How to Become a Pro with Your Chef's Knife
The International Culinary Center’s lead instructor, chef Philip Burgess, and others dish out the goods on the basics of chef’s knives
You can be a whiz at sautéing or a master on the grill, but when it comes down to the aesthetics of your cooking — and, let’s face it, we usually judge the book by its cover when it comes to our food — your skills will only be as good as your chef’s knife. The chef’s knife is used about 70 percent of the time, above all of other knives, according to chef Philip Burgess, lead culinary instructor at The International Culinary Center, and it is used to prep your ingredients in the chicest way possible. Quality, brand, and cost all factor into deciding which is the best chef’s knife to buy, so it can get to be a pretty confusing process. With the help of chef Burgess and other culinary experts, we’ve outlined some guidelines that will help you become a pro with your chef’s knife.
Know Your Knife
The chemistry or build of chef’s knives usually fall under two different categories of blades, stamped and forged. The process of manufacturing stamped blades is somewhat "New World," where most of the work is done by machines and there is little effort devoted to the process. Also referred to as the "cookie cutter" process, a stamped blade is cut from a sheet of cold-rolled steel, heated for strength, and then ground and polished. Stamped blades tend to be thinner and lighter in weight, and they often don’t run the entire length of the knife but are fitted into a knife’s handle.
Forged blades are created using one of the oldest methods known to the history of knife-making, where they’re made from heating steel to a high temperature and then pounded while hot to get the shape of the blade. Once the blade has been formed, it is sharpened and polished in an attentive multistep process that is mostly done by hand. Forged blades are heavier in weight and thicker in width, and the blades run the length of the entire knife.
If it’s not obvious already, forged blades are the better-quality blades but tend to be higher in cost. They last longer and they’re easier to use because the weight of the blade provides little need for straining your arm. While stamped blades tend to be viewed as the lower end of things, they’re often a better choice when you’re looking for something that will not be used often.
Who to Know
There are two main competitors out there in the knife world: the Germans and the Japanese. Chef Burgess has been known to dabble with German lines such as Trident and Wusthof, especially with butchering and meat cutting, he also enjoys using Japanese brands as well. Some of his favorite lines include Nenox, Glestain, Masamoto, and what he’s currently using: Togiharu.
Stainless Above All Else
Half the time, when people buy knives, they are often unaware that different types of blades are made from different materials and thus require different care. For the easiest and most convenient knives, chef Burgess suggests stainless steel. Unlike carbon steel, which you have to wash, dry, and oil constantly, and ceramic, which has to be returned to the manufacturer for sharpening, stainless steel requires a simple wash and dry after use. Beware of the dishwasher, though, Burgess warns, for the high heat of the machine can cause damage to any type of steel, so hand-washing and drying is best.
Consider Before You Buy
While you may know what nationality and brand you want to go with, there are a few things to consider when buying your knife. For Burgess, he recommends starting at the price point and working from there. If you’re planning on spending a lot of time with your chef’s knife, it’s worth investing a little bit more money, but if you don’t consider yourself an avid cook and will only be using it from time to time, it’s OK to go with something cheaper.
We asked Tom Colicchio how to pick the best knife without spending a fortune, and his sentiments were pretty clear with in response.
Tom Colicchio may be right, but there are a few tricks to cutting the cost without sacrificing quality. Burgess suggests picking out your favorite knife at the store and then going home to find a deal for it online. He also says to avoid department stores, where the quality of brands is great but the prices are often inflated. The best route is to visit a professional kitchen supply store, where not only will there be quality of brand but the pricing will be at its truest.
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