Ask the Experts: A Quick Guide to Kitchen Knives
We all know that the kitchen knife is one of the most important tools in the kitchen, but when it comes to selecting a good one for our arsenal, we are completely clueless. So who best to speak with than with Ben Lew, who’s the founder of Kitchin Tools, an online business in Singapore that carries handcrafted kitchen knives primarily forged by blacksmiths in Japan. Turns out, it’s not just about picking the sharpest tool in the shed.
Renonation: There are generally two styles of kitchen knives: German and Japanese. Which is better?
Ben: Both types of knives are great, so it comes down to individual preference. In general, German knives are manufactured very consistently, so you can get an exact replacement if you damage your knife. Because German knives are just a bit softer than Japanese knives, they are less prone to chipping, e.g. when you cut into bones. They are also less expensive and more widely available.
In contrast, Japanese knives are more unique, due to the nature of how they are forged. You have to spend a little more time to familiarise yourself with the knife but once you’ve familiarised yourself with it, you can also develop something further with it. They are harder, more prone to chipping but also sharper at the same time.
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R: How many and what type of kitchen knives should we get as a home cook?
B: Because I’m selling Japanese knives, I’ll be mostly using the Japanese terms to describe the types. But you can get a German equivalent if you prefer German knives.
If you are just starting out, a Santoku (Japanese general purpose kitchen knife) is a knife for beginner cooks. Smaller than a chef knife, they offer easy control and can handle most tasks well.
For folks who want just that one knife in the kitchen, I always recommend the versatile Gyuto (Japanese style chef knife). Great for almost every task in the kitchen, its ability only falls short of specialised knives for specific tasks.
A Gyuto knife available for sale at Kitchin Tools.
A utility/petty knife will make a good complement to either of the two knives I mentioned, if you want to get a second knife. It performs well for smaller tasks where a larger knife might feel cumbersome.
These are really all you need. But if you want more specialised knives, you can go with a Deba, which is a fish filleting knife, a bread knife for making sandwiches, a Nakiri for those who prep a lot of vegetables. If you butcher a lot of meat and bones and don’t want to damage your chef knife, get a chopper.
R: What are some factors we have to consider when selecting a kitchen knife?
B: The first factor to look out for is ease of maintenance. Stainless steel knives are good for that. The second factor would be ease of sharpening—carbon steel is a winner on that one. Sharpness is another thing to consider. Again, carbon steel wins that one. And of course, price is another factor you want to take into account.
A Santoku knife made from carbon steel, available for sale at Kitchin Tools.
As with all things in life, there are trade-offs. You might have gone for carbon steel for its sharpness, only to realise that it’s not easy to maintain. The best knife is really one that works for you. Knives that are easier to maintain generally cannot get as sharp.
R: What makes a good quality knife?
B: A good quality knife should be able to get really sharp. A sharp knife is always safer to use than a blunt knife as the latter is more likely to slip against what you are cutting. It should also able to maintain the sharpness for a long time and not lose its edge after a few cooking preparations. Finally, it should be relatively easy to sharpen well when it becomes blunt.
R: How do we keep our knife in good condition? What are some maintenance tips we can do at home?
B: Maintenance is definitely more important than most people care for, but it’s not a complicated process. Wash it after every use, and don’t put them in a dishwasher. Wipe it dry after washing. Store it in a proper knife rack/block/holder/saya. Sharpen it when needed, using a sharpening stone. You could also send it for sharpening by a professional. Carbon steel knives require more maintenance. Do wipe it down with a thin layer of food grade oil after washing and drying, and before storage. This helps to prevent rust, which has a high propensity to happen here because of Singapore’s high humidity.
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R: How do we know when it’s time to replace our knives?
B: A properly cared for good quality knife will last pretty much forever, unless you are running it through endless preparations. If you send it for sharpening occasionally, the pros there will know when it has worn down too much that it needs to be replaced. But more often than not, knives are replaced due to accidental damage. In the event of small chips, that usually can be fixed if you send it for repair.
R: Are there any brands you can recommend beginners to look at?
B: It really depends on your budget! But if you are just starting out, you probably don’t want to spend too much. I’m bringing in some lower priced Hitohira knives, which are great for beginners. Kanehide/Tojiro knives are also pretty decent offerings for their price range.
Founded by Ben Lew, Kitchin Tools (a romanisation of the Japanese word for ‘kitchen’) started as a passion for Japanese kitchen knives and cooking. The knives offered in the online store are mostly hand-forged by blacksmiths in Japan, so that no one knife is exactly the same. Each unique tool is carefully curated, ensuring that they meet the standards and demands for both the home cook and the professional chef.