When it comes to cooking like the pros, it’s important to understand all aspects of the most important kitchen tools: your knives. From the different parts of a knife to the materials used to create them, this guide is full of the information needed to get to know your knives and use them to their fullest potential.
The Anatomy of a Kitchen Knife
From the tip to the heel to the cutting edge, the different parts of a kitchen knife can be used for different things, and becoming familiar with each is the first step to cooking like a pro.
The tip of a kitchen knife is the uppermost part of the blade that comes to a point. Depending on the type of knife, it can be used for fine, detailed work and very delicate cutting. For example, the tip of a chef’s knife can be used to create guide cuts in tough ingredients like melons, squash, and other dense fall vegetables, and for piercing and separating sinew from meat, while the tip of the boning knife is used to break away cartilage from joints in hunks of meat. The tip of the paring knife is handy for coring tomatoes, hulling strawberries, segmenting citrus, and even deveining shrimp.
The bolster is the band that meets the blade of the knife to its handle and is designed to keep your hand away from the cutting edge of the blade. Not all knives feature a bolster.
The heel is the rear part of the cutting edge of the blade (opposite the tip) that meets the bolster. The heel on a chef’s knife is ideal for chopping tough ingredients like nuts, carrots, and even bones.
The cutting edge is the sharp edge of the blade that extends from the tip to the heel. This is where all of the magic happens.
The spine is the blunt edge (opposite to the cutting edge) that runs from the tip to the heel of the blade. Although it might seem like the perfect place to rest your finger and apply pressure while cutting (a common mistake with home cooks) it can actually lessen your ability to control your knife – not to mention, a sharp knife should cut right through your ingredients without adding extra force.
The tang is the attachment of the handle to the blade which can be done in a couple of different ways. A full tang runs through the entire handle and is usually secured with rivets, while a partial tang does not run through the entire handle and is usually pushed in and secured with adhesive.
Rivets are the metal pins used to join the handle of the knife around the tang. Not all kitchen knives have rivets.
The Butt, also known as a pommel, is the very end of the handle of a knife.
Materials Used to Create Kitchen Knife Blades
A wide range of materials are used to create kitchen knife blades, from budget steels to premium steels (and everything in between) to titanium and ceramic. Knowing the materials used to create your knives is essential for maintenance and care.
High Carbon Steel is made of carbon and iron. It is a less expensive option that holds an edge very well and is easier to sharpen, however, it is prone to rust and stains, as well as oxidation.
Stainless Steel is made of iron, chromium, some carbon and other alloys. The blades are resistant to corrosion; however, they must be sharpened often depending on the types of stainless steel used.
Titanium is typically lighter and more flexible than steel, however, it is not the strongest or hardest metal in the world and does not hold an edge as well as steel.
Ceramic knives became very popular a few years ago. They are extremely hard and can hold an edge longer than steel. They are made of zirconium dioxide, so they are light in weight but are difficult to sharpen and can be quite brittle, making them more prone to chips and cracks.
Damascus steel, which actually isn’t a type of steel per say, has made its way into the form of kitchen knives with unique patterns on the blades, making them an art piece as well as utilitarian in the kitchen. Damascus steel is made by “folding” layers of metal to reveal unique patterns and can be crafted from both high carbon and stainless steel. The art of forging Damascus steel dates as far back 300 B.C. when it was used to create superior swords – and the same goes for modern-day blades as they’re known for yielding a superior, long-lasting sharp edge. However, sharpening Damascus steel also takes quite a bit of skill to sharpen, so it’s always best to leave that up to the professionals.
Materials Used to Create Kitchen Knife Handles
Handles play an important role in the performance of your kitchen knives, from the type of design to the materials used to create them.
Wood: One of the most popular materials for kitchen knives, wood knife handles are known for comfort as it is very soft and easy on the hands. However, wood knife handles can also be very expensive and delicate, depending on the type of wood used. Some of the common types of wood used for knife handles are ebony, rosewood and cocobolo. Wood knife handles are harder to maintain as they can be difficult to clean and are easily damaged.
G10: A fiberglass-based laminate created by soaking layers of fiberglass cloth in resin to be compressed and baked, G10 knife handles are lightweight and extremely durable with a surface texture added in the form of checkering.
Micarta: The most common form is linen Micarta. Similar in construction as G10, Micarta is created by soaking layers of linen cloth in a phenolic resin. The end result is a lightweight, strong material that does not have a surface texture and is extremely smooth to the touch.
Carbon Fiber: Another labor-intensive material that results in a pricey knife, carbon fiber is composed of thin strands of carbon that are tightly woven into a weave pattern set in resin. When compared to the other lightweight synthetic handle materials, carbon fiber is one of the strongest and its main visual attraction is the way the carbon strands reflect light, making the weave pattern highly visible.
ZYTEL®: Developed by Du Pont, this thermoplastic synthetic material is the least expensive to produce, therefore it is quite common. ZYTEL® has a slight surface texture and is known to not only be unbreakable, but also resists impact and abrasions.
Titanium: A lightweight metal alloy, titanium offers unsurpassed corrosion resistance compared to any other metal. It has a warm, comfortable grip and can be finished by either bead blasting or by anodization, which is an electrochemical process that adds color to the metal.
Aluminum: Another nonferrous metal, aluminum gives the knife a solid feel without the extra weight. T6-6061, a heat treatable grade, is the most common form of aluminum used for knife handles with anodizing as the most common finishing process.
The Kitchen Knife Essentials
Now that you know all about the anatomy of a kitchen knife and the materials used to create it, you may be wondering what types of knives you really need in the kitchen, or maybe even how to choose the best cutting board for your needs (and your knives). When it comes to buying new kitchen knives, you’ll find a ton of options – from smaller 3- and 6-knife sets all the way up to 24-knife sets – and they all almost always include a chef’s knife, along with other essentials such as a paring knife, utility knife, and bread knife.
When it comes to cutting boards, you’ll also find a plethora of options available, from wood and stone to plastic and glass, but not all cutting boards are created equally in terms of how well they play with your knives. Check out our guide to choosing the best cutting board for a deeper dive into the different materials used and which one is best for keeping your kitchen knives sharp. And if you’re wondering about the best way to store your knives, then check out our guide for the best knife storage.