Do I ever have egg on my face! For years, I have been extolling the virtues of the butcher knife for culinary purposes. No kitchen is complete without one of these knives; or so I thought. Just today, after years of pestering my sister about the lack of a butcher knife in her kitchen, it came to a head. “What is a butcher knife,” she asked. After several minutes of stammering and inept attempts at mime resulting only in bruised knuckles, I turned to the Internet. It was then that I saw just how ill-defined a term “butcher knife” is. Just check out the image on the left.
The dictionary definitions are especially useless in this matter. For example, Dictionary.com defines a butcher knife as: “a large, very sharp knife for cutting or trimming meat”—somehow the modifier “very sharp” doesn’t seem to make sense; is there an “idiot’s knife”, defined as “a large, very dull knife for kitchen accidents”? Typical of a dictionary: unhelpful in practical matters.
Most butcher knives do look very much like the knives that I have always used. In fact, most people would say that the image above looks more like a cleaver and that the following image is a butcher knife:
But this is not a butcher knife; it is a chef’s knife. (Note how the former refers to the verb rather than the noun butcher—interesting, don’t you think?) This is what I have always thought of as a butcher knife. In point of fact, I have always thought that a butcher knife was any large, relatively triangularly shaped knife that allows one to chop ingredients without bumping one’s knuckles on the counter top. Now I know better.
Even with a chef’s knife, one can get into trouble. There are two kinds of chef’s knives: German and French. (This is amusing when one knows that the chef’s knife is often referred to as the French Knife. Thus, one might be using a German French knife or a French French knife. Imagine the problems the owner of the latter would have had at the start of the Iraq War: “No, no. It’s a Freedom Freedom knife.”) The German version—pictured above—has a rounder tip, so that it can be used more easily with a “rocking” cut: up and down. The French version is straighter and is used by pulling the knife toward the chef’s body: back and forth.
There is a Japanese knife called a Santoku, which I have called a butcher knife during my ignorant youth (that is, before about noon today).
It differs from the Chef’s Knife, primarily by having a straight edge—it is closer to the French Chef’s Knife. In general, I have not liked these knives as much. However, I have learned (thanks to a brief, unreferenced article on Wikipedia) that these knives are particularly good for people with small hands. Also: a skilled chef may do more precise cutting with the Santoku. As a result, I believe my past displeasure stems from unfamiliarity. The next knife I buy will be a Santoku. And, of course, I will write about it here. (Can you stand the excitement?)
It has been over a year since I wrote this. During this time period I have used several Santoku knives. The result: I’ve given up on them. I have small hands, and yet, I do not find them particular good. I just don’t find them useful. A chef’s knife, a paring knife, a bread knife: all of these are essential. It is never the case that I need a Santoku. In fact, I only use my Santoku when everything else is dirty and I need a knife for something I could just as easily do with a steak knife.