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Last week's column dealt with which types of knives you should purchase. This column briefly discusses knife construction and how this might influence your purchase.
Better quality knives are drop forged. Knives that are hand made are “forged” by heating the steel and hammering (forging) the blade into the shape of the knife.
Mass produced knives are made by heating pieces of steel and placing them in a form in the shape of the knife. Half of the form, or die, is fastened to a large anvil and the other half of the die is attached to a ram which acts like a hammer. The ram is dropped onto the steel, forging the pliable steel into the die to give it the shape of a knife blade. The drop hammers can be as high as twenty feet and the ram can weigh over 1000 pounds (best to keep your fingers out of the way). Cooling the hot forgings under controlled conditions helps eliminate stress points in the steel. This method creates a stronger, sturdier knife than those made of rolled steel and it is worth making sure that your new knife is drop forged.
The blade is then welded to the tang – the metal part of the knife that forms the handle. (Some knife blades / tangs are forged in one piece.) The blade is then shaped and sharpened.
The next consideration for you will be the type of handle you are most comfortable with. There are three basic choices. The traditional wooden handle is made from carved wood that surrounds the tang and is riveted in place. There are also many different types of plastic or other synthetic handles. Finally, some knives have a metal handle that is welded to the blade – basically the handle and tang are one and the same.
I have owned knives with all three types of handles. I began my career using a knife with a wooden handle and then I had a set with formed plastic handles. I now use a very lightweight knife that has a metal handle.
Your choice of handle type will partly be a matter of preference, but will also depend on any experience you may have with using a kitchen knife as well as what you are willing to pay for your new knife.
Another important feature of a knife is the material that it is made from. For the most part, the knives that are most available to you will be stainless steel. You can purchase a carbon steel knife and the advantage is that it is easier to sharpen. Many chefs prefer carbon steel knives, but the blade will rust and requires more diligent maintenance.
As a result the most popular knives are made from stainless steel. The quality of the steel does vary with the cost of the knife, but there are excellent knives available to you for a very reasonable price. Remember that this will be your single most important tool in the kitchen (except for maybe the dishwasher).
There are now knives that are made from ceramic polymers. These are more expensive knives (a paring knife starts at about $80.00), but they are purported to never need sharpening. While this may be true for general use, they do lose their edge and at this time the manufacturers recommend that you return the knives to their maker for honing.
Now that you have some ideas about which knives you need and what materials to look for, it’s time to go to the store (that’s next week).
December 1, 2005