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Apr 20, 2014

Staying Sharp: A Knife Buyer’s Guide

Cutlery is essential part of the cooking process.  Without proper knives, there is no way to finish or prep your food for service, but with so many options available for knives, it can get bit overwhelming trying to find the right cutlery for your kitchen.  Luckily, it can be easy once you look at the right factors for your specific foodservice operation.  Here are a few tips to picking out cutlery for your specific needs.

When Should I Go With a Forged Knife?:  Forged knives are traditionally higher end pieces of cutlery.  They are produced the old fashioned way, from one piece of steel, and more often than not, have riveted handles.  They are preferred by top chefs, however, if they must be carefully examined before being purchased for foodservice.  Some forged knives are made with wooden handles which, if not coated or made impervious to moisture, will not receive the NSF approval for use in a commercial kitchen.  Most forged blade knives, however, are made with impervious handles, as they are usually more expensive knives, and as such, carry higher expectations.  They last longer than stamped knives (their “cookie cutter” counterpart), however, usually aren’t intended to be used as heavily.  Most all stamped knives are NSF approved, as they will be made with an impervious plastic handle, and are usually intended for high volume commercial use.  These knives will not have the extended life of a forged knife, though.

Does The Steel Make A Difference?:  The type of steel a knife is composed from is incredibly important to the life of the knife.  Most commercial knives are made with some sort of alloy steel, as pure stainless steel is not taste neutral and will affect the flavor of foods it cuts.  However, the alloy used drastically affects the hardness of the steel and durability of the knife.  More often then not, top of the line blades will feature custom alloys that produce near diamond level hardness, and hold their sharpness for quite sometime.  Stamped knives are usually made with a brand’s standard alloy, which will breakdown faster, and need to be sharpened much more often.

What Style of Knives Should I Buy?:  When deciding what styles of knives to buy, it is essential to have your menu handy.  Varying amounts and types of prep work factor into the necessary pieces of cutlery needed.  Every kitchen needs a proportional amount of all purpose Chef’s knives for the amount of cooks working on the line and prepping, as well as a smaller, but still proportional number of utility, and paring knives.  Each kitchen should also have a few serrated / bread knives as well, for things like tomatoes or slicing bread or rolls, a few all-purpose Santoku knives, and a steel to sharpen your blades.  However, each operation will have specific needs based on menu items.  Here’s a couple of specialty knives (this is however not a complete list) and some of their purposes.

  • Butcher Knives & Cleavers - Obviously, for restaurants that do much of their own butcher work, a set of butcher knives and a cleaver are essential.  Cleavers are traditionally used to separate larger cuts of meat, while butcher knives are used to make smaller, simpler cuts.  For operations with extensive meat prep to do, or butcher shops, a meat saw may also be considered.
  • Boning & Filet Knives – For seafood restaurants, or restaurants that bring in whole fish, filet knives are a must.  They are meant to gut and filet whole fish, not to make any cuts to the filets.  A chef’s knife, santoku, or depending on how the fish is being prepared, a Japanese style knife should be used.  Boning knives can be used to remove bones from fish, but can also be used to bone meat or poultry as well.  Both of these knives come in flexible and rigid versions, and more often than not, preference is the real deciding factor when choosing blade stiffness.  However, it should be stated that flexible boning knives work better with poultry.
  • Japanese Knives & Chinese Mincing Knives – Japanese knives are traditionally very well crafted knives that are meant to be wielded with skill, and are often showcased in FOH cooking, sushi and sashimi preparing, and can even be purchased left handed or right handed (the blade can be angled and then made flat on the opposite side, rather than having a dual sided blade).  They are highly precise, as they are traditionally produced in the tradition of generations of Japanese steel forgers, and are meant for extremely detail oriented work.  There are specific uses for most all the Japanese knives (i.e. several sushi knives, a sashimi knife, a few tuna knives, an eel knife, etc.), except for the aforementioned Santoku, whose name comes from the Japanese term for “three virtues” (those three virtues being fish, meat, and vegetables).  Chinese mincing knives, which resemble a cleaver, are intended for vertical mincing, and are designed to flatten as they mince, and can be used to collect minced food from a chopping surface and transfer it to a cooking surface.  They have a significantly shorter handle than a traditional cleaver, and are not intended to butcher large cuts of meat.