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Handle, tang, bolster, blade: that is how a knife is made

There's more to a kitchen knife than a sharp edge. Look for these basics before you buy.

-Handle: Is the handle a clunky piece of hardwood or a sleek piece of rosewood? Or do you prefer a synthetic handle, something a little more ergonomic? The choice can often be personal, and it's not simply a matter of price. Wood has a natural warmth, but actual shaping is limited by the process of mass production. Synthetic handles won't crack and often have the feel of custom-made cutlery. And you'll want to take the size of your hand into account: a small hand will quickly tire of a hefty handle.

-Tang: The tang is the extension of the blade to which the handle is attached with rivets. If the tang doesn't pass through the entire handle, look for another knife--or start saving for an upgrade. The full tang is where you get the weight, balance, and stability of a high-quality knife. The best knife manufacturers use full tangs in all their knives, large and small.

-Bolster: The thick piece of metal between the handle and the heel of the blade, particularly on French-style chef's knives, is also a shield between your fingers and the cutting edge. It's there for safety's sake, and it adds to the balance of the knife. A well-balanced, sharp knife is effortless to use. But not all styles of knives have--or demand--bolsters.

-Blade: The size and shape of the blade help determine function. Boning a chicken with a chef's knife is probably how chicken nuggets were discovered. Select the right blade for the task at hand.

-Construction: There's a reason that stamped blades are less expensive than forged blades: they are punched out of sheets of steel with knife-blade-shaped dies. High-end knives often lay claim to being hand-forged. This doesn't mean an Old World master craftsman worked the blade at a forge and anvil with a big hammer. Picture a factory laborer with a pair of tongs holding on to a hot piece of steel for the several blows of a 100-ton drop forge. There are, however, many steps in the process of making a high-quality knife, and in a couple of them you can count on some human intervention.

Blade Material
-High-carbon stainless steel: Some of the best blades are made of either high-carbon steel or high-carbon stainless steel. The difference between the two kinds of steel is in the alloy, which must be at least 13% chromium to be rust- and stainproof high-carbon stainless steel. Companies such as Wüsthof, Henckels, Forschner, and Tramontina use high-carbon stainless.

-High-carbon steel: High-carbon steel blades, on the other hand, will tarnish over time. But they take a better edge, and it's easier to maintain. The blade is also more flexible. But it does demand a certain amount of upkeep--wiping it dry after use, for example. Or washing it after cutting acidic produce such as onions. Sabatier uses high-carbon steel in some of its knives.

-Ceramic: The relatively new ceramic blades are light and extremely sharp from the factory. But you can't sharpen these knives at home once they lose their edge. The edge is glassy-smooth and will glide across some materials--the paperlike skin of an onion, for example--rather than slicing through. There's no chance of corrosion with ceramic, but it is fragile. Chip the edge and only a wet diamond grinder can bring it back. Fortunately, they're usually backed with a strong warranty.

Types of Blades
-Chef's knife: This is the kitchen workhorse--the main piece of steel--in lengths of 6, 8, and 10 inches for the most part. If you have a big hand, a 6-inch chef's knife will be an annoyance, while a small hand may quickly tire of a 10-inch blade. The blade of a chef's knife is designed to rock on a cutting board for tasks from chopping on down to mincing. The weight and balance of the blade work to your advantage. You can spend $25 to $130 for a good, commercially manufactured chef's knife.

-Boning and fillet knives: These knives come in 5-, 6-, and 7-inch lengths. If you work with a lot of meat, poultry, and fish, you will want one of each. The fillet knife is long and straight, thin and flexible. Boning knives tend to have a curve to the blade, but can be either flexible or rigid. You use the flexible blade to bone poultry, the rigid boning blade to work around bigger bones. These knives cost between $10 and $65.

-Paring and peeling knives: These are little knives you will reach for almost as often as you do your chef's knife. The peeler often has a hooking curve to the blade and is great for cutting zest from citrus fruit. You'll use small knives for any number of peeling, paring, and shaping chores, not to mention cutting the string after you have tied up the chicken for roasting. These run from 2 to 4-1/2 inches and $15 to $50.

-Specialty blades: Cleavers, carving knives, serrated knives, Asian-style vegetable knives: these all have their right place and right time. The long, thin-bladed nature of a carving knife allows for perfect slicing of roasts or fowl. Serrated knives and crusty bread were made for each other. In fact, if you use your good chef's knife to slice crusty bread, you will ruin its edge.