The humble knife, along with the grill, smoker, and digital thermometer, are the core parts of a pitmaster’s toolkit.
You will probably amass a vast range of BBQ gadgets in your time. But, there is a good chance that none of them will see such regular use, or be as vital to your food preparation, as a good chefs knife.
Obviously you can use a knife without ever learning what about the different parts, but we think that understanding a little about how a knife is constructed will help you become a better chef.
We’ll also share some tips on what to look for when you head out to buy knives for preparing meat and barbecue.
Click to jump straight to each topic
The different parts of a kitchen knife
A first glance, a kitchen knife seems like a relatively simple thing, but they are actually deceptively complicated.
Even a standard chef’s knife has up to ten separate sections to it, and their design can have a massive effect on how the blade handles and what it is used for.
The point and tip
A knife’s point is the furthest point from the pommel of the knife, where the spine of the blade and its edge meet.
This is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the tip; however the tip is the small section of the blade that sits just before the point.
The design of a blade’s point often indicates what it is commonly used for.
Knives used for puncturing holes in things have a symmetrical spear-point, bowie-style knives have a swept-back tail-point for skinning, and a hawksbill-point increases the cutting power of smaller knives because of its curve.
Most kitchen knives have a drop-point, where the spine curves gently down towards the point, or a sheepsfoot-point, where the unsharpened spine curves down suddenly at the tip to create a knife best suited to slicing and chopping.
The edge refers to the sharpened section of the knife that runs from the point to the heel of the blade.
How this cutting edge is created is often referred to as the blade’s “grind,” and different grids have different uses:
- Hollow Grid – Hollow-ground blades have a fine ultra-shape cutting edge. A hollow-ground edge is ideal for cutting a smooth clean cut and is often found on filleting knives and chef’s knives. The downside to a hollow-ground edge is that they tend to be quite fragile and will chip if you use them for heavy chopping.
- Flat grind – Flat-ground knives are less sharp but more robust than hollow-ground blades. Meat Cleavers tend to be flat ground as it gives them the blade strength to cut through cartilage and bone.
- Serrated – Serrated blades are specifically designed to cut through tough materials as the teeth built into the blade give them additional shearing power. It is possible to find knives with a hollow grid towards the front of the blade and a serrated section towards the heel.
The spine and the heel
The spine of the knife is the unsharpened back of the blade. Having an unsharpened spine is what separates a knife from a dagger, which has an edge on each side.
The weight of the spine contributes to how delicately you can use the knife. A knife with a heavy blade is more suited for hard chopping while a knife with the weight concentrated in the handle is easier to make fine cuts with.
The heel of a knife is the widest part of the spine that usually sits just in front of the handle.
The bolster serves the dual purpose of strengthening the part of the knife where the blade meets the handle and also providing a small guard that stops you hand from slipping forward onto the edge.
A bolster is important on knives used for chopping raw meat or filleting fish as it can be pushed down on for extra leverage and helps to stop the blade slipping if your hands get slimy.
The handle of a knife, sometimes referred to as the “scales” if it is made of two pieces, can be constructed of a range of materials, from plastic to deer antler. The handles of kitchen knives sometimes come with finger grooves for extra grip.
The handle fasteners
Handle fasteners tend to come in one of two types:
- Screws – Screws need to checked and tightened regularly, as they will come loose during use. The benefit of having screws as handle fasteners is that it makes it easy to replace the handle of a knife when if it wears out.
- Rivets – Rivets tend to be a more cost-effective handle fastening and, while they don’t come loose during use in the same way as screws, they make replacing a handle a lot more complicated.
The tang is the section of the blade that extends into the handle of the knife. There are three widely used tang styles for kitchen knives:
- Full tang – A full tang extends the entire length of the handle and often protrudes out of the end in what is called a pommel. The handle of the knife is then commonly attached in two pieces, or scales, using screws or rivets. Full tang knives are the strongest and most durable blade design.
- Partial tang – Partial tangs only extend the partial length of the handle and are not as durably constructed as full tang knives. Partial tangs are often used in very delicate knives that are not used for chopping, like filleting knives.
- False/rat-trail tang – False tangs are used in cheaper knives and only extend into the handle a small amount. Some tangs, known as “rat-tail tangs” do extend the full length of the handle, but the tang itself is very thin, meaning it doesn’t add much to the durability of the blade.
The butt of the knife is the end of the handle, furthest away from the point. The butt is often curved, so the user knows the orientation of the blade by feel. If the tang sticks out of the back of the handle, this is sometimes referred to as a pommel instead of a butt.
Fixed Blade vs. Folding Knives
Most knives come in one of two designs folding or fixed-blade. As a rule, nearly all kitchen knives are fixed blade.
Folding knives are generally used when there are issues are the storage, transport or concealment of a fixed blade knife. Camping, hunting, and pocket knives often come with folding blades because they are easier to store and safer to carry.
If storage isn’t a concern for you, then fixed blade knives are almost always a superior choice when it comes to cooking and food preparation.
A full-tang fixed blade knife is far more durable than a folding knife which, because of their design, will have a partial or even no tang. This means fixed blades will last longer and you can really put them to work without worrying about the blade shearing away from the handle.
If you have the option, always go for the full-tang single blade option for your cooking knives.
What knives do I need to BBQ with?
There is a whole range of amazing knives out there, but when it comes down to it there are only three essential, knives you’ll need as a pitmaster, everything else is optional.
The boning knife
A boning knife, as the name suggests, is used for removing bones, but it’s also great for trimming away excess fat.
The blade of a boning knife tender to be long, thin, and stiff, with a hollow-grind for extra cutting power. The handle tends to be broader and thicker than a regular kitchen knife, for greater control and a firmer grip.
You’ll use you boning knife for frenching the ends of ribs, tripping down the fat cap on brisket, and removing smaller bones from chicken, fish, and game.
The Slicing Knife
The slicing knife resembles a razor-sharp palette knife, with a broad blade and a curved or entirely rounded tip. Some slicing knives have grooves in them to help the edge travel smoothly through the meat by giving the air, fats, and juices somewhere to accumulate.
You’ll generally use your slicing knife to cut larger slices of brisket or ham, but it can be used to slice just about any kind of meat.
The chef’s knife
The most versatile blade in your pitmaster’s arsenal, the chef’s knife has a long thick blade that comes to a sharp point. These knives often see a lot of hard use, so it’s best to invest in one with a full tang for added durability.
You’ll use your chef’s knife for chopping, slicing and cutting, especially cuts of meat that are too thick or gristly for your boning or slicing knife to handle.
A pitmaster’s best friend
A good set of knives will form the solid base of your pitmaster’s toolkit, so it’s always a good idea to buy the best ones you can afford.
A good full-tang fixed blade knife has the durability to do just about whatever you need it for. without needing to be replaced every few months.
With the knife knowledge this article has imparted, you now know exactly what to look for when you head out to find the perfect set of BBQ knives for you.
Do you have a particular type or brand of knife that you couldn’t BBQ without? Let us know in the comments below.