Sunday, March 15, 2009

Kitchen Equipment Pt. 2: Knife selection

As you may have noticed, knives come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, and some of them are really only good for one or two fairly rare operations, like, say, an oyster knife. If you are fortunate enough to live in a house on the water, where you can go right out your back door and down to the beach to harvest oysters, you may want to have one of these. Otherwise, there are other tools you can use for occasional shucking. Here's a basic rule of thumb regarding knives, and most culinary tools, for that matter. If you don't know what it's called, or at least what it's used for, you don't need it.

I used to think that more was better, and in years past would probably have jumped at the offer made on late-night TV for that huge set of kitchen knives (pictured above) for "Three easy payments of..." These days, I have a total of six kitchen knives, and a pair of kitchen shears. I regularly use only four of these knives, but need the other two often enough that to me it justifies owning them.

Before I discuss which knives I use, allow me to offer this disclaimer; the knives you use can and probably should vary, in both selection and in the size of any given knife. Your selection depends on what you need your knives to do. What you will feel comfortable with regarding the size of any type of knife has to do with a number of factors, like how big your hands are, how big you are, the strength of your hands and arms, and so forth. Before you spend any serious money on any knife, you should be able to try it out in the store, at least for feel and balance. If they won't let you, shop elsewhere (or endeavor not to look so much like a slasher who is only lacking a weapon, at least while shopping for knives.) The measurements given refer to the length of the blades, and are approximate.

8" Chef's- My "go to" knife

First and foremost, I use my 8" chef's knife. The chef's knife is the knife the great majority of cooks use every day, and is the closest thing to an "all-purpose" kitchen knife you will find. It is very rare that I cook a meal and do not use this knife, unless of course I am doing something like heating some canned soup. Chef's knives vary in size from 6" to 14" or better, but I find 8" to be the best for me in most cases. The longer knives are good for the occasional job, like slicing a watermelon or chicken in half the long way, but for most jobs would be so large as to be unwieldy. And I'm not a little guy. :)

My second most-used knife is a 7" Santoku, with a granton edge. A Santoku is a Japanese-style knife of quite a different shape from a chef's knife, but it cuts vegetables just as well, and slices cheese like a dream, thanks to the granton, or fluted edge. This edge discourages things like cheese and other items from vacuum-sealing themselves to the blade, thereby allowing them to stay on the cutting board where they belong, rather than stacking up on the blade. It is by design a more delicate knife, however, and that combined with its shape will assure I never use it to cut up a chicken or anything of that nature. No, it is far more useful for chopping up vegetables. Also, as the cutting edge of the blade is very nearly flat,it doesn't rock as well as a chef's knife. It's better for chopping and slicing.

Probably the third knife in order of use would be my 10" Slicer. Indispensible when it comes to slicing bread or bagels, and also quite useful in slicing tomatoes. So if I am having a bagel with lox, cream cheese, and tomato, you can bet I'll be reaching for my slicer. It works great for slicing roast beef as well.

6" Boning

Next in line comes my 6" boning knife. This is the knife I will probably reach for if I plan to dismember (joint) a chicken, at least if I plan to make the breast portions boneless. It is also useful in boning a chicken entirely, and in slicing the meat from the carcass of any bird, prior to storage or sandwich or taco making. I also use it to good effect to remove the meat from oxtails when making oxtail soup. What it is not good for is cutting board work; your knuckles will contact the board before the blade does. By the way, while you will see the word "deboning" on a lot of cooking sites, and while this is technically a real word, it is not the correct culinary term. Need evidence of this? Okay. This knife, for example, is a boning knife, not a deboning knife.

Second to last comes my 6" chef's knife. While it may not sound like this is much smaller than the 8" version, it really is. It's only two inches shorter, but where the difference comes in is the width of the blade.

Cooks use the side of the blade of a chef's knife for a couple of important things. First, it comes in handy to pick up the stuff you've just chopped in order to dump it into a bowl or a pan. Next, and perhaps most importantly, in order to peel, crush, or do both to a clove of garlic, the classic move is to place the garlic between the flat of the blade and the cutting board and give the blade a whack with your hand. A wider blade is much more useful for either operation. Easier, and safer.

The blade of my 6" chef's knife is only about two-thirds as wide as that of the 8" version, and so is not nearly as convenient as the larger one for either of these tasks, at least for me. What would I use it for? Well, for instance, lets say I needed to chop up a bunch of vegetables, then cut up a chicken. It does an excellent job of chopping vegetables, and it works better than the 8" version for cutting chicken into its respective parts. As to boning the breast portion, it works almost as well as the boning knife, and consequently it is the only knife I would use if when I started in on the chicken I had not yet decided whether to bone the breasts or not.

The least used knife I have (at least for actual cooking) is my 4" spear-point paring knife. I remember my mother using paring knives frequently when I was growing up, but most of the things she did with a paring knife, I do with other things, like a peeler, or even my 8" chef's. Yeah, a lot of people say that a chef's knife is too big for mincing small things, like garlic, or pickles for tuna salad, but what can I say, except that I feel I have more control with the chef's knife? I use the paring knife for doing things like removing the plastic from the portions of the TV dinner that the instructions tell me to. (Okay, so now you know my "dirty little secret". Sometimes its easier and even cheaper to just pop a TV dinner in the oven. It's one of my "comfort foods".)

You may know people who use a paring knife to cut things directly into a cooking pot. Like carrots, celery, and so on. They hold the paring knife in their fingers, and the veggie goes between the knife and their thumb. To cut the veggie, the knife goes through it, and stops against their thumb. While whatever they cook might taste good, this technique is terrible. The only way they can do this is with a dull knife, and dull knives are bad. They are dangerous and inefficient. If this is the way you've been taught to use knives, please do your best to abandon this bad habit, and to learn to use the proper technique and tool for the job.

Oh, I should mention here, there is also a technique that is almost identical to this bad one that is acceptable. This is where the veggie and knife are held about the same, and the motion is about the same, but the knife edge goes past the thumb, and never actually contacts it. This is, as I say, acceptable knife technique, but, A) just about no one does it this way, and B) I'd still rather use my chef's knife and a cutting board.

Oh, and one other tool you will need is a steel. We'll go into more detail in the article about maintaining and storing your knives, but just trust me for now, you need one of these.

These are the knives I use, and this may or may not have much bearing on what you will need. I will only say that almost everyone needs a chef's knife of whatever size feels the most comfortable, and that I have yet to find a job I can't do with this small selection of steel. Now, on to your situation.

Unless you plan on only cooking Asian food, your first knife purchase should be, you guessed it, a chef's knife. Now, here I am about to utter a bit of culinary sacrilege, so listen closely, and don't tell on me. You don't need to dash right out to the local kitchen store, and buy an expensive chef's knife. I know you are trying to learn to cook, and the last thing you want to do is invest hundreds of dollars in tools that you are afraid may prove useless, at least to you. So while you are learning to cook, that cheapo from your local supermarket, you know, the one on the "kitchen gadgets" aisle, will do just fine. Or maybe you already have one. It's fine too, as long as it is sharp or sharpenable.

Better yet, as I mentioned in the last post, there are knives that are regularly used in your local restaurant kitchens, are about the third of the price of expensive German knives, are available at your local restaurant supply, and are dishwasher safe! These knives have one piece-plastic handles, and while they are not as attractive or as durable as the pricey German ones, they get the job done, and will most probably last as long as you need them to, as you will not be using them for hours on end, as many of these restaurants are.

Whatever way you decide to go, it is up to you. I don't usually recommend buying sets of anything when it comes to cookware, but I have seen sets of knives that were not perfectly horrible that came with knife blocks, included sets of steak knives, and cost little more than a decent chef's knife from the local restaurant supply. While these sets might have knives in them you will rarely or never use, they will at least have the basics which you will need.

One safety issue I must mention here. Please buy full-tang knives. This means the material of the blade extends the full length and width of the handle, so you are holding the dull end of the blade with the handle there for your comfort while doing so. There are several other designs, among them a half tang, which relies on rivets to secure the blade to the handle. These are evil.

I have seen otherwise sensible cooking experts pooh-pooh this, but for practical rather than safety reasons, and I must think that the only reason they would do so is that they have never had the experience I did years ago, back when I was a true beginning cook.

This was nearly thirty years ago, and I was trying to cut a chicken in half, the long way. (So each half would have a wing, drumstick, breast, et cetera.) And I was doing it the decidedly wrong way. What I was doing was trying to cut through the whole bird, from top to bottom. Don't try this at home, kids. The proper way is to use a long knife, and only cut through the part that is against the cutting board, (put the knife in the cavity of the bird) then turn the chicken over, and once again cut through the part resting on the cutting board, or just use kitchen shears.

Anyway, I was pressing down with both hands on the handle, (never do this either) my left just in front of my right. Suddenly the middle of the handle gave way, just where the rivet was. The blade then pivoted on the remaining rivet, which was in front of my hand, kind of like a giant straight-razor. As it did, I fell forward as a result of the sudden loss of resistance. The blade pivoted almost to fully vertical, and I stopped my forward momentum only after pricking my throat with the tip of the blade. Granted, there were many factors involved here, perhaps the most prevalent being my own stupidity, but the fact remains that this wouldn't have happened with a full-tang knife. Or a sharp one.

To review:

1) Choose knives that are appropriate to the kind of cooking you do. Don't buy a particular knife just because "everyone" has one.
2) No matter what kind of cooking you do, you will need a Chef's, or a Santoku, or something that can perform the same task.
3) Choose sturdy full-tang knives that fit you physically.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where to buy your stuff

Now on to where to purchase your culinary tools and appliances. We'll start with a little story:

Bob was going to cook a special dinner for the holiday. On the eve of the big day, he was going over his meal plan, and realized he didn't have a particular culinary tool that would make the preparation of one of the dishes far easier and faster. So, he decided to dash down to a local store that specialized in cooking equipment to buy one. Bob often liked to window shop there; the place had a wonderful selection, and the staff was knowledgeable

But, since Bob was a smart shopper, he almost always made his ultimate purchases online, or at the local mega-mart, because it saved money. However, this time he needed a tool
now, so he couldn't shop online, and he also knew that the mega-mart didn't have the item he was looking for.

When Bob pulled into the parking lot, he was shocked to find that the culinary store was gone, and in its place was a Starbucks.

As Bob drove home, sipping his latte and contemplating the time he would have to spend doing tedious knifework, he also wondered what had happened to the store. It had been such a nice store, well stocked, and with such a knowledgeable staff.

What happened to the store, of course, was Bob, and people like him, who merely used the store as if it were a public service. He would go there to "kick tires" and to get educated about certain products. There, he could handle the products, and ask questions of people who really knew about them, and when he was ready to buy, he knew exactly which brand and model of a particular tool or appliance he wanted. But then, of course, since Bob was a careful shopper, he would ultimately make his purchase with whoever had the best price.

I have actually seen magazine and newspaper articles that instructed people to do this very thing. This is irresponsible journalism, as it hurts local economies, and really helps no one except the giant corporations. Yes, getting the best price is all that is important to some people, but these people are being shortsighted. Aside from the local stores with their knowledgable staffs disappearing, people are sending millions of tax dollars out of their states. And if you think that by dodging the tax you would pay by buying locally you are "putting one over on the man," you should think again. Deep down, you know how it works. If the state doesn't get money from one form of tax, they will make up for it by imposing or raising another. Or by neglecting something that should be paid for by those taxes. For instance, do you really like beating your car a little closer to death every day by driving through potholes? Also, of course, is the price of the actual item. This is the money that pays wages to the store employees, and pays to keep the store open, the shelves stocked, and the lights on. The employees then spend their wages, perhaps at your business. (Or perhaps they are as shortsighted as many, and spend them online. Oh, well.)

At the other end of things is this: what happens when you are unhappy with something you've purchased at the place that had the cheapest price? Sure, the local mega mart has a liberal return policy. All you have to do is go to the customer service counter, stand in line, show them your receipt, and get your money back. But then where are you? Back at square one. You did your research, made your decision, and you were wrong. Do you now go the the kitchen department in the store, and ask the teenager working there which one you should buy instead? You know, the one who keeps calling you "dude"? Or, if you bought online, do you then ask the order taker, to whom the products are just numbers? Or perhaps you just get another of the same model, and hope this one doesn't break ten minutes out of the box like the other one did?

If you had purchased at your local culinary or restaurant supply store, you could return your item, and then get advice on what to get instead, from people who actually know what the product is, what it does, and why another brand or model might be better for you.

Granted, some of your local culinary stores can be quite expensive, and I am not necessarily saying you should shop there. Places that concentrate too much on atmosphere are usually not good places to shop. Better by far to shop at the same place your local restaurants do. These are usually staffed by people who know their stuff, because they have actually worked in the cooking profession. They are a bit harder to find than most of your consumer-oriented stores, and you usually won't find coupons for them in that envelope you get in the mail each month. To find them, look online or in the Yellow Pages under "Restaurant Supplies." Any that only deal with businesses will usually say so, with a comment in their ad like "Wholesale only." If you have never been to one, they can be wondrous places; like a huge garage sale full of cooking equipment. For an avid cook, going to one is akin to the experience a tool junkie has at a really well-stocked hardware store.

Have I ever bought anything online? Yes. I routinely buy any parts I need for my computer online. Why? Because all the little computer stores owned and staffed by local computer geeks have disappeared, put out of business by mega electronic stores, and online sellers. Since going to the local mega store is usually an exercise in frustration for me, I figure out what I need online, and I buy online. But, I would much rather be able to go to the local computer store, talk to the local computer guy, and buy my computer parts and equipment there. But, I can't, because the trend to buy everything at the cheapest place has already killed the small computer store, at least in my area. I don't want to see this happen with culinary supply stores as well. I think being able to deal with someone face to face who knows something about a product I am considering is worth some "extra" money. I think that if you give it some thought, you might agree with me.

Got any comments or stories about why purchasing locally has been a good thing for you? Or even why it hasn't? I'd love to hear them, please leave a comment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How to Organize Your Kitchen Pt.2

Last time we talked about clearing the extra, seldom used appliances and things off your counters. No doubt you have been wondering where you might put them. Well, if you look in your kitchen cabinets, what is taking up the most space? Aside from general clutter, probably pots and pans.

If you are like most people, you probably have two or three pots and pans you use frequently, and you generally know where these are. Then, when you need one that you only use very infrequently, you probably have to spend some time looking for it. In fact, you probably say something like “I could have sworn I had one of those somewhere...” while emptying the contents of various cabinets onto the kitchen floor. And then, you might give up and use an inappropriate pot or pan, only to stumble across the one you were looking for a week later.

Clearing your pots and pans out of your kitchen cabinets can clear an astonishing amount of room in which you can then store the appliances and things that have been cluttering your counter space. “And what can I do with the pots and pans,” you ask? Simple. You hang them within reach of your cooktop.

How you hang them depends on a few things. If you have a big, empty wall in your kitchen, you can hang them there with something as simple as hooks, or screws, or even nails. If you have a tall ceiling in your kitchen, you can hang them on a rack that, in turn, hangs from the ceiling via chains. If you have a large pass-through from the kitchen to the dining room, you can hang them there on racks that are designed to affix to a flat surface. The main thing is to have them within reach of your cooktop, or very nearly so.

Once you get all your pots and pans out of the cupboards, and within easy reach, you may find yourself inspired to try a new dish or technique. “Oh, look, a bain-marie! I forgot I had that...”

Next, we'll take a little break from organization, and talk about where to buy stuff for your kitchen. Chances are, once you organize, you may find a couple of pieces you want to replace, or that you always wanted and thought you just didn't have room. And the place to buy ain't your local Whatever-Mart mega-discount store.

Oh, and if you have a comment or a suggestion regarding making space in the kitchen, please post a comment, so others can benefit from your knowledge and experience.

How to Organize Your Kitchen Pt.1

Okay, you probably do most of your cooking in your kitchen, so first off, let's take a look at your workspace. No, really. Take a look at your kitchen, and how it is organized, or not organized. If you have dirty dishes, pots and pans, silverware, knives and so on, clean them up and put them away. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Now you have everything cleaned up, everything in its place, and your kitchen is as good as it gets? Good. Now tell me what you see. Plenty of counter space? Everything you might need for a certain task within reach of the place you will be performing that task? No? Well, don't despair, you are certainly not alone.

In order to cook well, you need plenty of room in which to do it. if you have ever looked at a recipe and thought "I don't even have room to make that," you were no doubt correct, but you could have plenty of room if you got a few things off your counters that don't really need to be there.

Now, lets take a good look at the above pics. Believe it or not, they are not intended as a before and after. The second pic is a good deal more tidy, but there is still way too much stuff on the counters, and stuff that gets used all the time is nowhere to be seen. I know, the second kitchen looks pretty normal, but trust me, it is a lot easier to cook with more room, and with your tools within easy reach.

In your own kitchen, if you are like most people, you will probably see a microwave, a can opener, a coffee maker, a toaster, a toaster oven, a knife block, a coffee grinder, perhaps a stand mixer, a food processor.... And if you don't have a dishwasher, you probably have a dish drainer that lives on the counter right next to the sink. Most of us have a lot of stuff on our counter-tops, and a good deal of that stuff doesn't really need to be there.

The tendency, however, is to use our counter-tops as displays for all the cool appliances we own. This is only natural; we paid good money for these things, and we want people to see that we own them, can afford them, and even perhaps to assume we actually use them. However, keeping these things on the counters just for display can be a real hindrance when, for instance, we are cooking a holiday meal, and we suddenly realize there is nowhere to put the turkey we've just pulled out of the oven.

So, take a good look at the stuff sitting on your counters. How often do you use them, really? Okay, most people use their microwaves daily, or close to it, so that one probably has an excuse for sitting there. The same probably goes for the toaster, and the coffee maker. But how about the toaster oven, the stand mixer, the crock pot, and the food processor? Once a week? Once every two weeks? Once every several months? Well, then these need to be put on a shelf somewhere, and only dragged out when needed. How about that dish rack? Is there room for it under the sink? Beside the sink is often a much better place for a cutting board, at least if your sink is equipped with a garbage disposal. And even if it isn't, the sink is still a handy and easily cleaned place to put your scrap bowl.

Okay, the stand mixer may be hard to move, because it is heavy. However, if you use it at all, you're probably not cooking just for yourself. So even if you are 5'2” and 98 pounds, and the stand mixer weighs about half as much as you do, chances are you can find someone to help you move it when you need to. Like, perhaps, a teen-aged boy who wants the cinnamon rolls you'll use it to make, if only he gets it out for you.

In my kitchen, if it gets used daily, or nearly so, it stays on the counter. If it gets used weekly, it might warrant a place on the counter, if it is hard to put away. If it gets used less that once a week, it gets put away, no matter what.

Okay, I can already hear you saying “But, the only place I have to put these things is on the counter!” We'll get to that in the next post.

A goy and his blog...

I am a lifelong student. Of what, you ask? Well, just about anything that strikes my fancy. I have never been willing to accept answers like "because," or "it just does, that's all." I have to know why.

I also want to know if conventional knowledge on a given subject is even accurate. "They" say you should always wash chickens before cooking, for example. In this case, "they" are wrong. They are in many other cases, as well, and these are some of the things I will be discussing in this blog.

This is not a blog for recipes. In my opinion, there are far too many recipes out there already. Type "recipes" into Google, and you end up with well over 100,000 results.I don't think I need to add another.

Instead, this blog will cover basic principles of cooking. Kitchen setup, choosing tools, caring for those tools, techniques using tools... these are just a few of the things you will find here. We'll also get a bit on the literary side, with proper pronunciations and terminology. I figure someone has to do this; there are so many celebrity chefs out there who use terms incorrectly, mispronounce them, or just plain use the wrong word when discussing things.

So, if these sound like things you would like to know, please check back often

And always feel free to ask me any cooking-related question. I'm always happy to have a new idea for a blog post.

Thanks for reading,