Knife Blade Manufacturing
Steel blades can be manufactured either by being forged or stamped.
- Hand forged blades are made in a multi-step process by skilled manual labor. A chunk of steel alloy is heated to a high temperature, and pounded while hot to form it. The blade is then heated above critical temperature (which varies between alloys), quenched in an appropriate liquid, and tempered to the desired hardness. Commercially, “forged” blades may receive as little as one blow from a hammer between dies, to form features such as the “bolster” in a blank. After forging and heat-treating, the blade is polished and sharpened. Forged blades are typically thicker and heavier than stamped blades, which is sometimes advantageous.
- Stamped blades are cut to shape directly from cold-rolled steel, heat-treated for strength, then ground, polished, and sharpened. Stamped blades can often, but not always, be identified by the absence of a bolster.
Type of edge
The edge of the knife can be sharpened to a cutting surface in a number of different ways. There are three main features:
- the grind – what a cross-section looks like
- the profile – whether the edge is straight or serrated, and straight, curved or recurved
- away from edge – how the blade is constructed away from the edge
Kitchen knives generally either feature a curve near the tip, as in a chef’s knife, or are straight for their entire length. The edge itself may be generally smooth (a “straight” or “clean” edge), or may be serrated or scalloped (have “teeth”) in some way. Lastly, the point may differ in shape: most common is a sharp, triangular point (as in photo), as in a chef’s knife or paring knife, though the French point (also called “Sheep’s foot”) is common in santokus, and a round point is sometimes found on long slicing knives.
- Serrated blade knives have a wavy, scalloped or saw-like blade. Serrations help when cutting things that are hard on the outside and soft on the inside (such as bread or tomatoes); the saw-like action breaks the surface more easily than anything except the very sharpest smooth blade. They are also particularly good on fibrous foods such as celery or cabbage. Serrated knives cut much better than plain-edge blade knives when dull, so they do not require frequent sharpening (some serrated blades are claimed never to need sharpening), and are sometimes used to make steak knives which do not need frequent sharpening. However, they are not readily sharpened properly by a user, requiring specialized equipment, and may never be resharpened during their useful life. Serrations are often used to improve the cutting ability of a less-expensive blade not capable of taking and keeping a sharp edge, usually having a thin, polished blade designed to minimise friction. A serrated knife is more practical for a user who is not prepared to sharpen it frequently; a well-maintained and sharpened smooth edge is keener.
Some companies have names for their own serration patterns and apply them to an entire line of knives. Examples are Cutco’s Double-D edge and Henckel’s Eversharp Pro series.
Away from the edge, a knife most simply has either a rectangular or wedge-shaped cross-section (saber grind vs. flat grind), but may also have indentations, whose purpose is to reduce adhesion of the food to the blade. This is widely found in Japanese knives, and in the West is particularly found in meat carving knives, though also in knives for soft cheese, and some use for vegetables.
These indentations take many forms:
- Granton knives have semi-circular scallops ground into the edge that alternate on either side of the knife and extend from the edge to the middle of the blade. This design was developed and patented in 1928 by Wm.Grant & Sons Ltd. A similar design, kullenschliff (kulle is Swedish for hill (or -more likely- a misspelling of the German word “Kuhle” meaning “hollow” or “deepening”); schliff meaning “cut” or grind in German), has oval scallops (kuhlen) hollowed-out of one or both sides of the blade above the edge. The Granton design is normally found on meat carving knives but have recently appeared on other types of knives, especially Western variations of the Japanese santoku. The indentations require a certain thickness, so they are more frequently used on thicker, softer blades, rather than on thin, hard ones. The design of scallop-sided blades is an attempt to ease the cutting and separation of meats, cheese, and vegetables.
- Urasuki is a common feature of Japanese kitchen knives. While Japanese kitchen knives initially appear as a simple chisel grind (flat on the side facing the food, angled on the other), the apparently flat side is subtly concave, to reduce adhesion, and, further, the apparent chisel cut of the edge is actually a small bevel, as otherwise the edge would be weakened by the concave area above.
- Holes may also be found in a blade, to reduce adhesion still further. These are most found in knives for soft cheese, which is particularly soft and sticky.
The edge of a knife gradually loses its sharpness, which can be restored by sharpening. For many types of knives (e.g., butter knives) this is not relevant. Knives with smooth edges can be sharpened by the user; knives with any form of serrated edge should ideally be sharpened with specialist equipment, although the useful life of a serrated knife can be extended by simple sharpeners, even if they damage the edge.
The handles of kitchen knives can be made from a number of different materials, each of which has advantages and disadvantages.
- Wood handles provide good grip, and most people consider them to be the most attractive. They are, however, slightly more difficult to care for as they must be cleaned more thoroughly and occasionally treated with mineral oil. Most wood handles, especially those of ordinary varnished hardwood, do not resist water well, and will crack or warp with prolonged exposure to water. They should be hand-washed for that reason.
- Plastic handles are more easily cared for than wooden handles and do not absorb microorganisms. However, plastics may also be less resistant to ultraviolet damage and may become brittle over time, resulting in cracking. Some plastics are also slippery in the hand. The material is lighter than most other materials, which may result in a knife that is off-balance or too light for some tastes.
- Composite knives are made from laminated wood composites impregnated with plastic resin. Composite handles are considered by many chefs to be the best choice because they are as easy to care for and as sanitary as plastic, they have the appearance, weight, and grip of hardwood, and are more durable than either. They often have a laminated, polished appearance, and may have intense or varied coloring.
- Stainless steel handles are the most durable of all handles, as well as the most sanitary. Many argue, however, that they are very slippery in the hand, especially when wet. To counter this, many premium knife makers make handles with ridges, bumps, or indentations to provide extra grip. One disadvantage of some all-metal handles is that knife weight usually goes up considerably, affecting the knife’s balance and increasing hand and wrist fatigue. Knife manufacturers, most notably Japan’s Global, have begun addressing this issue by producing hollow-handled knives.
Knife identification is done away from the edge of a kitchen knife. A knife most simply has either a rectangular or wedge-shaped cross-section (saber grind vs. flat grind), but may also have indentations, whose purpose is to reduce adhesion of the food to the blade. This is widely found in Japanese knives, and in the West is particularly found in meat carving knives, though also in knives for soft cheese, and some use for vegetables.
- Granton knives have semi-circular scallops ground into the edge that alternate on either side of the knife and extend from the edge to the middle of the blade. This design was developed and patented in 1928 by Wm.Grant & Sons Ltd A similar design, kullenschliff (kulle is Swedish for hill (or -more likely- a misspelling of the German word “Kuhle” meaning “hollow” or “deepening”); schliff meaning “cut” or grind in German), has oval scallops (kuhlen) hollowed-out of one or both sides of the blade above the edge. The Granton design is normally found on meat carving knives but have recently appeared on other types of knives, especially Western variations of the Japanese santoku. The indentations require a certain thickness, so they are more frequently used on thicker, softer blades, rather than on thin, hard ones. The design of scallop-sided blades is an attempt to ease the cutting and separation of meats, cheese, and vegetables. Some retailers have taken to calling these designs “hollow ground,” likely confused by the hollowness of the indentations, whereas “hollow ground” properly refers to the cross-section of the cutting edge.
- Urasuki is a common feature of Japanese kitchen knives. While Japanese kitchen knives initially appear as a simple chisel grind (flat on the side facing the food, angled on the other), the apparently flat side is subtly concave, to reduce adhesion, and, further, the apparent chisel cut of the edge is actually a small bevel, as otherwise the edge would be weakened by the concave area above.
- Holes may also be found in a blade, to reduce adhesion further. These are most found in knives for soft cheese, which is particularly soft and sticky.
A boning knife is a type of kitchen knife with a sharp point and a narrow blade. It is used in food preparation for removing the bones of poultry, meat, and fish. Generally 12 cm to 17 cm (5 to 6 ½ in) in length (although many brands, such as Samoan Cutlery, have been known to extend up to 9 ½ inches), it features a very narrow blade. Boning knives are not as thick-bladed as some of other popular kitchen or butcher knives, as this makes precision boning, especially deep cuts and holes easier. A stiff boning knife is good for boning beef and pork, but a very flexible boning knife is preferred for poultry and fish.
Some designs feature an arched blade to enhance the ease of a single-pass cut in removing fish flesh from its bones.
Serrated knives are able to cut soft bread without crushing it; one was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago by the Friedrich Dick company (Esslingen, Germany). One design was patented in the United States by Joseph E. Burns of Syracuse, New York. His knife had sections of grooves or serrations, inclined with respect to the axis of the blade, that form individual small cutting edges which were perpendicular to the blade and thus cut without the excessive normal pressure required of a scalloped blade and without the horizontal force required by positive-raked teeth that would dig into the bread like a wood saw. There were also sections of grooves with the opposite direction of inclination, separated by a section of smooth blade, and the knife thus cut cleanly in both directions in both hard and soft bread.
Bread knives are usually between 15 cm and 25 cm (6 and 10 inches).
An offset bread knife ‘doglegs’ the handle above but parallel to the blade (rather than inline with it, although some are angled), providing clearance for the user’s knuckles. This design makes it easier for the user to cut fully through the loaf without using an awkward grip, angling and ‘see-sawing’ the blade, or needing to position the knife handle over the edge of the counter or cutting board. While fairly specialized and unnecessary for most kitchens (and breads), the offset design is well-suited for high-volume/’production’ work where much bread – particularly e.g. crusty loaves of baguette-type bread – is cut regularly and/or over long periods, to reduce fatigue. An alternative seen mostly in Europe is a baguette “chopper” or “guillotine” – not properly a knife, and prone to produce more of a “crushing” cut depending on the bread – but serving the same function.
Today the butcher knife is used throughout the world in the meat processing trade. The heftier blade works well for splitting, stripping and cutting meat. The French chef’s knife is a derivation of the butcher knife, and is used as a general utility knife. Other similar meat-cutting knives include the carving knife and the cleaver. The carving knife usually is designed for slicing thin cuts of meat and often has a blunt or rounded point, with a scalloped or Granton blade to improve separation of sliced cuts of meat. The cleaver is similar to the butcher’s knife, but has a lighter and thinner blade for precision cutting.
From the late 18th century to the mid-1840s, the butcher knife was a key tool for mountain men. Simple, useful and cheap to produce, they were used for everything from skinning beaver, cutting food, self-defense, and scalping. During this time John Wilson, of Sheffield, England, was a major exporter of this type of knife to the Americans. These knives can be identified by brand markings and the stamp I. Wilson. Heavy cleavers were traditionally hung on a hook blade up for ease of access. Hook through the blade keeps the blade under control and leaves easy access to the handle when hung at chest height or a little bit higher
Carving Knife / Slicer Knife
A carving knife is a large knife (between 20 cm and 38 cm (8 and 15 inches)) that is used to slice thin cuts of meat, including poultry, roasts, hams, and other large cooked meats. A carving knife is much thinner than a chef’s knife (particularly at the spine), enabling it to carve thinner, more precise slices.
A slicing knife serves a similar function to a carving knife, although it is generally longer and narrower. Slicers may have plain or serrated edges. Such knives often incorporate blunted or rounded tips, and feature kullenschliff (Swedish/German: “hill-sharpened”) or Granton edge (scalloped blades) to improve meat separation. Slicers are designed to precisely cut smaller and thinner slices of meat, and are normally more flexible to accomplish this task. As such, many cooks find them better suited to slicing ham, roasts, fish, or barbecued beef and pork and venison.
In cooking, a chef’s knife, also known as a cook’s knife, is a cutting tool used in food preparation. The chef’s knife was originally designed primarily to slice and disjoint large cuts of beef. Today it is the primary general-utility knife for most western cooks.
A chef’s knife generally has a blade eight inches (20 centimeters) in length and 1 1⁄2 inches (3.8 cm) in width, although individual models range from 6 to 14 inches (15 to 36 centimetres) in length. There are two common types of blade shape in western chef’s knives, French and German. German-style knives are more deeply and continuously curved along the whole cutting edge; the French style has an edge that is straighter until the end and then curves up to the tip.
The Chinese chef’s knife is completely different and resembles a cleaver.
A modern chef’s knife is a multi-purpose knife designed to perform well at many differing kitchen tasks, rather than excelling at any one in particular. It can be used for mincing, slicing, and chopping vegetables, slicing meat, and disjointing large cuts.
Chef’s knives are made with blades that are either forged or stamped:
- Forged: A hand forged blade is made in a multi-step process by skilled manual labor. A blank of steel is heated to a high temperature, and beaten to shape the steel. After forging, the blade is ground and sharpened. Forged knives are usually also full-tang, meaning the metal in the knife runs from the tip of the knifepoint to the far end of the handle. Commercially made forged knives are struck in a power hammer to produce features such as the bolster.
- Stamped: A stamped blade is cut to shape directly from cold rolled steel, heat-treated for strength and temper, then ground, sharpened, and polished.
The blade of a chef’s knife is typically made of carbon steel, stainless steel, a laminate of both metals, or ceramic:
- Carbon steel: An alloy of iron and approximately 1% carbon. Most carbon steel chef’s knives are simple carbon iron alloys without exotic additions such as chrome or vanadium. Carbon steel blades are both easier to sharpen than ordinary stainless steel and usually hold an edge longer, but are vulnerable to rust and stains. Some professional cooks swear by knives of carbon steel because of their sharpness. Over time, a carbon-steel knife will normally acquire a dark patina, and can rust or corrode if not cared for properly by cleaning and lubricating the blade after use. Some chefs also ‘rest’ their carbon-steel knives for a day after use in order to restore the oxidizing patina, which prevents transfer of metallic tastes to some foods. While some cooks prefer and use carbon steel knives (especially in Asia and the Middle East), others find carbon steel too maintenance-intensive in a kitchen environment.
- Stainless steel: An alloy of iron, approximately 10-15% of chromium, nickel, or molybdenum, with only a small amount of carbon. Lower grades of stainless steel cannot take as sharp an edge as good-quality high-carbon steels, but are resistant to corrosion, and are inexpensive. Higher grade and ‘exotic’ stainless steels (mostly from Japan) are extremely sharp with excellent edge retention, and equal or outperform carbon steel blades.
- Laminated: A laminated knife tries to use the best of each material by creating a layered sandwich of different materials—for instances, using a softer-but-tough steel as the backing material, and a sharper/harder – but more brittle – steel as the edge material.
- Ceramic blades hold an edge the longest of all, but they chip easily and may break if dropped. They also require special equipment and expertise to resharpen. They are sintered to shape with zirconium oxide powder. They are chemically nonreactive, so will not discolor or change the taste of food.
Handles are made of wood, steel, or synthetic/composite materials.
The edge may be ground in different ways:
- Double grind, V-shape, single or double Bevel.
- Convex edge.
- Single grind or chisel edge.
In order to improve the chef’s knife’s multi-purpose abilities, some owners employ differential sharpening along the length of the blade. The fine tip, used for precision work such as mincing, might be ground with a very sharp, acute cutting bevel; the midsection or belly of the blade receives a moderately sharp edge for general cutting, chopping and slicing, while the heavy heel or back of the cutting edge is given a strong, thick edge for such heavy-duty tasks as disjointing beef.
Technique for the use of a chef’s knife is an individual preference. For more precise control, most cooks prefer to grip the blade itself, with the thumb and the index finger grasping the blade just to the front of the finger guard and the middle finger placed just opposite, on the handle side of the finger guard below the bolster. This is commonly referred to as a “pinch grip”. Those without culinary training often grip the handle, with all four fingers and the thumb gathered underneath.
For fine slicing, the handle is raised up and down while the tip remains in contact with the cutting board and the cut object is pushed under the blade.
|A||Point:||The very end of the knife, which is used for piercing|
|B||Tip:||The first third of the blade (approximately), which is used for small or delicate work. Also known as belly or curve when curved, as on a chef’s knife.|
|C||Edge:||The entire cutting surface of the knife, which extends from the point to the heel. The edge may be beveled or symmetric.|
|D||Heel:||The rear part of the blade, used for cutting activities that require more force|
|E||Spine:||The top, thicker portion of the blade, which adds weight and strength|
|F||Bolster:||The thick metal portion joining the handle and the blade, which adds weight and balance|
|G||Finger Guard:||The portion of the bolster that keeps the cook’s hand from slipping onto the blade|
|H||Choil:||The point where the heel meets the bolster|
|J||Tang:||The portion of the metal blade that extends into the handle, giving the knife stability and extra weight|
|K||Scales:||The two portions of handle material (wood, plastic, composite, etc.) that are attached to either side of the tang|
|L||Rivets:||The metal pins (usually 3) that hold the scales to the tang|
|M||Handle Guard:||The lip below the butt of the handle, which gives the knife a better grip and prevents slipping|
|N||Butt:||The terminal end of the handle|
Chinese Chef Knife
A Chinese chef’s knife — sometimes referred to as a Caidao, which literally mean “vegetable knife”, “Chinese cleaver” or “chopper”— is the rectangular-bladed, all-purpose knife traditionally used in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and many other Asian countries to prepare a variety of meats, fish, and vegetables. The popularity of this style of knife has spread with the associated cuisines. They resemble Western cleavers in appearance, but most Chinese chef’s knives are relatively thin-bladed and designed for slicing, chopping, and mincing vegetables, fish, and boneless meats. Heavier Gudao or bone knives are produced and are used much like Western-type meat cleavers to prepare large sides of beef, pork, and other boned meats. However, Chinese-style knives of this weight are not common in the West.
Caidao or so-called ‘Chinese cleaver’ is not a cleaver, and most manufacturers warn that it should not be used as a cleaver. It is more properly referred to as a Chinese chef’s knife and is actually a general-purpose knife, analogous to the French chef’s knife or the Japanese santoku. The confusion arises from the fact that Chinese chef’s knives are rectangular and that some (particularly older, traditional knives made of carbon steel) have somewhat heavy blades. Also, the fact that the blade is heavier toward the tip encourages skilled Chinese chefs to use a swinging or “tapping” stroke as well as a “pushing” stroke. However, the edge has the gradual bevel of a chef’s knife and will most probably be damaged if used for splitting bone. Actual cleavers in China have the same profile as chef’s knives but have much thicker blades with a sharp bevel and heavier handles.
Modern Chinese knives are sold under three general classifications throughout China: Caidao (slicers), choppers and Gudao (cleavers). The general distinction lies in the thickness of the blade. Choppers are the most common all-purpose Chinese knife. Choppers have thicker blades than slicers but are not as thick and heavy as cleavers. Choppers are used for slicing, chopping and mincing meat, vegetables and herbs. Choppers are suitable for chopping through thin soft bones such as fish and poultry. Slicers, referred to as Caidao (vegetable knives) by the Chinese have the thinnest and sharpest blades. Slicers may have the same shape as choppers or they may have less width and appear similar to Japanese Nakiri knives. Slicers are used for cutting vegetables, mincing herbs and slicing thin strips of meat for stir frying. The thin blade makes slicers unsuitable for chopping any bones. Cleavers, which are referred to as bone choppers by the Chinese have thick heavy blades. In Chinese homes, cleavers are typically used for chopping up pork ribs or for preparing hard-shelled seafood such as lobsters.
The average Chinese home uses some variation of the rectangular-bladed knife, usually around 18 cm to 28 cm (7–11 inches) in length. Traditional knives had a simply-forged, carbon steel blade with a long, ground bevel, but the typical Chinese chef’s knife is now a stamped blade. The traditional handle is a full-length tang that is only about 1 or 2 cm wide, which is passed through a metal cap, then through the center of a round, wood dowel, then bent over and hammered into the end of the handle to retain it. Newer models, particularly those made in Japan or Germany, have full-width tangs and riveted or injection-molded handles, but these handles generally retain something of the traditional, round cross-section. The wide blade of Caidao keeps the cook’s fingers well off the cutting surface and the round handle gives a nice “pivot point” for the cutting stroke. The blade has a curvature or rocker along its edge that is generally uniform, improving the knife’s ability to chop and mince meats and vegetables. The broad rectangular blade also serves to scoop up chopped food for transport to the wok or bowl. Although it may seem unwieldy, skilled practitioners worldwide may be observed using this style of knife for everything — even carving and fine work normally accomplished with a paring knife.
Cheese is varied and often challenging to cut. Accordingly, various styles of cheese knives and cheese cutting utensils have been developed. A wire, rather than a knife, is often used to cut cheese.
Soft cheese knives are specially designed for slicing soft cheese. They generally have holes in the blade to prevent the cheese from sticking. Wire cheese cutters are also used.
Hard cheese knives are specially designed for slicing hard cheese. They are sharp, so they can cut exact slices, and often have a forked tip, allowing them to be used as a serving utensil as well. Cheese slicers are also used.
Parmesan cheese knives are specially designed for portioning very hard cheeses. They have very short, thick blades that are forced into the cheese and then used as a lever to break off smaller portions. (Slicing hard cheese is considered improper by connoisseurs, since the cheese – when broken apart – has more surface area, and thus more air contact, which strengthens the apparent scent and taste of the cheese.)
A meat cleaver is a large, most often rectangular knife that is used for splitting or “cleaving” meat and bone. A cleaver may be distinguished from a kitchen knife of similar shape by the fact that it has a heavy blade that is thick from the spine to quite near the edge. The edge is sharply beveled and the bevel is typically convex. The knife is designed to cut with a swift stroke without cracking, splintering or bending the blade. Many cleavers have a hole in the end to allow them to be easily hung on a rack. Cleavers are an essential tool for any restaurant that prepares its own meat. The cleaver most often found in a home knife set is a light-duty cleaver about 6 in (15 cm) long. Heavy cleavers with much thicker blades are often found in the trade.
A “lobster splitter” is a light-duty cleaver used mainly for shellfish and fowl which has the profile of a chef’s knife. The Chinese chef’s knife is sometimes called a “Chinese cleaver”, due to the rectangular blade, but it is unsuitable for cleaving, its thin blade instead designed for slicing; actual Chinese cleavers are heavier and similar to Western cleavers.
A cleaver is most popularly known as butcher knife which is the commonly used by chefs for cutting big slices of meat and poultry.
- Carbon steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, often including other elements such as vanadium and manganese. Carbon steel commonly used in knives has around 1.0% carbon (ex. AISI 1095), is inexpensive, and holds its edge well. Carbon steel is normally easier to resharpen than many stainless steels, but is vulnerable to rust and stains. The blades should be cleaned, dried, and lubricated after each use. New carbon-steel knives may impart a metallic or “iron” flavour to acidic foods, though over time, the steel will acquire a patina of oxidation which will prevent corrosion. Good carbon steel will take a sharp edge, but is not so hard as to be difficult to sharpen, unlike some grades of stainless steel.
- Stainless steel is an alloy of iron, approximately 10–15% chromium, possibly nickel, and molybdenum, with only a small amount of carbon. Typical stainless steel knives are made of 420 stainless, a high-chromium stainless steel alloy often used in flatware. Stainless steel may be softer than carbon steel, but this makes it easier to sharpen. Stainless steel knives resist rust and corrosion better than carbon steel knives.
- High carbon stainless steel is a stainless steel alloy with a relatively high amount of carbon compared to other stainless alloys. For example, AISI grade 420 stainless steel normally contains 0.15% by weight of carbon, but the 420HC variant used for cutlery has 0.4% to 0.5%. The increased carbon content is intended to provide the best attributes of carbon steel and ordinary stainless steel. High carbon stainless steel blades do not discolour or stain, and maintain a sharp edge for a reasonable time. Most ‘high-carbon’ stainless blades are made of more expensive alloys than less-expensive stainless knives, often including amounts of molybdenum, vanadium, cobalt, and other components intended to increase strength, edge-holding, and cutting ability.
- Laminated blades combine the advantages of a hard, but brittle steel which will hold a good edge but is easily chipped and damaged, with a tougher steel less susceptible to damage and chipping, but incapable of taking a good edge. The hard steel is sandwiched (laminated) and protected between layers of the tougher steel. The hard steel forms the edge of the knife; it will take a more acute grind than a less hard steel, and will stay sharp longer.
- Titanium is lighter and more wear-resistant, but not harder than steel. However it is more flexible than steel. Titanium does not impart any flavour to food. It is typically expensive and not well suited to cutlery.
- Ceramic knives are very hard, made from sintered zirconium dioxide, and retain their sharp edge for a long time. They are light in weight, do not impart any taste to food and do not corrode. Suitable for slicing fruit, vegetables and boneless meat. Ceramic knives are best used as a specialist kitchen utensil. Recent manufacturing improvements have made them less brittle. Because of their hardness and brittle edges, sharpening requires special techniques.
- Plastic blades are usually not very sharp and are mainly used to cut through vegetables without causing discolouration. They are not sharp enough to cut deeply into flesh, but can cut or scratch skin.
Cutlery includes any hand implement used in preparing, serving, and especially eating food in Western culture. A person who makes or sells cutlery is called a cutler. The city of Sheffield in England has been famous for the production of cutlery since the 17th century and a train – the Master Cutler – running from Sheffield to London was named after the industry. Bringing affordable cutlery to the masses, stainless steel was developed in Sheffield in the early 20th century.
Cutlery is more usually known as silverware or flatware in the United States, where cutlery usually means knives and related cutting instruments. Although the term silverware is used irrespective of the material composition of the utensils, the term tableware has come into use to avoid the implication that they are made of silver.
The major items of cutlery in Western culture are the knife, fork and spoon. In recent times, hybrid versions of cutlery have been made combining the functionality of different eating implements, including the spork (spoon / fork), spife (spoon / knife), and knork (knife / fork) or the sporf which combines all three.
The word cutler derives from the Middle English word ‘cuteler’ and this in turn derives from Old French ‘coutelier’ which comes from ‘coutel’; meaning knife (modern French: couteau). The word’s early origins can be seen in the Latin word ‘culter’ (knife).
Sterling silver is the traditional material from which good quality cutlery is made. Historically, silver had the advantage over other metals of being less chemically reactive. Chemical reactions between certain foods and the cutlery metal can lead to unpleasant tastes. Gold is even less reactive than silver, but the use of gold cutlery was confined to the exceptionally wealthy, such as monarchs.
Steel was always used for more utilitarian knives, and pewter was used for some cheaper items, especially spoons. From the nineteenth century, electroplated nickel silver (EPNS) was used as a cheaper substitute for sterling silver.
In 1913, the British metallurgist Harry Brearley discovered stainless steel by chance, bringing affordable cutlery to the masses. This metal has come to be the predominant one used in cutlery. An alternative is melchior, corrosion-resistant nickel and copper alloy, which can also sometimes contain manganese and nickel-iron.
Plastic cutlery is made for disposable use, and is frequently used outdoors for camping, excursions, and barbecues for instance. Plastic cutlery is also commonly used at fast-food or take-away outlets and provided with airline meals in economy class. Plastic is also used for children’s cutlery. It is often thicker and more durable than disposable plastic cutlery.
Wooden disposable cutlery is available as a popular biodegradable alternative. Bamboo and maple wood are a few popular choice of wood.
Edible cutlery is made from dried grains. These are made primarily with rice, millets or wheat. Since rice cultivation needs a lot of water, manufacturers market millet based products as more environment friendly. The batter is baked in moulds which hardens it. Some manufacturers offer an option of flavoured cutlery. Edible cutlery decomposes in about a week if disposed.
A decorating knife is any knife with a blade designed to make a decorative cut. The most common pattern is a simple zigzag. Decorating knives are used for making fancy cuts for garnishes and presentation.
Fillet knives are like very flexible boning knives that are used to fillet and prepare fish. They have blades about 15 cm to 28 cm (6 to 11 inches) long, allowing them to move easily along the backbone and under the skin of fish.
Usually about 5 cm to 10 cm (2 to 4 inches) long, a fluting knife has a small blade that is very straight. Fluting knives are ideal for small tasks such as decorating and peeling.
A grapefruit knife has a long, fat, dull blade that is used to separate the flesh of a grapefruit from the peel and inner membranes. The blade is usually serrated, with a blunt tip. Some knives even have a different blade style on each end of the handle – one for the inner membrane, one for the peel – and some have a double blade at the inner membrane end, to cut on both sides of the membrane.
The Santoku has a straighter edge than a chef’s knife, with a blunted sheepsfoot-tip blade and a thinner spine, particularly near the point. From 12 cm to 18 cm (5 to 7 inches) long, a Japanese Santoku is well-balanced, normally flat-ground, and generally lighter and thinner than its Western counterparts. This construction allows the knife to more easily slice thin-boned and boneless meats, fish, and vegetables. Many subsequent Western and Asian copies of the Japanese Santoku do not always incorporate these features, resulting in reduced cutting ability. Some Western Santoku-pattern knives are even fitted with kullen/kuhlen, scallops on the sides of the blade above the edge, in an attempt to reduce the sticking of foods and reduce cutting friction. A standard in Asian (especially Japanese) kitchens, the santoku and its Western copies have become very popular in recent years with chefs in Europe and the United States.
Similar to the nakiri bocho, the style differs slightly between Tokyo and Osaka. In Osaka, the yanagi ba has a pointed end, whereas in Tokyo the tako hiki has a rectangular end. The tako hiki is usually used to prepare octopus. A fugu hiki is similar to the yanagi ba, except that the blade is thinner. As the name indicates, the fugu hiki is traditionally used to slice very thin fugu sashimi.
The length of the knife is suitable to fillet medium-sized fish. For very large fish such as tuna, longer specialized knives exist, for example the almost two-meter long oroshi hocho, or the slightly shorter hancho hocho.
Nakiri bocho and usuba bocho are Japanese-style vegetable knives. They differ from the deba bocho in their shape, as they have a straight blade edge suitable for cutting all the way to the cutting board without the need for a horizontal pull or push. These knives are also much thinner. While the deba bocho is a heavy blade for easy cutting through thin bones, the blade is not suitable for chopping vegetables, as the thicker blade can break the vegetable slice. The nakiri bocho and the usuba bocho have much thinner blades, and are used for cutting vegetables.
Nakiri bocho are knives for home use, and usually have a black blade. The shape of the nakiri bocho differs according to the region of origin, with knives in the Tokyo area being rectangular in shape, whereas the knives in the Osaka area have a rounded corner on the far blunt side. The cutting edge is angled from both sides, called ryoba in Japanese. This makes it easier to cut straight slices.
Usuba bocho are vegetable knives used by professionals. They differ from the Nakiri bocho in the shape of the cutting edge. While the nakiri bocho is sharpened from both sides, the usuba bocho is sharpened only from one side, a style known as kataba in Japanese. The highest quality kataba blades even have a slight depression on the flat side. This kataba style edge gives better cuts and allows for the cutting of thinner slices than the ryoba used for nakiri bocho, but requires more skill to use. The sharpened side is usually the right side for a right hand use of the knife, but knives sharpened on the left side are also available for left hand use. The usuba bocho is also slightly heavier than a nakiri bocho, although still much lighter than a deba bocho.
Usuba knives are Japanese knives used primarily for chopping vegetables. Both the spine and edge are straight, making them resemble cleavers, though they are much lighter.
Deba knives are Japanese knives used primarily for cutting fish. They have blades that are 18 cm to 30 cm (7 to 12 inches) long with a curved spine.
Also known as a Mezzaluna (Italian: “half moon”) because of the shape, a mincing knife is a semicircular highly curved blade with a handle that allows the blade to be rocked back and forth repeatedly on a hard surface. This rocking motion is ideal for mincing and chopping. Some mincing knives are supplied with a wooden cutting board with a circular bowl-shaped indentation that matches the curvature of the knife. Some models have two blades that are parallel to each other to increase their mincing power.
Large mezzaluna-like knives with shallow curves are sometimes used to cut pizza, though the rolling pizza cutter is more common for this purpose.
An oyster knife has a short, thick blade that is used to pry open oysters and separate their meat from the shell (shucking). Some models have a shield built into the handle that prevents the knife (and hand) from slipping and going too far into the shell. The handle is normally thick and short, with a bulbous end.
Some notable styles include:
- French: This has a straight, thin blade suited to Ostrea edulis, a common oyster in France.
- Providence: This type is long and narrow.
- New Haven: The blade is fairly wide and blunt. The tip is angled upward.
A tomato knife is a small serrated kitchen knife designed to slice through tomatoes. The serrated edge allows the knife to penetrate the tomatoes’ skin quickly and with a minimum of pressure without crushing the flesh. Many tomato knives have forked tips that allow the user to lift and move the tomato slices after they have been cut.
Serrations are not required to cut tomatoes – a sharp straight blade works – but the serrations allow the knife to cut tomatoes and other foods even when dull. The reason for this being most of the cutting takes place in the serrations themselves. Some knives have serrations on both sides allowing easy slicing for both left-handed and right-handed users. Bread knives and steak knives are similarly serrated.