The Sharpest Knife in the Block - Essential Kitchen Equipment Series

In this occasional series, Essential Kitchen Equipment, I'm going to share overviews of what I consider to be the items no kitchen should be without. I'm not talking about the latest gadget. I'm talking about maybe a dozen or so simple items you must have to make your kitchen hum. Of course one could spend endless amounts on all sorts of fancy equipment and gadgets. Most of those will not make you a better cook. 

 

One really fundamental barrier or enabler in terms of producing good meals, with joy and efficiency, is knife skills. Buying a good knife or a bad one, is one of the best or worse kitchen purchases you can make. If one buys cheap knives at the supermarket, one might be called "not the sharpest knife in the drawer." Maybe you remember the Ginsu infomercials?

Heck, most of those fancy gew-gaws won't even make you want to cook. They make me feel foolish. A good knife. A good cutting board. A proper pan or pot.

Think of the meals you've most enjoyed, possibly cooked by a Grandma, Bubbe or Amah. Chances are the most comforting, delicious memories were not created with sous-vide machines or molded plastic corn zippers, probably not even with slow cookers.

In cooking with Shop, Cook, Eat -Better   clients, we focus on the basics. Yes, we do some fancy stuff, too, but I really love working with clients that want to learn or refresh basic skills. So this series was borne of the need to share basic buying info. I'll cover aspects such as:

  • What it is - e.g. sauté pan vs skillet; Dutch oven vs Stock Pot
  • What are the options or varieties - e.g. which is better wood cutting board or plastic?
  • Benefits or drawbacks of one or another option
  • My recommendations
  • Suggestions for where to buy, both online and brick and mortar

Fairly often, we'll have friends over for dinner and I like to have drinks around the island while I'm doing final, or sometimes not so final meal prep.

I'm tickled when someone stops mid-sentence to say "Whoa!" while I'm chopping and chatting. I forget that for many people, things that take me very little time, seem daunting. But as Kathleen Flinn says in this excellent video: anyone can do this!

People sometimes think they need to invest heaps of money in huge knife sets. The fear of knives drives others to use cheap, dull blades. These are far more dangerous!

Since knives are the most essential equipment in the kitchen, I thought I'd begin here with basic knife skills tips and recommendations.

About Knives

1. Sharper knives are better. Sharper knives are safer. (And if you're a little clumsy like me, sharper knives actually make cleaner cuts that hurt less and heal faster, too. Just sayin'.) You might enjoy Kathleen's first book The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry.

2. Take a class. Here's one coming up in Newton at Stoddard's. You could also take one with me! Or check your local Adult Ed center or culinary store like Williams-Sonoma or Sur la Table.

3. Get your hands on a good book. Two solid books I recommend:  A great kitchen resource, with large, clear photos and overlaid arrows and graphics to really give you a step-by-step explanation of various cuts. This is for any cook from the novice to the expert. Learn the difference between brunoise and batons. Understand why different cuts are important and when to choose which.

 A cookbook that has recipes to reinforce basic skills. This is more of an enticement or a seduction, than pure lessons. Just look at that cover photo! Don't you want to make that food and eat it?

4. Knives I love. I'm often asked "which knife is best?"

I use my Globals more than any others I own. I also love my Zwilling J.A. Henckels 8" Chef's knife. And the Chef's Choice offset serrated blade. Ultimately, you want to look a few key factors (the material the knife is made of, the construction, the weight and feel in your hand) then pick the one that fits best in your hand. That is the one you will use most often.

I like the high carbon /stainless steel knives over ceramic. Each maker has their own manufacturing specs and it's interesting to visit websites of each and "tour" their processes. Links below.

Knives

Top to bottom:

  • Global Chef's knife - small and light, it fits my hand perfectly. I use this most often. It's perfectly balanced: (bonus party trick: balance the knife on your finger blade on one side, handle on the other.)
  • Zwilling J.A. Henckel's Chef's Knife - this is heavier and best when I'm doing lots of chopping. The weight of the knife actually makes cutting easier when you're doing lots.
  • Chef's Choice Serrated, offset - the simple offset really helps ergonomically, too. A gift from my chef brother-in-law, I use this for bread and for tomatoes.
  • Global paring knife - this is a small paring knife, handy for tight work, like cutting the core of a small tomato, those jobs when a larger knife is too cumbersome.

Avoid buying a whole knife set, you will undoubtedly end up with knives you cannot or will not use and sets are quite costly. Buy one good knife at a time and you'll be so glad each time you use it.

If you really want to invest in a special knife, there are custom knife makers that will create a knife for you that will be a work of usable art. These we leave for another day. I'm addressing the basic knives that most of us will be looking to buy for every day use.

Storing Knives

Knife blocks are good, too, but if you have a lack of counter space, the magnetic knife bar is invaluable. I also like that it seems handier, and imagine rummaging through a drawer if a homicidal stalker entered your kitchen. HA! My knives are at the ready!  Okay I watch a lot of crime shows...

That's not really the reason to use the knife bar, but think about that drawer for a minute. In a drawer, nothing protects the blade! And, you will be more prone to cutting or nicking yourself as you rummage for one or another tool. On the knife bar, it's always at the ready, no drawer to open. When I was the knife, I simply slap it right up on the bar.

knifebar

 

I also have a knife block on the counter, that's fine, too but I'd happily get another knife bar and reclaim that space.

Honing vs. Sharpening

Most people don't do either often enough. And the two terms are used interchangeably and incorrectly, so naturally, confusion ensues.

The basic difference is whether you're taking away any material (sharpening) or straightening it out (honing).

A sharp knife is a safe knife and and to use a sharp knife, you hone it. I know - it's a mess, isn't it? To keep it simple, just run your knife on a steel (called a sharpening steel or a honing steel, y'know just to keep it all perfectly muddy) each time you use it. Then once a year or so, take it to a professional service to get the blade realigned.

For a very good explanation of both see Honing vs. Sharpening.

  • Hone, wash, use. Get in this habit and you'll thank me later.

Also, get rid of any glass cutting boards you may be using! They will dull your knife and make your cutting dangerous and un-fun! More on cutting boards shortly.

Knife Lore

  • If you give a knife as a gift, always give it with a penny. That prevents the luck from being severed. I've also heard the recipient is to give a penny to the giver.
  • Some believe a dropped knife should never be retrieved by the person who dropped it, but only by the next person to enter the room.

What's your go-to knife?

Have a knife question?

Favorite knife superstition?