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.

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