Hilde Lee: Kitchen knives have a long history of usefulness and technological progress - The Daily Progress: Dining Events

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hilde Lee: Kitchen knives have a long history of usefulness and technological progress

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Posted: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 6:00 am

Over the past few weeks of moving and unpacking my kitchen equipment, I came across many gadgets I had rarely or even never used.  Do I toss them out or stick them back in a drawer never to be used or seen again? Well, I am still debating. 

One set of kitchen tools I will not discard is my knives.  I have a number of them for various tasks -– paring, slicing, boning -- and the general-utility chef’s knife.  The smaller one is for me, and the larger one is for Allan when he slices meats.

Knives have been around for a long, long time, but before knives, there were small stones or pebbles used for butchering game.  Striking one stone with another to flake off fragments, which had crude cutting edges, sharpened the first tools for cutting food. These have been found in archeological digs in Kenya and Tanzania dating back 2.5 million years.

Later in prehistory, man improved his methods of making stone tools. A soft instrument of bone was used to chip off pieces of rocks and turn these pieces into axes, cleavers and chisels.  Stones also were worked so that they would have serrated edges.  

We have come a long way from pebble choppers of the Stone Age to the various knives that are used in the home daily.  However, to go back in culinary knife history, we need to understand iron and its derivatives.  Iron is the fourth most common chemical element and usually is found as an ore.

Metalworking -- and the making of knives -- is less than 10,000 years old.  At first, metals were considered so rare and valuable that they were used only for ceremonial equipment, weapons and ornaments.

The great metallurgical breakthrough came with the invention of iron refining about 4,000 years ago. Refining separates iron form the other elements in the ore, resulting in crude or cast iron.  When molten, it can be poured or cast into a form mold and, when cool, retains the shape of the mold.  These forms included cooking vessels and even knife blades.

By the Middle Ages, in Europe, people were carrying short swords or daggers. They brought them to the table to use for spearing and cutting up cooked foods.  But in early 1600, table knives, probably invented by a craftsman who wanted to expand his sales, came into fashion.

The disadvantages of iron knives were that they rusted easily and shattered when used on tough jobs.  To eliminate these disadvantages, iron was refined and made into steel with the addition of other elements. Rust resistance finally came with the more recent invention of alloys such as nickel steel and aluminum steel. The most rust-resistant and strongest stainless steel was developed in England. A knife is only as good as the metal in its blade.

A knife blade, especially along its cutting edge, is very thin, since thinness is what makes sharpness. Grinding makes this thin strip of metal strong; otherwise, the thin edge could curl and bend. Grinding also aligns the chains of molecules to give the knife blade strength.  Looking at a good knife blade, one should be able to see the grinding marks all along the blade at right angles to the cutting edge.

There are three basic categories of knives, according to function  -- chopping, butchering, and slicing and cutting.  The smaller paring and utility knives overlap both the chopping and slicing categories.  

Minimally, one can do with a good chef’s knife and one paring knife.  A more complete “wardrobe of knives” would consist of several paring knives in different lengths, one good chef’s knife, one slicing knife, one boning knife and one serrated-blade knife about 8 inches long for slicing bread and tomatoes.

Do not put your knives in the dishwasher.  Dishwashing machines can ruin a good knife because of the effect of heat on the steel blade, constantly subjected to repeated alternations of heating and cooling.


There are three parts to a knife – the blade, the handle, and the tang.

Knife handles are usually made of wood -- raw, or stained and varnished.  They also can be made of plastic, very hard rubber, or sometimes, solid stainless steel.  I have a set of steak knives that are made of one piece of stainless steel, as are their accompanying carving knives.

Brazilian rosewood is preferred for knife handles because it does not have a straight grain.  It is a hard wood whose grain goes in all directions, resisting cracking and splitting.  Also, it is a tacky or sticky wood, which gives it a naturally nonslip surface that actually improves with use.  This is a plus, since often our hands are wet or greasy when using a cutting knife.

When buying a kitchen knife, it is a good idea to avoid slick, shiny plastic handles, as they will attract grease and slip out of your hand.  Some time back, there was talk of a law stating that all butcher’s knives must have plastic handles for sanitary purposes.

The tang is the part of the blade extending into and attached to the inside of the handle.  It usually can be seen sandwiched between the two halves of the handle. The thickest part of the blade or tang shows the quality and thickness of the blank of steel from which the knife was made.

Most chefs’ knives have a full tang.  The impact of chopping vibrates all through the blade. Thus, the blade must be firmly anchored at the handle end.  The weighty tang balances the long, heavy blade and increases the power of your movements.  The blades are 7 to 13 inches and vary in weight.  The size of the blade should be in proportion to the task.  Big, heavy knives require less energy –- the weight does the job.

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