpened more frequently to remain at peak performance. Chefs tend to use these knives for cutting up steak so that it can be used in tacos de carne and other, similar recipes.
What’s the Difference Between a Chef’s Knife and the Other Knives?
Chef Knife vs Santoku Knife
The chef’s knife differs from the Santoku knife in that it’s typically slightly longer, making it a little more efficient at cutting yet harder to use. The Santoku knife also does away with the curve in the blade of the chef knife, which means that it can rest flat on the cutting surface.
Of course, the most recognizable difference is the inclusion of dimples on the Santoku knife, which help it cut through ingredients without the blade getting stuck inside. Both chef’s knives and Santoku knives can be found available for roughly the same price, so you won’t have to worry about a difference in cost.
Chef Knife vs Utility Knife
As we mentioned before, a utility knife is essentially a cut-down (no pun intended) chef’s knife, which means that it sacrifices cutting effectiveness so that it can be easier to use. If you’re performing a task where accuracy is paramount, then you’ll want to resort to a utility knife.
On the other hand, if you’re on a time limit and you want to get done with your cutting job as soon as possible, then you’ll instead want to use a chef knife. The larger blade means that you’ll simply cut more ingredients with each pass, ensuring that the process is much smoother.
Chef Knife vs Cleaver
It’s hard to compare a chef knife with a cleaver because they were each designed for such different tasks. While they are both relatively large, the chef knife lacks the mass that is required to cleave through bones and large slabs of meat, so the cleaver is in a class of its own.
Meat cleavers are typically a good investment if you often buy your meat directly from the butcher and you have to do a bit of chopping and trimming yourself. In most cases, a chef knife will be more than versatile enough for your needs, even if you need to cut up some meat.
Chef Knife vs Steak Knife
A steak knife is a lot shorter than a chef knife since it's meant to be maneuverable enough to be used at the table. The width of the blade is also reduced when compared to the chef knife. Steak knives can also sometimes feature serrations, which you'll rarely find present on a chef knife.
Keep in mind that a chef knife can also be used to cut up a steak before it is served, provided the blade is sharp enough. Steak knives usually feature sharper edges which allow them to part the meat with relative ease, making it easier to cut thinner slices off of the steak.
What Makes One Knife Different from the Other?
There are a few things that set apart chef knives, including the care that the manufacturer put into the blade, the production process, the materials used, and a few other matters, so let’s take a look.
How it was Made
The production process behind a chef knife will determine its quality, which will influence the blade's durability, how long it can hold an edge, and whether or not the knife is balanced. All of these aspects can affect your food preparation, so you'll want to be sure to get your hands on the best knife.
There are two ways in which chef knives are made: forging and stamping.
If you’re looking for a high-end knife and you’re willing to pay for it, then a forged blade is your best option. A forged knife can be made by hand or by machine, though the best ones are still hand-made. The traditional method consists of heating up steel until it’s workable and then having the smith beat it manually.
Forged blades can also be made using machines, in which the steel is heated and then pounded down into a flat shape before the knife is cut into shape. Forged knives are thicker, more durable, and usually feature a full tang. The atomic structure of a forged knife is also tighter, making the steel more durable.
On the other hand, stamping is a more affordable process that is used to produce metal goods like knives. A sheet of metal is laid out underneath a stamping machine, which is essentially a cookie-cutter attached to a press. This pushes down on the sheet of metal and cuts shapes out of it.
In the case of a knife, those shapes are roughly the same size as a kitchen knife, and the metal is then tempered and hardened before the handle is added and it is sharpened. These blades are usually more flexible and lightweight, making them less suitable for cutting through thick ingredients.
Carbon steel is a material which is typically used in the production of chef’s knives because it’s easier to sharpen than stainless steel. This material can also hold an edge for a longer time. Unfortunately, it can also rust if not cared for properly. This is why stainless steel, which is resistant to corrosion, is a very popular choice for these blades.
Some high-grade stainless steels from Japan can actually outperform carbon steel, but the material is costly. You may have also seen ceramic blades used in the kitchen, and they hold their edge for far longer than any metal, but they suffer from a brittle structure that can shatter or chip.
As you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, the amount of carbon that steel contains influences how long it can hold an edge. This is why carbon steel typically lasts longer in between sharpening sessions when compared to stainless steel.
Low carbon content essentially means that a type of steel is softer, making it harder for it to hold an edge, as it will be affected more by whatever it is cutting. Of course, carbon content doesn’t apply when discussing ceramic knives, as they aren’t made out of steel.
Significance of the Edge Angle
Chef knives can feature different kinds of edge angles that make them more or less suitable for various cutting jobs. You'll also have to consider your knife's original edge angle when you're sharpening it yourself, as you may damage the blade if you don't sharpen it correctly.
The V-edge is the most basic kind of edge angle, and it looks like an inverted triangle when the blade is laid flat on a surface. There are also compound bevels, which combine two angles. There are also rounded variants like the convex edge and the hollow edge. Finally, the chisel edge is essentially one half of the V-edge with one flat side and one angled.
Do Chef Knives Come with One Side Sharpened?
Chef knives typically only feature one edge that is sharpened because it allows you to use the top of the blade so that you can get additional leverage. This can make it easier to cut through tougher ingredients, and it can also allow you to use your hand as support when dicing.
The vast majority of the time, chef knives will come pre-sharpened, though some high-end models may require additional sharpening on your part once they arrive. To ensure that the edge doesn't end up ruined, we would recommend thoroughly reading the makers recommendations and guidelines.
Benefits of Using a Chef Knife Compared to Other Knives
A chef knife’s main advantage is that it’s a lot more versatile than other kinds of blades. Instead of having to buy a full knife set so that you can stock your kitchen, a quality chef knife will usually be sure to get the job done unless you need to perform some kind of specialized task.
Getting used to a chef’s knife will also make it easier to work in kitchens, or other professional cooking environments when you often don’t have time to search through the knife rack. Unless you specifically need smaller blades for their precision, a chef knife will get most jobs done.
Chef Knives Maintenance
Keeping your chef knife properly maintained is a huge part of owning it, especially if you’ve invested in a quality blade. You may actually find that more expensive blades require more intensive maintenance schedules than your typical mid-range kitchen knives.
This is especially true for carbon steel blades which have to be sharpened more frequently and are also vulnerable to corrosion. However, even if you have a ceramic, stainless steel, or laminated blade, then you’ll want to follow these steps to keep it performing at the optimal level.
How to Properly Use Your Chef Knife
To ensure that your chef knife doesn't get damaged, you'll want to make sure that you use it properly. You'll typically want to use this kind of blade to mince or chop vegetables and slice meat. You usually won't want to use the tip of the blade for prying, as that can break it off.
How to Properly Sharpen Your Chef Knife
When using a sharpening stone, you’ll want to hold your knife at the angle recommended by the manufacturer and use long strokes with even pressure. If you exert too much pressure, you may damage the sharpener. Make sure to alternate the blade sides as you sharpen. As the blade gets sharper, you’ll want to go from a coarser grit to a finer grit, if your sharpening stone has several options.
How to Properly Clean Your Chef Knives
When you wash off your chef knives after using them, then you’ll want to make sure that they’re fully dry before you put them away, especially if they’re made of carbon steel. Neglecting to do so can result in corrosion, which will eat away at the metal of the chef knife.
Do You Need to Use Sharpening Stones or Can You Use Normal Sharpeners?
An electric knife sharpener may be more convenient than a traditional sharpening stone, but it gives you far less control over the process. If you’re using a high-end blade and you want to keep the edge perfect, then you’ll want to use a sharpening stone, which also helps you learn the proper technique.
How is Sharpening Steel Used and Can it Be Used on a Chef Knife?
There is a misconception about sharpening steel (the implement, not the action), and it's understandable when you consider the tool's name. The proper term for sharpening steel is honing steel because it's not meant to make the edge sharp, but rather to keep it honed.
A honed blade will have the edge perfectly centered, meaning that the angles on both sides of it are equal. Uneven sharpening can result in a blade which is improperly honed, and this can compromise your cutting performance. To get the edge centered again, you use a honing steel.
We hope that this guide has been able to tell you everything that you wanted to know about chef knives. If you want to get your hands on one, feel free to check out our guide to the best chef knives on the market. Feel free to leave any comments or questions down below.