|The Daily Gullet is proud to present an excerpt from Society member Chad Ward's new book, An Edge in the Kitchen.|
Common Knife Myths
Let's deal with the three biggest myths and misconceptions about
quality knives: forging, bolsters and full tangs, or the Historical Fiction,
the Convenient Fiction and the Outright Lie.
Stamp of Approval
Nearly every piece of advice that involves knives contains some variation
on the idea that forged knives are superior to stamped knives, conjuring
up images of a burly artisan lovingly whacking a glowing bar of steel
into your soon-to-be-purchased knife. Conversely, stamped knives are presented
as being punched, cookie cutter style, out of thin, cheap steel. Old World
hand craftsmanship versus crass automated garbage.
The real world is not that simple. If you compare a $100 forged knife
from the gourmet boutique to the stamped knife you picked up at the grocery
store in an emergency, forged knives do come out way ahead. But that's
about the only time the myth is true. The fact is that in a modern manufacturing
facility stamped knives aren't really stamped and forged knives
aren't really forged, at least in the way we normally think of those
But wait, you say, I've read that forging aligns the molecules
of the steel and makes it stronger. It also refines the grain structure,
making for better steel. Forged knives are heavier, and that's better,
right? And they have that bolster for balance and safety, you cry. Stamped
knives are flimsy and icky.
First, a little terminology.
For the sake of this discussion, I'm going to dismiss the cheapo
stamped knives. There is a sea of stamped knives out there. Some are decent
knives, some are garbage, but they are, in fact, made by punching a knife
shape out of a flat sheet of steel and putting a simple edge on it. They
tend to be very inexpensive and very light. Some have such a low carbon
content that they will never take or hold a working edge. Their handles
are usually molded plastic and they never have bolsters. For the most
part, you can ignore them. There is one inexpensive stamped knife that
I like a lot for starter kitchens and we will discuss it when we get to
that section. The rest aren't worth bothering with, even the ones
from reputable manufacturers who have gotten into the low-end market.
Later on we'll take a look at the warning signs so you know what
The knives we're really talking about here have been taking the
professional cooking world by storm for the last several years and they
are starting to make headway into the home market. You may have seen knives
by Global or MAC infiltrating your local Gourmet Hut. They are good examples
of this new type of knife. The blades are cut and precision ground from
a billet of high-alloy steel, a method that custom knife makers refer
to as stock removal. They are indeed laser cut or punched from a sheet
or thin bar of steel, but the level of finish that goes into them is equal
to any of the forged knives. Indeed, the manufacturing process is nearly
identical. I think of them as machined knives to distinguish them from
stamped knives. Professional chefs have been abandoning their heavy, forged
knives (and repetitive stress injuries) in droves for this style of knife.
Bring on the Heat
The method of shaping the blade of a quality modern chef's knife
is largely irrelevant. Why? Heat treatment. Take two pieces of the same
steel. Grind one to a given shape and forge the other into the same shape.
At this point in the process, forging does impart all of those wondrous
virtues you've read about. There is a difference in the internal
structure of the two knives, and the forged blade is indeed better. Sounds
pretty good so far, doesn't it? But we still have a ways to go before
we have a finished knife. Any difference between the two chunks of steel
is wiped out in the next step -- heat treatment, one of the most
important aspects of creating a quality knife.
Heat treatment? Is that some kind of spa bath for your knife blade? Well,
sorta. And as it turns out, it's all about the heat, baby. Give
those two knife blades the same heat treatment and the steel will be identical.
You wouldn't be able to tell them apart unless you have a scanning
electron microscope in your kitchen . Since they have the same shape,
they function exactly the same. One method takes a steel blank and grinds
away everything that doesn't look like a knife. The other takes
a steel blank, heats it up and squishes it into the shape of a knife.
Once they have been heat treated, that's the only practical difference.
Here's how it works. Knife steel is deliberately left soft during
most of its manufacturing. It's easier to shape, cut and grind that
way. One of the last steps before the steel blank gets fluffed and buffed
into a real knife is a soak somewhere between 1400 and 1900 degrees Fahrenheit,
which causes a radical change in the crystal structure of the steel. When
cooled rapidly -- quenched -- the crystal structure changes
again, creating an extremely hard, very brittle steel. It is under enormous
internal strain. Think 14 cups of coffee and an impending mortgage payment.
That kind of pressure. Ready to shatter at the slightest provocation.
The knife blank is then heated again to a much lower temperature, somewhere
between 400 and 700 degrees Fahrenheit, to ease some of the internal strain
a little, making the steel slightly softer (though still much harder than
it was initially) and a lot less brittle. At this point, all of those
internal changes have wiped the atomic Etch-A-Sketch clean. Any advantages
of the forged knife have been erased. And that's if the two knives
started out from the same steel. As we'll see, some modern stamped
knives take advantage of seriously vicious high-tech alloys.
Where does this idea of creating a superior blade by forging come from?
For centuries forging wasn't just a way to make better steel, it
was the only way to make steel at all. That's why I refer to this
myth as the Historical Fiction. But now knife makers no longer have to
melt their own iron ore and pound it into submission. They simply call
the steel mill and order up a batch. There is some great steel out there
now, better than anything ever before used for kitchen knives. It can
be drop forged or it can be laser cut out of sheets. With proper heat
treatment, the method of shaping the blade has more to do with manufacturing
processes and knife styles than anything else.
So why all the hype about forged knives? It's a great way to sell
knives, for one thing. For another, the forging process is more labor
intensive and expensive. No one is going to go to that much trouble to
make a lousy knife. Forged knives are good, they're just not inherently
better. At least not better than the modern crop of machined knives out
there. That's where the myth falls down. As I said before, if you
compare a $100 forged knife with a cheap grocery store knife, the forged
knife wins. No contest. Put that same forged knife up against a similarly
priced knife ground from a billet of modern ubersteel and properly heat
treated and you've got an entirely different outcome. There is no
clear winner. Each method can produce great knives, but they are knives
with wildly different characteristics. You've got a choice to make.
Forged versus Stamped Round 2: The Real Story
Forged knives and machined knives tend to be made in two distinctive
styles. The forged knife generally will be thicker and heavier. This can
be a good thing or not depending on what kind of cooking you do. Many
cooks like a heavy knife. The machined knife will be thinner and lighter.
The forged knife will generally have softer steel. Soft is a relative
term when you are talking about steel. It is steel, after all, but it
hasn't been heat treated to optimal hardness. The softer steel easily
can be resharpened at home, but won't hold an edge as long or take
as acute an edge as harder steel. The machined knife will generally have
harder steel. It will take an extremely keen edge and hold it for a good
long time. It will be more difficult to resharpen (unless you read my
chapter on sharpening your knives).
The forged knife will have a heavy bolster, the collar of metal between
the handle and the blade. The bolster will probably extend most or all
of the way down to the heel of the knife. The machined knife may or may
not have a bolster. If it does, the bolster will have been welded on rather
than being forged into shape. Either knife may or may not have a full
tang. We'll get to tangs and bolsters in just a minute.
So it's really more a matter of style and feel rather than quality.
Some chefs like a heavier knife with a thicker blade, the type of knife
that has been in vogue, at least in Europe and countries influenced by
European (read French) cooking, for a couple of hundred years. Other cooks
like a thinner, lighter knife that feels more nimble in the hands and
doesn't leave them feeling like they've been powerlifting
all afternoon. This style of knife is heavily influenced by Japanese knives,
known for their light weight, hard steel and screaming sharp edges.
The truth of the matter is that unless you are in a production kitchen
(where you're likely to be handed whatever knife was on sale when
the kitchen was equipped), it comes down to a matter of feel. Remember,
we're not dedicated to having knives that are all alike. We can
mix and match. Make your decision based on what feels right in your hands,
in your kitchen and on your wallet rather than any fictional virtues of
a particular manufacturing process.
Speaking of fiction . . .
The traditional argument is that the bolster, the thick collar between
the blade and handle, adds weight and balances the knife. Both of those
things are true. Whether or not that's a good thing depends on how
you like to use your knife. The idea is to put a little weight behind
your fingers when you grip the knife with a chef's pinch grip. The
bolster, combined with the weight of the tang and handle material, counterbalances
the weight of the blade. I happen to like my knives to be a little blade
heavy, so a bolstered knife that shifts too much weight behind my fingers
feels awkward and slightly out of control. It's all a matter of
feel and preference. A bolster does provide a nice transition point and
can help keep moisture and crud from getting into the handle.
Contrary to the marketing brochures and the oh-so-helpful display down
at the Towels'n'Such ("full bolster for safety!"),
the bolster is not a finger guard, at least not on a chef's knife.
Any knife with the blade heel lower than the handle has just as much protection
for your fingers as a bolstered knife. The bolster does not prevent your
hand from slipping forward onto the blade, the difference between the
blade height and handle does that. The term butchers use is "stubbing."
That's when the tip of your knife hits something hard, forcing it
to a sudden stop and causing your hand to slide forward onto the blade.
You can cut yourself badly this way. However, it is really only a problem
on knives with blades the same width as the handle or narrower --
a boning knife, for example. That style of knife does need some sort of
extension below the handle as a safety feature. A chef's knife,
though, has a blade significantly taller than the handle. Stubbing is
nearly impossible. A chef's knife does not need a bolster, especially
not one that extends down to the heel. That style of bolster will either
keep you from using the full length of your knife's edge or lead
to the premature death of your knife.
The bolster is -- or at least used to be -- the sign of a forged knife,
which leads us back to the "stamped versus forged" argument
above. Nowadays, stamped knives are just as likely to have bolsters welded
on because that's what the marketing department and the general public
thinks a knife should look like. To be fair, a bolster does add an element
of polish and finesse to the look of a knife. In fact, if a manufacturer
makes more than one line of knife -- a budget line and a luxury line,
for example -- they will frequently put bolsters on the higher end knives
as a way to distinguish them from the cheaper knives. Bolsters add heft
and a certain gravitas to things. Like a cummerbund.
In addition to everything that the bolster doesn't do, what a bolster
does indisputably do is make sharpening your knives a serious pain in
the butt. If you've seen a chef's knife that has been sharpened
on an electric sharpener for any length of time, you'll notice a
scooped out area just forward of the heel that keeps the knife edge from
sitting flat on the cutting board. It also keeps you from using the heel
of the knife effectively. The same thing happens with any sharpening method,
it's just generally more obvious with electric sharpeners . The
collar itself is not the problem, but when the bolster extends down the
back portion of the knife toward the heel it causes the edge to ride up
during sharpening, changing the angle. Do this long enough and you'll
dish out a portion of the edge just forward of the heel and whole lot
of metal will have to be removed to get your knife back into serviceable
shape. At least one manufacturer of high end forged cutlery, Chef's
Choice, grinds its bolsters flat at the heel for this very reason. Wusthof
and Messermeister both offer lines of knives with the bolster only extending
partway down the blade back. Most machined knives either don't have
bolsters or only have a collar between the handle and blade. Either type
makes the knife much easier to sharpen. These are the only kinds of bolster
I can recommend in good conscience.
The myth of the bolster is a Convenient Fiction. Call it a feature and
claim it's a sign of quality. Clever. Luckily most professional
knife sharpeners offer a bolster reduction service. Think of it as liposuction
for your knives. It puts them back in fighting trim so they can be sharpened
and used to their full potential.
And now to the Outright Lie . . .
Sharp and Tangy
The tang is the tongue of metal that extends from the blade backwards.
It is where the handle is attached. A full tang is the same size and shape
as the handle slabs and is sandwiched between them. In direct contradiction
to nearly 9,000 years of metal knife and sword making, many knife manufacturers
claim that you absolutely must have a full tang for your knife to be any
good. You don't. A full tang is pretty, but hardly necessary, especially
not in the kitchen.
Let's look at this logically. Metal is expensive and hard to work.
You don't waste it and you don't pound it more than you have
to, at least you don't when you don't have power tools. That's
why knives and swords from the justly famous Japanese katana to the Viking
scramasax to the American Bowie knife had stick tangs or rattail tangs
hidden inside the handle. These are hard use blades, designed to cut through
rope, leather, armored people and just about anything or anyone that needed
cutting. The tang was a place to attach a handle. As long as it was long
enough to provide proper leverage, it was fine. Same with your chef's
In fact, it wasn't until after World War I that a full tang and
slab handles even became practical, much less desirable in the kitchen.
Stainless steel was introduced in England in 1914 , but it took several
years to work the kinks out (well, that and there was that pesky World
War to deal with). Until that time, and for quite a while afterward, knife
blades were made of carbon steel. Carbon steel rusts and corrodes readily.
The last thing you want is a way for moisture and goo to get inside the
handle. That's a big reason hidden tangs were de rigueur, there
was only one entrance point, the juncture between the blade and handle.
A full tang with riveted handles provides the equivalent of valet parking
all the way around the perimeter of the handle for crud to work its way
between the tang and slabs. In fact, there is a school of thought that
says the modern, injection molded handle with a hidden tang is more sanitary
for this very reason.
Unless you are planning to jack up your car or
pry open doors with your chef's knife, the tang plays little or no role
in its strength and durability. It does help establish the balance and
feel of the knife, but as we discussed with bolsters, there are many ways
to balance the knife. With modern manufacturing methods it is inexpensive
to place riveted handle slabs on a full tang. A full tang is a manufacturing
choice and a stylistic choice. If you like them, great, have at it. Just
keep in mind that any reasonably sized tang that extends at least two
thirds of the way into the handle will be fine.
If you insist on a full tang, you'll miss out on
a huge array of truly spectacular knives. Want to spend a couple of thousand
dollars on a custom made Japanese yanagiba (sashimi knife) hand forged
by a master craftsman with a 700 year history of knife making behind him?
Oops, can't do it, the yanagiba has a stick tang. Want a reasonably priced
chef's knife that won't expire if it finds its way into the dishwasher
every once in a while. Sorry. Hidden tang. You're out of luck.
The tang should be pretty far down on your list
of things to look for when choosing a knife or two to outfit your kitchen.
It might seem like I don't like traditional forged,
bolstered, full tang knives. Not true at all. I like them very much. What
I don't like is half truths that mislead the buying public into thinking
that because those features are part of a quality knife, that all quality
knives must have those features. That's like saying that because some
of the finest cars available are convertibles, any car that isn't a convertible
must be inferior. The argument just doesn't hold up. It's a big old world
out there. People's tastes and needs are different.
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Top to Bottom: Machined knife, forged
knife, stamped knife. (click on photo to englarge)
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A Bit of History
Top to Bottom: Forged chef's knife with partial bolster, forged French knife
with older style ferrule bolster and modern machined chef's knife with welded
on bolster. (click on photo to englarge)
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Full tang (click on photo to englarge)
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Stick tang (click on photo to englarge)
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Chad Ward (aka Chad) has been a writer and cook for more than twenty years. He is the author of Knife Maintenance and Sharpening, one of the eGullet Culinary Institute's most popular courses.
This excerpt from An Edge in the Kitchen is presented with the kind permission of HarperCollins Publishers and the author. Copyright © 2008 by Chad Ward; photographs copyright © 2008 by Bryan Regan and Chad Ward.