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Tools of The Trade – Knives

March 24, 2011

One of the first tools you will need to work with in the kitchen is a knife, and as with any tools, you can make do with anything, but you need to specialize and upgrade for better results.

Whilst you can cook a full dinner with nothing but a butter knife, it’s not going to be an easy ride.   Just owning a few basic knives can improve your kitchen experience significantly.  Here I’ll show a picture of the basic knife types:

The Basic Knives

The basic knives

Let’s start with introducing them.

1. The Chef Knife. This is probably the most versatile knife in the whole set.  The blade is usually about 8-12 inches long, with a smooth curve along the edge.  You can use this knife for pretty much anything and everything in the kitchen, from chopping vegetables to slicing meat and mincing fresh herbs or onions – this is actually where it shines.  However, it’s sub-optimal for slicing breads.  You can even use a chef knife to remove stems of peppers, so you don’t need to change knives whilst chopping them, though because of the large blade and somewhat heavy weight, it may feel a little clumsy.  Upon buying one, make sure the grip is comfortable and non-slip – you don’t want a knife of this size out of your control, even if your hands are wet or greasy.  Check the balance of the knife – it should be a little top-heavy, tipping just barely towards the point as you hold it.  And last but not least – make sure it’s good and solid, hence heavier than a feather.  You can pick up a decent chef knife at large retailers like Wal-Mart or Target for about $12-$15, but of course, the sky is the limit on prices.

2.  The Santoku. The Asian entrant of the competition, the santoku hails from Japanese cuisine.  Unlike the chef knife, its curve is not on the blade but on the blunt edge, so instead of rocking it on the cutting board, you need to lift it off and chop down with every cut.  Thus santokus are less suited for fine mincing and chopping, but more for “brute force” operations, like making larger shreds of tough vegetables like carrots, chopping through even frozen fish or shrimp and making perfect slices of ginger on the side of your sushi.  This one in the picture is a large santoku, with a 7-inch blade, but they are also available with smaller, 3-4″ blades.  The shopping guidelines are very similar to those of a chef knife, however, santokus are more evenly balanced with almost no tipping as you hold them in a light grip.  Their price range is also similar, starting at the $12 mark for large and around the $5-$7 range for small blades.

3.  Boning or Carving Knife. Whenever you need a long knife, but the chef knife is too clumsy, the carving knife comes to the rescue.  Best used in making fillets from fish, carving meat off the bones like on a whole roast chicken or your Thanksgiving turkey or making perfect thin slices of your roast, this knife is not the greatest choice for chopping for its long and usually quite flexible blade.  The narrow blade also doesn’t allow for much finger room, hence you would slam your knuckles against the cutting board with every chop, unlike with the wider-bladed chef knife and santoku.  It’s also the perfect choice for making a long pocket across larger pieces of meat (like a whole pork tenderloin) for stuffings.  The rule about the non-slip grip is even more important here, as it’s just as easy as it is painful for your turkey-greased fingers to slip whilst removing that white breast meat and running the knife straight into your other hand…  These knives are usually even-balanced or slightly grip-heavy.  More important than the balance is the comfort of the grip, make sure you can hold it at different angles with ease, as it will make getting the meat and the bones to separate a lot easier.  The price range again starts around $10 for a decent carving knife.

4.  Serrated Knife. This knife is best used for breads and rolls, as it easily saws through the crispier crust without then damaging the soft, fluffy inside.  For most other uses, this knife would be sub-par, however, if you like fresh, homemade loaves, or even just store-bought sourdough cannonballs, a good serrated slicer is priceless.  This one pictured is a little on the short side (it came with the full block for me), with an edge of about 5″.  What you need to pay the most attention to upon shopping is the ridges on the blade.  Make sure they are spiky and sharp, and if you can, try and run your finger along the side.  If it feels sharp even from there, you have a winner.  These are also the easiest knives to take care of, as they don’t require regular, meticulous sharpening – they can’t even be sharpened with a regular sharpening steel or whetstone.  If they do lose edge from the little “teeth” getting misaligned, some specialty kitchen stores as well as some online retailers carry a pull-through serrated knife sharpener, starting around $10, however, unless you put them through serious daily use, you won’t need a sharpener more than once a few years.  Again, since this is probably the easiest-going knife, the price range is a little lower, too.  For very light, occasional use, even a dollar store knife will do the job, and you can get a better one at a big-box store for about $5-7.

5.  Paring Knife. The paring knife is a small, short-bladed knife meant for pinpoint carving.  Whether you just need to cut out the blackened parts of a potato, get off the zest of an orange, or you’re carving a swan out of a cucumber, the paring knife is the weapon of choice.  Upon buying, make sure the grip is non-slip and comfortable.  The blade lengths can vary somewhat – when you hold the knife with your fingers, the edge facing your arm, your extended thumb should be just barely shorter than the blade.  This allows for superior control in fine carving, making cuts in the material easier, and in your finger harder.  Priced around $5, everybody deserves a good one.

6.  Kitchen Shears. Whilst not practically a knife, the shears can replace knives in several roles.  Aside from opening bags and packaging, you can cut a crispy-crusted or flatbread pizza with a pair of shears without getting off all the cheese and toppings or shattering the crust, simply cut shapes out of semi-thawed puff pastry dough, or chop bacon to matchsticks without mashing them all over the cutting board.  Shears need special sharpening which can be difficult and costly, so look for a good quality pair that won’t lose edge too easily.  If the grip is comfortable and the blades are durable and heavy-duty, it’s probably suitable for most people’s needs.  Here it’s a lot harder to draw a baseline at prices, but remember that you get what you pay for.  This is one of the buy-up items, where spending a little more can make a huge difference.  If you invest in a more expensive, quality pair of shears, you can save some edge-time on them with keeping a cheaper pair around for the “lesser jobs” like opening bags of French fries or clipping coupons, and only break out the “fancy” one when dealing with food.

7.  Sharpening Steel. Most of the above mentioned knifes need a regular sharpening.  Myself, I sharpen them after every other use, so they constantly keep to a scalpel-like edge.  However, if you’re not this diligent about your knives, it is sufficient to sharpen them every time they start to feel dull and you have a harder time with cutting.  Also, most knives are not fully sharpened when you purchase them at the store – both for the safety of the store, and the safety of the knife.  Well-sharpened knives have an extremely thin edge (that’s what makes them sharp!) which may deform or crack during the travels of the merchandise.  So when you get a new knife, sharpen it first!  I’m planning on an article on the proper sharpening of knives to appear on And Cuisine For All in the near future, so stay tuned!

Of course, you don’t need to buy all these knives at once if you don’t own them yet.  If I had to make an order of importance, I’d first buy a good chef knife, along with a sharpening steel, then a paring knife.  The rest of it is really up to your individual priorities: if you have to choose just one, think of what you usually cook or bake – which one will you get the most use out of?  You can also buy a whole set in a block: my $50 Farberware set that I took the pictured knives from gave me some decent quality knives (all of those pictured, along with a smaller santoku, 6 steak knives and a block), and I’m especially satisfied with my chef knife from this set.

As a last word,

Taking Care of Your Knives:

Now that we just (imaginarily) spent about $50+ on knives, we should take good care of them, too.  Always hand-wash your knives, with a mild detergent and a soft sponge, right after use, then dry them off with a towel (paper or fabric).  This way you can prevent spot-rusting.  Never put them in the dishwasher – the extreme temperatures, humidity and the aggressive detergent can damage your blades.  Sharpen them as often as needed or as you see fit (see above).  As a word on safety, always carry them point down and the edge towards yourself, and if you need to transport them somewhere, wrap the blades up, at least in several layers of newspaper or a folded piece of cardboard.  You can also use an edge protector similar to the one used on ice skates.  This is for the safety of your knife, your bag and yourself as well.

I hope you found this quick tour of cutlery interesting and useful.  I’ll soon return to the topic with a guide on sharpening your knives as well as chopping techniques and basic cuts!

Enjoy your meal!

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