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One of the most common and widely used kitchen utensils is the knife. Behind a simplicity of form and a versatility beyond compare lies a number of amazingly interesting and curious facts.
1 One single knife is all a chef needs. Not surprisingly, it is called just that, “chef’s knife”, and its use is universal, despite the dozens of different models that fill the shelves of specialist stores. After all, its versatility depends on precisely defined characteristics: a length ranging between 8 and 10 inches and a width from 1.5 to 2 inches. Then, each country has applied its own minor variations. The German chef’s knife, for instance, is curved along the entire length of the blade. The French version, on the other hand, has a straight blade which is only rounded at the tip. The “gyuto” Japanese model is similar to the French knife, but much sharper.
2 The maximum percentage of carbon contained in a good chef’s knife. The steel blade is actually an alloy mainly consisting of iron and, as you would expect, carbon. The latter only represents a small percentage: the more there is, the softer the blade.
52 This is the number identifying the typical hardness of a chef’s knife.
Why is hardness so important? Because, there is no scale of sharpness for knives (which can obviously be sharpened to a greater or lesser degree), so this is the parameter to bear in mind. The most widespread measurement system for knives is the Rockwell rating. In actual fact, it is more correct to speak of a 'scale' because there are many of them, even though, in the case of knives the 'C' scale is generally used, expressed in units of HRC (High Carbon Steel).
Without going into boring technicalities, an HRC value in the 52-58 range indicates a “soft” blade, a blade with a rating between 59 and 60 is of medium hardness, while elevated hardness is indicated by a rating in the range of 59 and 60. The latter will generally cut more effectively but it has the disadvantage of being excessively brittle, and therefore fragile. Very fragile. This is why a blade of this kind is to be found on short-bladed knives or for kitchen knives destined for very expert hands. It takes very little indeed to snap or chip a blade of this kind!
A medium hardness is normally preferred for the blade of a chef's knife. Soft blades on the other hand are ideal for butchers’ meat cleavers or axes, even though the addition of other metals can make them perfect even for making sushi.
1084 This is a typical code indicating the composition of a blade, which is generally stamped on the blade itself or indicated on the packaging. In this case, 1084 indicates a carbon percentage of 0.84%. This value, by the way, is one of the most commonly used, together with 1095 (can you guess? 0.95% carbon).
In actual fact, these values are somewhat indicative: a 1074, for instance has a nominal carbon percentage of 0.74% but the actual percentage may vary between 0.70 and 0.80. These alloys provide us with blades that are rather versatile and easy to use, even for less experienced cooks.
52100 is a type of steel that is almost mythological, with a carbon percentage ranging between 0.98 and 1.1%. Soft, therefore, but enhanced by a high percentage of chrome (between 1.3 and 1.6%) and a hint of manganese (between 0.24 and 0.45%). Owing to the composition of this steel, it looks somewhat rough but this is a feature that sends connoisseurs into ecstasy, who choose it because such blades are hand made by skilled craftsmen. Obviously, a hand crafted knife of this kind also comes with a price attached, which can even exceed 500 dollars.
89,000 this is the price in dollars of the most expensive chef’s knife in the world. We refer to the Nesmuk Jahrhundertmesser. Hand forged (of course), it has a 5,000 year old oak handle and decorative trims in platinum and diamonds.