Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tools and Tips: Knives

Chef Knife, Bread Knife and Paring Knife


Just one rule: buy a knife you can sharpen.

There are all kind of different knives out there, all kinds of different claims and all kind of prices. But unless you're frequently breaking down a side of beef, butchering your own chickens or filleting fish, all you really will ever need are three simple knifes: a chef knife, a paring knife and a bread knife. And a knife sharpener.

Knives with Knife Sharpener

Sure, there's all kinds of talk about the perfect tang and balance and carbon grade steel. And countless words could be spilled on the right handle grip, riveting techniques and knife weight. Yet as to the specific style or brand of knife you should buy, I have no advice. Because it's really all about you. What kind of knife feels good in your palm? How important is the weight? What kind of handle material do you like? Do you care about aesthetics?

But that's stuff isn't nearly as important as my single knife rule:

BUY A KNIFE YOU CAN SHARPEN

I base this rule on first-hand experience. My first knife was a dreadful piece of cheap metal with a plastic handle welded to the blade. It was physically impossible to sharpen because of the tiny serrations along the blade - and this was supposedly somehow an advantage! Because the knife was incredibly dull, it was also impossible to slice or mince anything - I either hacked, mashed or sawed. Don't be fooled by package promises and cheap prices - from the bottom of my heart, I beg you to buy knives you can sharpen. Please, please please. Buy a knife you can sharpen.

Knife Sharpener Closeup

And if you have a knife you can sharpen, you also need to own a sharpening tool. Most knife blocks will include a knife sharpening steel rod. Which is great if rubbing two pieces of metal together at high-speed is your kind of thing. Enjoy. Let me know when it's safe to come back into the room.

I prefer a simple knife sharpener which requires no skill and minimal effort - like the one shown below. You just slide your knife through the "coarse" sharpener a couple times, then through the "fine" sharpener a couple times, and just that easy, you've restored your sharp cutting edge. Somehow that just seems simpler than the steel rod thing.

Knife Sharpener Coarse and Fine Sides

Now, to be fair, I know all of us at one point thought to ourselves: "I don't need to sharpen my knives. I prefer my knives dull - that way if I slip, the blade won't cut off my finger…"

It does seem logical, I know. But dull knifes are actually much more dangerous and far more likely to slip or miss their target than a sharp blade. A sharp blade slices through the target cleanly while a dull blade struggles to get through. A sharp blade moves precisely yet a dull blade hacks with imprecision. Really sharp blades sound dangerous (and any blade can be dangerous) but what you should really fear is that dull blade you're so comfortable using - it will slip when you least expect it (and it can still draw blood).

So just to recap:
  1. Buy knives you can sharpen
  2. Keep them sharp

That's really it. But just in case you feel cheated by a post that's so obvious, here are a few more good habits for keeping your knives in good shape.
  • Never, ever put your knives in the dishwasher. Why? The heat, detergent and water pressure can rust quality knives, especially along the sharpened edge. So take a couple minutes and wash your knives by hand.

    Chef Knife Blade Closeup
     
  • Wipe or rinse off the knife after use to prevent food particles from drying on the blade. Why? Stuck-on food particles often contain moisture which can accelerate rusting in spots along the blade. The blade is also more time-consuming to clean once the food particles have dried against the steel.

    Drying Knife with Towel
     
  • Dry your knives thoroughly and do not allow them to sit in water. Why? Leaving knives in standing water can promote rust along the blade. So if you love your knives, don't drop them in the sink. Keep them high and dry whenever possible.

    Water on Knife
     
  • Do not chop on glass, ceramic or metal surfaces. Why? Glass, ceramic and metal will all rapidly dull your blade and in some cases the knife may even create fine chips of glass, ceramic or metal. Not something you want in your food. So use wood, bamboo, plastic or hard rubber cutting boards and protect your knife blade.

    Wood and Plastic Cutting Boards
     
  • Cut into the flesh-side of a fruit or vegetable whenever possible. Why? Cutting through the flesh and then the skin of a fruit or vegetable (like a pepper or apple) will dramatically reduce the wear on your blade.

And now, just because it doesn't feel right to not try and offer helpful buying tips, here are five generic things to keep in mind when knife-shopping:
  1. Buy knives you can sharpen (oh wait, I already told you that!)
  2. Buy what is comfortable to you. Physically pick up the knife and feel the grip in your palm. If you don't like it, it's not going to improve over time.

    Knife Handle Grip
     
  3. Do not buy knives where the blade is welded to the handle. The blade tang should be one-piece with the blade and extend all the way through to the back of the handle.

    Blade and Handle Join
     
  4. Pay attention to weight. If the knife feels heavy now, just wait until you've been using it for an hour.
  5. Forged is generally better than stamped. But if you don't know the difference, I'm not sure it's worth looking up.


8 comments:

  1. Pardon my ignorance... but can you sharpen the bread knife? How does that work with the serrated edges?

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  2. I'm horrible for putting mine in the dishwasher but then again I tend to buy cheap knives. Then I just sharpen the heck out of them. Ha. I have two faves, one is a small knife my brother bought me that cost a dollar and I've had it for 20 years. And my other fave is a slightly more expensive $30 for a whole set) large knife that I use for everything and it makes me look weird. But I like super heavy knives. My sis has sent me some pricey ones, from boning to tomato, I love the boning one for breaking down tenderloins. I should invest in a good forged one some day. I think there's a place in Alberta that forges it specifically for your hand. I'm determined to visit the place next year when I visit my son.

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  3. Great point - a bread knife is actually perhaps the only knife you should own that you cannot sharpen (at least not easily). Fortunately, since bread is relatively low-resistance (no skins involved), the blade should last well for a long time (I've had my bread knife for 5+ years and still cuts wonderfully).

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  4. When I first got my knives, I was so irritated that I couldn't run them through the dishwasher! But now I don't think much about it as it's easy enough to wipe them off after using. I actually own own one set of knives (those pictured plus their counterparts) and I really love them. I've used other people's knives (some of them very good knives) but something about the handle or blade is often troublesome for me. But I think it's awesome that your favorite knife cost a buck! That says a lot about people's preferences and the importance it plays in the "perfect knife" ;) And if you do go to the Alberta forge, let me know what you think...

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  5. Kellie@foodtoglowJuly 10, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    Superb post. I am a bit of a knife evangelist myself. A sharp knife evangelist. Because of my work I own good knives, as you describe and taking the time to sharpen them regularly makes them a pleasure to use. I nearly always take a couple of knives on self-catering holidays so I'm not frustrated or hurt myself on terrible, flimsy knives. A boy in my daughter's class once passed out when she cut herself badly on one of schools cheapo rubber-bladed knives. She was used to her mama's good ones and didn't realise the inherent dangers in badly made one's.

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  6. I agree with you, Kellie. A good knife is definitely worth taking with you when you plan to cook in other places. When I remember - and I often don't - I try to take my own knife with me when I visit people whom I know (from experience) do not own anything but the flimsy knives you describe. Fortunately, I think there are now a LOT of "good" knives available on the market at a lot of different price points - moreso than when I was growing up ;)

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  7. Great tips! And you're right that most of us only need a 2 or 3 knives. Although of course I have more than that! And I sharpen them all! I don't do it - I should - but that knife steel thing really is worth using. It doesn't actually sharpen your knife - you need a sharpener for that - but what it does is help keep the cutting edge straight. The cutting edge is quite thin, and as you use it it can bend one way or another. A half dozen or so strokes of the steel after you use the knife helps realign the edge. Or you could do as I do, and just sharpen your knives more frequently! And your suggestion to get a knife that fits your hand and is comfortable is priceless. Excellent post - thanks.

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  8. I learned something new, John! I always thought (and this thought came from somewhere like off TV or something) that the steel rod was for sharpening. But it makes sense that it is actually used to keep the cutting edge straight. I'd probably opt just to sharpen more frequently like you - that steel rod scares the heck out of me :/

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