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Complete Understanding of Chef knives and How to Use Them
Cooking is a rewarding endeavor, but it’s not just a delicious meal that makes the process an enjoyable one. Chefs are the magicians of the culinary world, transforming seemingly simple ingredients into a masterpiece, carefully engineered to delight the senses.
A big part of this process involves a broad range of specialized tools and utensils, with the chef’s knife often leading the charge. Chef’s knives, also known as a “French Knife” in some circles, is one of the most versatile blades available at your disposal.
This knife is considered a ‘must have’ among novice and professional cooks alike, able to handle tasks small or large, simple or complex with ease. This knife is also an essential here at Vertoku.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about chef’s knives, what they are used for, how to properly handle the blade, what to look for when shopping for a new chef’s knife, and how you can use this simple, yet capable blade to take your cooking skills to the next level.
What is a Chef’s Knife?
Sporting a generously broad blade and impressive balance, the chef’s knife is a highly capable multi-purpose kitchen knife ideal in the preparation of almost any dish.
The blade itself can be either forged or stamped, with forged being the preferred and most durable of the two types. Known as a ‘full tang’ design, the blade extends for the full length and width of the handle, enabling it to withstand even the most vigorous of tasks with ease while remaining impressively balanced and agile.
Tapering towards a precise point, the blade typically ranges between 6-12” in overall length, with size often being more of a personal preference depending on the size of the chef’s hands.
Known as the “Swiss Army Knife” of Kitchen Knives
If there is one knife you should have readily at your disposal, it’s a chef’s knife. The chef’s knife is a generalist, not specializing in any particular culinary task, but capable in a broad range of situations.
These blades can efficiently and reliably be used for slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing, deboning and even filleting.
The Anatomy of a Chef’s Knife
Apart from unfortunate mishaps, the handle of your chef’s knife is what you’ll be in contact with the most. Because of this, blade companies such as Vertoku have gone to considerable lengths to engineer precision handles that are as capable as they are comfortable.
Traditionally made from wood, other modern takes on this blade’s handle utilize composites, plastics, or even rubber. Today, a favorite among chefs, melding traditional style and aesthetics with improved durability, are wood handles treated with plastic resin.
TIP: Bare, untreated wood handles pose a few unique challenges. First, they can be prone to wear and damage when exposed to moisture over long periods of time. Second, they can facilitate the growth of bacteria (especially in the crevices where the wood attaches to steel. Because of this, many food departments prohibit the use of wood handles in commercial settings.
A good handle should feel secure and comfortable in your hand. For example, Vertoku utilizes a unique manufacturing process to enhance the stabilization of each blade’s handle. Not only does this result in a superior look and feel, but it also improves safety, maneuverability, and function.
Although some blade handles come with indentations meant to enhance grip, these molds can make handling the knife difficult at awkward angles or for those with hands that don’t perfectly align with the standardized mold.
Also commonly referred to as a shank, shoulder or collar, the bolster is the notably thick area of metal found where the spine of the handle (posterior non-cutting side) and blade meet. The bolster of a chef’s knife serves two very important functions. It enhances strength and improves the stability of the knife, while acting as a finger guard for the hand you grip with. A well-designed bolster can also aid in preventing slippage and reducing hand fatigue during long periods of use.
It is not uncommon for some knives to employ the use of only a partial bolster, while others yet, such as with Japanese-style blades, may have no bolster at all. Although this sounds disadvantageous at first, one advantage to the partial or missing bolster is that the blade of these knives can be sharpened for it’s full length.
TIP: The thickness of a knife’s bolster is an accurate indication as to the thickness of the originating piece of steel from which the knife was made. A good rule of thumb for higher quality forged knives (as opposed to machine stamped inferior blades) is the thickness of the bolster, with thicker generally being better.
For most chef knives (with the exception of Japanese-style blades), the heel represents the thickest and broadest part of the blade. The heel is designed to be employed whenever a task requires additional force, such as when chopping boned in meat, or struggling through a thick rind.
As the name aptly implies, the spine of your blade is the posterior portion of the blade (non-cutting side) that runs from the exposed blade through the handle (for full tang designs). The spine usually is squared, providing an ample surface to apply pressure, with edges generally smoothed so as to prevent blisters on your gripping hand.
Only present with full tang designs, rivets are the visible cylindrical studs that reliably secure the tang portion of the blade to the handle. Rivets are common with those chef’s knives with handles constructed from wood or wood and resin-coated finishes.
Tang refers to a blade forged from a single piece of steel, running the entirety of the knife and extending through the handle. The portion of this blade that resides within the handle (and is fastened with rivets) is known as the tang. Full-tang construction results in a solid, durable and well-balanced knife.
Arguably one of the most important aspects of a chef’s knife is the edge. A good blade will come with a razor-sharp edge right out of the box.
Tip: A good test to evaluate the sharpness of a new blade is to slice through a sheet of notepaper. What you are looking for is a clean, unhindered, smooth cut.
How to Hold a Chef’s Knife Like a Pro
Maneuvering a chef knife and manipulating it to your will in the kitchen is an artform. But before you start slicing and dicing, you must first learn how to properly hold a chef’s knife. Improper handling of knives is one of the leading causes of accidents in the kitchen.
TIP: Take time to familiarize yourself with the blade and master the basics before you accidentally chop off more than a carrot. Practice each type of task, starting slowly and working your way up towards more advanced maneuvers as your skills and confidence grow.
How to Hold a Chef Knife with your NON-Knife Hand
- Your fingers should be curled under in order to position them away from the blade, protecting the fingertips from accidental cuts.
- Place your thumb and little (pinky) finger behind your other fingers away from the sharp edge of the blade.
- The side of the blade should rest squarely against the middle knuckles of your non-knife hand, preventing the knife from coming down on any of your other digits. This position also assists in measuring the size of your cuts, allowing you to move your hand backwards on the food after each slice in preparation for the following cut.
- Cuts are to be made in a downward, unilateral rocking motion, beginning with the tip of the blade. Do not rock the blade back and forth.
How to Hold a Chef Knife with your Knife Hand
- Grip the handle firmly but not too tight.
- When gripping the handle, your middle, ring and pinky fingers should be doing most of the work.
- Position your index finger to rest flat against the blade, near the handle.
- Curl your index finger back, towards the butt of the handle and position your thumb on the opposing side of the blade to provide stability.
Tips When Holding a Chef’s Knife
- Focus on gripping the blade with your thumb and index finger, giving you improved control and enhanced precision when making cuts.
- When mincing or chopping, such as with bundles of herbs, it is appropriate to grip the handle with your knife hand, while resting your non-knife hand atop the spine of the blade for assistance.
- It is recommended that you keep the keep of the blade in contact with the cutting board at all times, rocking the blade up and down (but never back and forth) when in use.
- Large or slippery items should be cut in halves before slicing or chopping. Doing so can reduce the risk of slippage and injury.
- One common mishap when in the kitchen is failing to secure your cutting board. This can be a recipe for disaster, not the delectable dish you hoped to accomplish. A wet cloth or paper towel is often all that is needed to provide suction and prevent slipping, reducing the risk of injury and bettering the accuracy and consistency of your cuts.
- When practicing, consider using a cucumber cut lengthwise in half. In this form, the vegetable is stable and easier to cut and dice.
How to Choose a Chef’s Knife
Not all chef knives are created equal, and what might be suitable or ideal for one cook, may be an entirely mismatched fit for another.
Some in the food industry liken selecting a chef’s knife to choosing the perfect dance partner. The knife should feel comfortable and graceful in hand, almost anticipating your next move and performing flawlessly without falter.
In the construction trade, there is a saying that “the tool makes the man” (or woman). Similarly, the right culinary tools can make the difference between an enjoyably crafted meal, and an arduous task ending in expletives.
Although many aspects of choosing the right chef’s knife come down to personal preference, there are some steps you can take to ensure you have selected the perfect blade for your next culinary adventure.
PRO TIP: Remember, although versatile, a chef’s knife isn’t necessarily the best match for every task. Consider upgrading your kitchen with a Damascus Steel kitchen knife set that covers all the bases.
Let’s take a look at how you can make sure your investment in culinary excellence is one that you won’t regret.
Where to Shop for a Chef’s Knife
Sure, you can find a chef’s knife in just about any big box store, but that doesn’t mean you can rely on them to find the right knife.
There is a reason why you buy budget items at the likes of Walmart and Target. You get great value on goods that don’t have a lot of difference between them and where ‘moderate’ quality or craftsmanship is often enough to ‘get the job done’ or adequately address your needs.
But there is also a reason why you buy higher-end items from top tier name brands or boutique shops specializing in the product(s) you need.
Fact is, chef’s knives found in big box and general stores are mostly stamped metal, not forged (more on this later), mass-produced, and generally of a much lower quality.
What’s the Downside of a Generic Low Quality Chef’s Knife?
- Less enjoyable to use
- May pose a safety hazard due to poorly designed ergonomics and balancing
- Prone to damage and wear over time, necessitating replacement
- Perform poorly
- Do not hold an edge well and require frequent sharpening
- Low quality stamped steel is prone to rust, chipping, bending, tip breakage and more
For these reasons we suggest investing in a chef’s knife from Vertoku that will stand the test of time, performing flawlessly for decades, making you a better chef.
How to Test a Chef’s Knife
Although not always possible to do in person, testing the blade is good practice. If you are able to get your hands on various makes and models to test, pay close attention to how it feels in your hand, the balance, and comfort. The right knife will feel like a natural extension of your own hand and will instill confidence with each movement. If it feels unwieldy, it’s a pass.
When you are unable to test the knife in person, reviews and videos of the knife in action can yield key insights into its capabilities in maneuverability, balance and use.
Look for Tests of the Knife Demonstrating:
- Mincing (herbs are a great example)
- Dicing (consider an onion or similar vegetable)
- Slicing (cucumber or squash is a good option)
- Carving (large melons)
What to Look for When Shopping for a Chef’s Knife
Again, there is a bit of personal preference involved when choosing the right weight. That said, you don’t want a knife that is either too flimsy and that might be prone to bending or breaking. Similarly, you don’t want something so heavy it makes maneuvering difficult or laborious. Remember, you may be using the knife for extended periods of time and hand fatigue is a real thing.
PRO TIP: Some chefs prefer having more heft, making it easier to cut through foods that require additional force. Other chef’s who deal with delicate foods or require additional maneuverability and precision often prefer a lighter knife.
The perfect balance is a feat of engineering and a hallmark of a high-quality chef knife. Unbalanced blades aren’t just more difficult to use, making you work harder, they can be unstable and lead to slipping or injury.
What size chef’s knife do you need?
The most common size for a French Knife is between 7-8”. This size balances maneuverability with versatility and capability.
Other popular options include 10”, which may be better suited for handling larger or tougher food items. While 6” chef knives improve agility and precision similar to that of a paring knife, and may be best suited for those with smaller hands or who handle small fruits and herbs regularly.
- Type of Steel: Japanese Steel or German Steel?
There are two predominant types of steel blades used for chef’s knives: Japanese and German. Each has it’s own unique characteristics and each is capable in it’s own way.
Japanese Steel: Embodying the true spirit of perfection, Japanese steel chef’s knives are known for their unparalleled precision cuts and unbeatable edge. These blades are capable, reliable and up to virtually any task.
German Steel: Germans take a more brute approach, with the blades built for durability and heft at the expense of precision and grace.
- Forged vs Pressed Steel
The majority of blades you find at local home goods stores are mass-produced by machines, using stamped or pressed steel to form the mold. These knives, although ‘cheap’, are often inadequate for many chefs. Plagued by poor balance, lack of precision, and prone to damage and wear over time, these blades may be suitable for simple meals made occasionally at home, but for any other use, we suggest staying far away from these inferior blades.
At the other end of the spectrum are the forged steel blades. These blades are made using a block of high-carbon steel, precisely hammered into a shaped die, and treated using a unique process to harden the blade. Forged blades are known for impressive balance, durability and edges that retain sharpness.
How to Care for a Chef’s Knife
Take care of your knife so that it takes care of you. Although durable and highly resilient, proper care of your chef’s knife will ensure that it remains in peak shape, ready to tackle any challenge you throw it at, for decades to come.
Below are tips you can easily use to extend the lifespan of your chef’s knife.
- Washing your Blade
Dishwasher’s might be convenient, but they aren’t always the best option for cleaning your kitchen utensils. Chef’s knives can be damaged in dishwashers, due to heat, abrasive detergents, abrasion with other items and more. This is especially true of those with untreated wooden handles. Most French Knives should be hand-washed per the manufacturer’s instructions and directions.
- Keeping and Maintaining a Razor-sharp Edge
At some point you no doubt were stuck using a knife that had lost it’s edge. This situation is frustrating, laborious and inefficient. Edge retention is a primary consideration when discussing maintenance and care for your chef knives.
PRO TIP: Professional knife sharpeners offer convenience and reliability, engineered to help you quickly re-sharpen a broad variety of blades safely.
Tips for Maintaining a Sharp Blade:
- Set a sharpening schedule based on the frequency of use so that you always know you’ll have a razor-sharp blade every time you need it
- Avoid prolonged exposure to moisture when not in use
- Avoid cutting on stone, glass and metallic surfaces that could dull and damage the edge
- Always store in a knife block designed to holster your blade, or separate from other utensils
The Best Chef’s Knives from Vertoku Knives
As a leader in kitchen knives, founded by passionate cooks, Vertoku has made it our mission to bring to market the best chef’s knives at an incredible value, making precision high-quality chef’s knives accessible to master and novice cooks alike.
Fact is, the right knife not only makes food preparation easier and more efficient, it makes it more enjoyable too. The French Knife is a tool that is an absolute ‘must have’ for every chef. If there is one knife you invest in this year, make it a high-quality French Knife that is as capable and utilitarian as it is breathtaking in design. Wow guests, friends and family, while taking your cooking skills to the next level.