There are four knives considered by professional cooks to be essential in the kitchen for chopping and cutting: chef’s knife, paring knife, serrated knife and utility knife. Of those four knives, it is the chef’s knife that can delivery optimum performance when mincing nutmeats and chopping vegetables such as celery. The most important factors that determine how well your knife performs include the tang, the blade’s metal, and how that metal is shaped into the blade.
Balance and Shape
The cutting length of a chef’s knife varies from eight to nine inches, and its size won’t affect performance when chopping celery or nuts. Choose a size that fits your hand, and be aware of how far the blade extends down into the handle. This is what’s known as the tang, and it affects the strength and balance of your knife. When crushing shelled nuts before chopping, use the heel of the blade by laying it flat across the nut and pressing down hard. If the tang only extends partway through the handle of the knife, over time the stress can knock the blade loose of its handle. Some knife manufactures construct a knurl or criss-crossed metal section on the butt end of the handle, used to stamp and crush shelled nuts before chopping.
Knives are made from one of three materials: carbon steel, stainless steel and ceramic. Of the three, ceramic knives are the least suited to crushing nuts because the brittle, light-weight material can chip or break when struck against a hard object. For chopping shelled nuts and vegetables such as celery, ceramic and stainless steel knives impart no flavor to the food, and won’t rust or corrode. Blades made from carbon steel impart an acidic taste to foods and rust more easily. To avoid staining and corrosion, dry the blade after cutting wet vegetables such as celery. Carbon and stainless steel knives are easily re-sharpened; ceramic knives hold their edge for several years, but can only be sharpened by professionals.
Stamped vs. Forged
How the blade is shaped affects the knife’s durability and ease of handling. Chefs prefer hand forged knives because they hold up longer and are less likely to bend when chopping hard food such as nuts. Forged knives are made in the tradition of sword makers using a single piece of heated metal hammered into the desired shape, but the process makes them more expensive than stamped knives. Most home cooks find stamped knives more affordable and easier to handle. They are cut from a sheet of metal using a press like a cookie-cutter in the shape of the knife blade.
How About the Handle
Before buying a knife, hold it in your hand to feel its weight and balance. The weight of a knife affects control when cutting vegetables and nuts, which is why most chef knives have a hefty handle. Look for a bolstering of steel wrapped around forged knives to prevent slipping when chopping. Textured scales on plastic or rubber-coated handles also improve your grip, especially if your hands are wet from washing produce. Wood handles -- the most common type -- can crack over time if not cared for properly. For best results, don’t place knives in the dishwasher, and avoid soaking when washing.
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