Any chef will tell you that their favorite and most essential tool is their knife set. When I teach cooking classes, I usually start my lesson with a brief discussion of knife skills. Predictably, someone says they’ve been using the same knife for years and that fancy knives are just a chef-y/foodie snob thing.
Are knives truly imperative for the home cook? Yes! Resoundingly, yes!
Here is a very brief primer on how knives are made, how to buy a knife and recipes for using it.
What Makes a Good Knife?
Despite a barrage of marketing, please know that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a good knife. Knives should be chosen with forethought for enduring comfort (also called “feel”), strength and reliably sharp precision; they shouldn’t be purchased because of the brand name on the blade! Excellent quality knives can cost in the range of $100 to $500, with more expensive models priced as luxuries. Much of the cost of a knife is determined by its manufacture, including the name on the label, composition and design.
The design of a knife directly affects its balance, sharpness and longevity. When you research or shop for knives, a few key words will stand out:
Carbon steel blades are an alloy of carbon and iron. They sharpen easily, but are prone to corrosion and discoloration.
Stainless steel blades won’t rust or corrode, but are more difficult to sharpen. Once properly sharpened, however, stainless holds a good edge.
A high carbon stainless steel blade is an alloy combining the best of both worlds: it doesn’t discolor or corrode, sharpens easily, and holds an edge.
Ceramic knives are prized for their sharpness and precision. They are ten times sharper than steel with no surface tension. They aren’t cheap however, and given their brittle nature, may break and chip more easily than a carbon stainless blade.
Full Tang means that the tang extends the full length of the knife, from tip through to the end of the handle. Full tangs are more expensive not just for the increased cost of manufacture, but also because these knives provide the best balance for cutting. I highly recommend having at least one full tang Chef’s knife.
Forged knives are the top of the line. During production, a steel bar is heated to a very high temperature, set into a mold and hammered to form a blade. That blade is refined by hand sometimes in up to 50 separate steps.
Fully forged knives are formed from one piece of metal and produce the strongest and sharpest blade. The cost of a forged knife reflects the purity and quality of materials used in manufacture, as well as how many times the finished blade is shaped and refined. Careful: designer forged knives are quite fashionable to have, but they carry a heftier price just for the name or brand.
Stamped blades are cut from a thin ribbon of steel using a template, much like a cookie cutter. The blades are manufactured mechanically. The blade of a stamped knife is fitted into a slot in its handle, so the knife is not considered one fluid and integral piece. While usually thinner and lighter, the design of stamped knives requires a firmer grip and more pressure when chopping, mincing, and dicing. Since they are not usually formed from the highest quality alloys, they need more frequent sharpening.
What to Think About When You Buy a Knife:
When you prepare to purchase a good knife, hold it in each hand to consider its weight, balance and comfort. Ask the salesperson to try the knife: it should cut through office paper without pressure or resistance. The knife block sets sold by mass retailers often contain many knives you don’t need and may never use.
Instead, focus on purchasing just two good knives: a Chef’s knife and a paring knife.
A serrated slicer makes cutting bread or tomatoes easier: these need not be expensive. A boning knife is handy if you need flexibility such as around fish bones; otherwise, a good chef’s knife is adequate.
A Tale of Caution:
You need to keep your knife sharp! A dull or poorly constructed knife forces the hand to exert more pressure in order to control precision. This inevitably leads to nicks, cuts or major loss of digits. You can bring your knife to a butcher shop or even a craft store such as JoAnne’s for routine sharpening, or you can order a professional sharpener online.
PS: The long thin rod that comes with your block–it doesn’t sharpen the blade. It HONES it, which is to say that it helps smooth any imperfections along the blade. Even if you use this tool frequently, you still need to get your knives regularly sharpened!
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