Anyone who spends time in a kitchen will know the one thing you need is a good quality sharp knife for almost everything you do. One of the things many know about a quality knife is that it is an investment in a tool that is necessary to do a job and do it well. Get a proper knife of quality, and you will have something that your great grandchildren can enjoy.
It is a fact that many people do not consider their knives for whatever reason. They think just any knife available will do the job. This is a terrible mistake. This is why we continue to remind you as you look for quality products to source for your business – we are looking for the best options for you, your investment and your profit margin. When it comes to knives, cheap is exactly what you will get. This is why we are providing you this blog. If you have intention of carrying kitchen knives in your retail location, it is a good idea to have a full understanding of what makes a quality knife, the parts of a knife and the different materials available to make a good kitchen knife.
Before we begin, a reminder: Our focus is a comparison with German knives and not Japanese. The Japanese blades available are specifically designed for sushi and cutting fish for maximum – umami – the pleasant taste that comes from quality sushi and widely considered the fifth taste.
A word on sharpening
The finest knives in the world are worthless without a sharp edge. Sharper edges are better, and safer, for cutting anything from vegetables to meats. A sharper edge allows you to move through the food with less effort and ease. Pushing through food can cause accidents and possibly a visit to the ER.
That said, a butcher steel is not designed to hone a blade. A steel takes the curl off of a blade and smooths the same between sharpenings.
If you are not 100 percent certain on how to properly sharpen your knives, find a local sharpening service. It will cost a small fee, but the results are more than worth it. It is hard to ruin a knife with poor sharpening, but a pro can do it right the first time – every time.
Those who do want to sharpen their own knives and/or learn how to sharpen can find You Tube videos and plenty of sharpeners. Again, just like your knife, you will get what you pay for in a sharpening tool. Spend the good money at the outset, practice on a cheaper, less valuable knife to learn sharpening basics and then start keeping your good chef’s knife honed with a sharp blade.
Metal in a chef’s knife
Metallurgy is the study of metals and how to combine them for different purposes. Your chef’s knife is made of steel – a conglomerate of iron and a few other metals. There are three major kinds of steel used in knifemaking and bladesmithing. We are going to cover all three for you.
The Rockwell Hardness Scale and your Chinese chef’s knife
We touched on this briefly in a previous blog on Chinese knives. The RHC is how to measure the hardness of stainless steel. A good chef’s knife will have an RHC of between 50 and 60.
A knife with a 50 – 54 RHC will dull a bit more quickly, sharpen more easily and function better for heavy duty chores like splitting chicken breasts.
A knife with a 55 – 60 RHC will keep an edge for a longer period but are exceptionally difficult to sharpen once dulled. The steel is also more brittle than the softer counterparts.
Our manufacturing partners have blades in the 52 to 56 range. For a home chef who cooks most nights and does the occasional heavy duty cutting or chopping, this is an ideal RHC choice. The hardness falls to the solid center between too difficult to sharpen and holding an edge for a decent period.
Go to any knife retailer and the majority of the selections will be stainless steel. It is not an expensive option to produce, keeps a good edge and can work through the most difficult of foods. Stainless steel will not easily rust, but you do have the tradeoff of needing to sharpen with a bit more regularity.
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron and a small amount, 10 – 15 percent, of three other metals – chromium, nickel and molybdenum. The steel also has a minute amount of carbon, often no more than one percent of the total metal composition. The more common stainless steels are G-10, 420HC, and 440C with the 440C being a very common stainless steel in most knives.
Most stainless steel knives are stamped, more on this later, and are affordable. The only drawback – the knife does not sharpen well or have an exceptionally sharp edge. Stainless with molybdenum do hold better edges, but the biggest benefit of stainless is the knife is virtually maintenance free.
The better knives come from carbon steel. Carbon steel does not have chromium as part of its alloy – thus the steel is not nearly as shiny and prone to rust without proper care. The steel also features considerably more carbon – up to almost two percent – of the overall composition along with iron. There is also a minute amount of manganese in carbon steel, necessary to strengthen the metal.
Carbon steel is the standard for a decent chef’s knife and most commonly chosen for a professional chef. These blades can rust if not cared for properly, something many home chefs realize too late more often than not.
The advantage of the additional carbon in the steel manufacturing is considerable hardening of the steel – making sharpening much easier for the novice. This means a thinner blade, which can mean a better edge that holds longer than standard stainless steel.
Rust is an issue with carbon steel. Professionals are willing to take the extra steps to clean their carbon steel knives and store them properly to minimize rust. Carbon steel will also patina – a dark coloration that forms over time – but will not affect the function or food safety. Many chefs actually prefer the patina as it keeps a metallic taste out of the food.
The blades do not have the same degree of flexibility as the stainless steel counterparts, which is another drawback for some.
The degree of maintenance required is often a huge turnoff for the average chef looking for a quality knife. However, the maintenance is easily traded off for the advantages the blade provides.
High-Carbon Stainless Steels
When you think of high carbon stainless, you are now getting into the finer blades from the best of the best European designers – Wüsthof, Zwilling, Henckels and more. Many of these manufacturers have researched and designed their own custom steel for their blades. Each blade has minor differences in the hardness and flex, but the knives themselves are built to work.
High carbon means the best of both stainless steel and carbon steel – rust resistant, sharpen well and keep an edge for an extended time.
If there was a drawback, it is the knives need to be hand washed and dried before storing properly.
You will get what you pay for in high carbon steel chef’s knives. This is what we will source for you in a private knife brand, and something you and your customer base can enjoy for many, many years to come.
What makes a good knife – the personal side
If ever there was a time to do your deep research and order samples of a product, this is the time. Your customers, if you are selling online, will not be able to handle your individual knife to determine whether or not the knife “feels right” in their hand. These are personal choices, but you can come close to what a customer wants by doing research into elements the customer does not like and does like.
A quality knife is an extension of the self, should feel natural and move equally so. Matching to the majority of your customers is not impossible but does take some work to make it happen. Here are the key characteristics to look for during your research.
There are two schools of thought on a chef’s knife – go heavy as it will move through your food with ease; go light as it will allow for more skill and maneuverability when working.
A quality knife will be a balance of the two. What is that balance? You will not know until you order your samples.
What makes a knife balance? That is difficult to answer much like knife weight. The knife should have an equal feel towards the front and back when gripped. Poorly balanced knives will make you work harder and become fatigued in the process.
It is not just the front/back balance that matters. Equally important is the left/right balance – the blade should rise up and come down in a direct line.
The 8-inch chef’s knife is a standard choice for most home cooks. It is versatile, easy to handle and is not as intimidating as the longer 10-inch. There are 6-inch blades, but at this point, a quality paring knife makes more sense.
It is a recommendation to consider a selection of eight and 10 inch knives in your retail location. You can adjust future orders as needed based on your sales.
Anatomy of a knife
Your customers will expect that you are well informed and knowledgeable about all aspects of your knives from the steel to the physical make up. This means having a close understanding of the individual parts of a knife. These may seem trivial, but they are important in case you get a particular question.
All good knives start with a quality handle. The material can be wood, plastic or other material, but the most important thing about the handle is that it feels right in the hand of the user. This means finding a handle you can hold easily and will not slip when wet. There should be clearance so you do not strike the cutting board with your knuckles.
There are some knives that feature ergonomic grips, indentations and molds to fit a hand. Some prefer this, and others do not. If the grip is not natural for the user, it becomes awkward, and dangerous, for cutting certain foods or using the blade at unusual angles.
The butt is the end of the handle and is often rounded off.
Scales are the materials that make up the two sides of the knife that form the grip. Some knives do not have sides but are a single piece that slides onto the tang of the knife.
Rivets hold the scales to the tang. Less quality knives will not have full rivets but are nothing more than decoration.
The bolster can go by a few different names – collar, shoulder and shank. This is a thickened part of metal where the blade meets the handle. The bolster provides three important elements in a quality knife – stability, strength and a finger guard.
There some knives with a partial bolster, or some without a bolster at all such Japanese knives.
The important aspect of a bolster is to make sure the user will not have to grip the knife unnecessarily. Too tight a grip can be as bad as too loose a grip.
The heel is where the knife reaches its broadest and thickest part and provides the greatest amount of heft. The purpose is simple – it gives the knife and user a benefit for cutting through particularly tough foods – thick rind squashes, melons or cutting tendons. The heel should not make a deep sound when rocked nor should the heel stop the rocking motion necessary with fine dicing. The heel should not curve so the blade will kick backwards.
The spine runs the back of the blade and is often squared off flat. This edge should be well-polished and feel smooth as it rolls over onto the blade. The spine should not be sharp or rough under any circumstances – this can cause the user discomfort. The spine should taper as it moves towards the tip of the blade as well.
A quality chef’s knife will have an edge out of the box. A truly sharp knife will slide easily through a piece of standard paper, make a swift, clean cut or chop. There should be a slight and gentle curve from tip to heel for a smooth rocking motion when chopping or mincing.
The tang is the part of the steel fits into the handle. There are several tang styles – full, partial, skeletonized and the like. A better chef’s knife will feature a full tang that will run from the tip until the butt. This provides the best stability and durability of the knife as well as provide additional weight.
The point or tip, is the very end of the knife. Use it for puncturing or cutting open bags and wrap.
Blades come in one of two ways: forged or stamped. There are no other ways to make a blade. You want your customers to have the best possible option for a chef’s knife that will get considerable use over time. There are times when both are appropriate, but if you are looking to carry chef’s knives exclusively for your customers, forged knives are the best decision.
It is important to understand information about each type of blade – both forged and stamped.
A forged blade means the knife starts with a large piece of steel, often in the shape of a brick. The metal is heated until it can be formed, and the superheated metal is pounded out, folded, and pounded again. The result is metal that is folded over and over and formed into the knife. This yields a thicker blade, considerably heavier construction and a much better quality blade. The trade off is there is a higher expense. Again, consider a quality chef’s knife as an investment in something that will last for decades with proper treatment. The owner will more than recoup the cost of the knife over years of dedicated use.
The blade is quenched in water and also heat treated to harden the blade steel. Lastly, the blade is polished, sharpened and turned into the final knife.
A stamped blade is made from taking a piece of sheet metal and punched out with a hydraulic press. Most of the stamped blades of the past were made of inferior steel and much cheaper than their forged counterparts.
There are some stamped blades that rival that of the forged, but the quality will always be lacking and behind. The stamped blades will not have a bolster as a general rule because they are stamped, are much lighter and less expensive as a general rule.
What is your best choice
There are some stamped blades that are of high quality like we said, and the home cook often cannot tell the difference. However, you want to provide your customers with the best option possible.
For this reason, Sourcing Nova strongly recommends sourcing forged blades. We can get stamped blades of decent quality, but they still fall short of a forged blade.
The handle is almost as important as the blade. The blade does the work, but the handle provides the energy. Therefore, the handle should be comfortable in the hand of your customer. There are plenty of handle materials to choose from for a chef’s knife. We have selected the main ones along with pros and cons of each.
Wood is classic and has a special look to it that many appreciate. The wood is often soft and easy on the hand. The other big benefit of wood is there are so many different wood options to select from and will change costs accordingly.
Wood is great, but it will hold bacteria. This makes wood hard to clean and sterilize properly. Very few professionals use wood in their knives for this and one other major reason – wood needs to be treated frequently to keep it in the best possible condition.
Laminate handles, basically hard plastic, are the most common and preferred material for handles. The laminate can match any color of wood imaginable but lacks the sanitary issues associated with wood. Best of all – it is considerably cheaper than standard wood.
There are virtually no drawbacks to laminate, and we can find plenty of samples for you to review.
There are a large number of synthetics, but rather than mention all of them, it is easier to mention them all at one time. Synthetic does not hold bacteria just like laminate does not hold bacteria.
Synthetics are great, but hot temperatures will make them brittle and crack easily. UV rays can also weaken the handle.
Stainless steel is the best when it comes to sanitary and cleaning. It is the easiest of all materials to maintain, durable and futuristic looking.
Stainless steel handles are exceptionally heavy unless the handle is hollow. Stainless can also be slippery when wet and cause a number of problems because of that.
You may have heard about these, and we do want to touch on them briefly. Ceramic blades are thin, sharp and highly precise in their design. Ceramic blades glide through almost anything from a steak to a tomato with little to no issue. They keep an edge for some time.
Ceramic blades are exceptionally difficult to sharpen, and many home chefs cannot get an edge on the blade. The blades are also ill-designed for heavy cutting – squash and the like.
If you are considering starting a business selling chef’s knives, then you absolutely need to do considerable research into what consumers like and dislike, design a prototype and order samples of potential knives you want to carry. This is not a process that will happen over night. In fact, it may take up to a year or longer before you find a knife you like and want to sell.
Sourcing Nova is ready to help you get started. Contact us. We will be in contact with our manufacturing partners as soon as we hear from you.