Getting to know your kitchen knives

Words: David Cope

The history of knives goes all the way back to the stone age, when knife-like tools were fashioned from rocks, but the history of kitchen knives in use today has more to do with sword-making than hunter-gathering. The techniques developed to create modern swords were the foundation for knife-making and in this regard, it is Germany and Japan that have played the biggest role.

Kitchen Knives

Solingen in Germany, known as the “City of Blades,” and Seki in Japan both had the necessary iron, coal, wood and flowing water to become a metal-working centres and capitals of sword production. Today Solingen is home to quality brands like Wüsthof and J. A. Henckels while similarly Seki is home to Kai Shun and other popular Japanese brands.

Techniques used in the two countries are different and have resulted in unique styles of knives. German steel is traditionally known for being a bit heavier and tougher while Japanese steel known for being lighter and sharper. German knives tend to be sharpened with an even-angled blade while Japanese sharpened so one side of the blade is steeper. While German knives have also been curved to allow the rocking chopping motion, Japanese knives have straighter edges for slicing, more suited to sushi and other detailed kitchen work.

Today’s cooks combine techniques and ingredients from cuisines around the world, thus many of today’s knives marry the benefits of both styles. Knives that can be heavily weighted yet perfectly sharp, knives that possess new shapes and materials. Aside from your basic chefs knife, there are knives for almost every purpose, each designed to make the job of cutting, slicing, peeling or chopping easier for the modern cook.

Here’s a selection picked out by Liam Tomlin from Chefs Warehouse & Cookery School, which aside from various cookery courses also offers a regular course on knife techniques.

Cheese knife
 The perforated blade allows this knife to slice easily through soft cheeses and transfer slices to a plate without sticking to the steel. Just the sort of thing you’ll want on hand going into winter. That and a bottle of Port or two. Wusthof Classic Cheese Knife 14cm.

Oyster knife
A very specific knife with no other purpose than opening, you guessed it, oysters. The short sturdy blade and solid handle make it perfect to prise open the hard shells of each oyster while reducing risk of accident. Anyone who’s stabbed their own hand with a knife while opening oysters knows how painful this is. Jean Dubost Oyster Knife.

Pairing knife
Small knife that comes into its own for those precise jobs like peeling, mincing and finely dicing ingredients, particularly smaller sized ones. After your classic chefs knife, perhaps the most useful other kitchen knife you can have. Tramontina Paring knives.

Chef’s knife
The essential general-purpose kitchen knife, something any cook should be unable to live without. The sturdy spine (blunt side of blade) is useful for breaking shellfish, the shape of the knife and blade works well for most chopping methods and is also wide enough to crush ingredients. You can’t call yourself a cook if you don’t have on of these. Wusthof Classic Chef’s Knife 23cm.

Japanese vegetable knife
A light cleaver of sorts, this is a comfortable and easy-to-use knife. The dimensions, while not heavy, definitely make it convenient to methodically chop vegetables, something especially useful if you’re cooking for large numbers.

Boning knife
The thin but rigid blade on this knife tapers thicker towards the handle, perfect for boning meat and removing sinew and fat, ideally using a dagger-like motion. Any aspiring butchers would do well to get their hands on one. Global 16cm.

Filleting knife
Like the name says, a knife perfect for filleting fish. The flexible blade bends to fit around curved fish fillets and bones to make it easy to pick the bones out and cut the meat away. Kai Shun Utility 15cm

Chefs Warehouse & Cookery School
92 Bree Street, Cape Town

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