Monday, May 18, 2009

Knife Care & Maintenance Pt 2- Cutting boards

One of the most important things in maintaining the edge on your knives is your cutting board. The biggest mistake a lot of people make here is in using cutting boards made of inappropriate materials. What is inappropriate? Good question, I'm glad you asked. Any material your knife can't cut is going to damage its edge, and is therefore inappropriate for use as a cutting board.

And no, I don't mean your knife should be able to slice right through your cutting board. I mean that every time you cut something on your cutting board, it should be able to make tiny slices in it. Something has to give, and it is better that it is the cutting board than your knives.

Glass Cutting Board- Evil!

So, the common materials you should avoid are things like glass and marble. Oh, I know, they're doing wonderful things with glass boards these days. Putting pretty patterns in them, and so on. Or, perhaps you recently had new marble counter tops put in and you got the contractor to cut a matching cutting board from the remnants, and it just looks so nice.

Marble Cutting Board- Evil Too!

Well, go ahead and keep using these, if, well, never being able to keep a sharp knife in your kitchen is of no concern to you. Yes, I said never. Even on a proper cutting board, after the first time you use a knife, it is a little duller than it was before you used it.

You see, the edge of your knife is made of a very hard material, but it is also very thin. Which is kind of the point. Even very hard materials that are only a couple molecules thick are very easy to bend. So what happens is the cutting edge of your knife comes in contact with the relatively hard cutting board surface, and folds over a little. Even with a proper cutting board. With a glass or marble cutting board, it folds over a lot, relatively speaking. Often the difference between a sharp blade and a dull one is only that on the dull one the cutting edge is knocked out of alignment. This is what sharpening steels are for; to put it back in alignment. Which is another topic we will get to in a future post.

In any event, your knife can't cut into glass or stone at all, and so a board made of one of these materials will instantly dull your knives.

We may get into the specifics of cutting boards at a later date, but for now, I will only say that the materials you should use are acrylic or wood.

Acrylic Cutting Boards- Good!

Well, and that regarding the difference between the two, a lot of people have a lot of opinions regarding the difference between wood and plastic, the difference between different types of wood or plastic, and so on. And, probably most of them are right. However, I like acrylic boards because they are very practical; low maintenance, and cheap. I can chuck them in the dishwasher, and I can easily replace them when they wear out. And that's that. So for now, if you like the practical aspect, go with acrylic. If you want pretty, go with wood. If you want to learn about the care of either, and about how sanitary one is vs. the other, there's plenty of info already out there. (Much of it conflicting.)

Wooden Cutting Boards- Also Good!

If you have a particular favorite, please leave a comment and let us know why. Oh, and if one of your criteria is that a particular material is "faster" than another, please explain what you mean by that. This is not one of my criteria; as far as knife technique goes, I'm usually not in a hurry. However, I grasp the broad meaning, but would like for you to flesh it out a bit, both for me and for my readers.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Knife Care & Maintenance Pt 1

Okay, at long last, care and maintenance of those very important kitchen tools, your knives.

First off, let's address some common misconceptions regarding knives.

Misconception One: You shouldn't put your good knives in the dishwasher because the heat of the dishwasher will ruin the temper of your blades.

This is just silly. In order for this to happen, the temperature in your dishwasher would have to get up in excess of a thousand degrees fahrenheit. And if you think about it, it would be pretty amazing if your various plastic items could survive temperatures that would ruin steel. If your dishwasher could get hot enough to anneal steel of any sort, it would be a smoking ruin by the time it had washed its first load.

Misconception Two: You shouldn't put your good knives in the dishwasher because the soap will damage the blades.

Well, the only reason I can think of for this one is that people had to make something up, because they knew they shouldn't put their good knives in the dishwasher, but didn't know why. Soap, even citrus-based soap, as some contend, will not harm your knives. Steel would have to be pretty fragile stuff if dishwashing soap could harm it, and as to citrus, would you hesitate to slice an orange or lemon with your good knives? Well, there you go. And if you do hesitate, stop it, you're being silly. Yes, yes, acid will discolor high carbon blades, but chances are yours are high carbon stainless. If you have a high carbon blade, it's gonna be next to impossible to keep it from developing a patina anyway, so you might as well give up and slice tomatoes and citrus with it. What good is a knife you can't use for all your veggie needs?

So, here is the main reason you shouldn't put most good knives in the dishwasher. It will ruin the handles. This may seem obvious, if your knives have wooden handles. However, what is perhaps not so obvious is that often the plastic material for the handles is chosen for qualities other than being dishwasher safe. You've no doubt seen dull and cracked wooden handles on old kitchen knives. And you may have seen plastic handles that started out being shiny black, but are now milky and dull. This is because they were put in a dishwasher. However, some knives, like the Forschners I mentioned in a prior post have dishwasher-safe handles. And yet, people will still say you shouldn't put them in the dishwasher either. Well, this is sort of true. The problem here is that if you put them in the silverware basket, they may be in contact with other metal items, and the water spraying around will cause them to collide with other metal items in any event, which will dull the blades.

Don't do this

So, here's the deal. The steel in your knives can't be harmed by the heat or soap in the dishwasher, but the handles probably can. Unless they are dishwasher-safe handles. And even if they are, the way most people would load them in the dishwasher would cause them to bang against other stuff and be dulled. So, you can put knives with dishwasher-safe handles in the dishwasher, as long as you take care not to put them where they will come in contact with other things. Where to put them, then? Probably the best place would be in the top rack, with the sharp part of the blade pointed up. and no way for the knives to come in contact with anything but the rack. However, you may find it is actually easier to just wash them by hand, after all. But, it is my feeling that you should know the real reason you are hand washing your blades.

Well, maybe this...

Misconception Three: The steel in your knife block is a "honing" steel, not a "sharpening" steel, and those two terms are completely different things.

Wrong, I'm afraid, although I wish it were right. It's so much tidier that way. "I use my honing steel to hone my knives, but when they need actual sharpening, I use..." Up until very recently, I believed this to be true. Then I encountered Murray Carter, 17th Generation Yoshimoto Bladesmith and Certified Master Bladesmith. Murray makes amazing knives, has demonstrated sharpening them to a point where he could shave with them, by using only a cinder block, some cardboard, and a 2x4. Obviously, the man knows knives, and not just how to sharpen them, but just about all there is to know about sharpening them. So, I wrote to him asking about honing vs, sharpening. And he very politely pointed out that I was wrong to make that distinction. And how did he convince me that my ideas of honing vs. sharpening were wrong? By quoting a bunch of blade-making lore at me, or by telling me he ought to know, and so on? Nope. He merely invited me to look it up in a dictionary. And, he was right, by the way. Sharpening, honing, stropping, it's all sharpening. According to him, the best distinction that can be made is that a steel is used for "touching up" an edge. So, go ahead and think of one as honing, and the other as sharpening, if you like. It's still easier that way, if not entirely correct. Just don't tell people they are wrong to call a steel a "sharpening steel." They're not. And that, folks, is why manufacturers like Wustoff, Henckels, and well, just about all of them refer to their steels as "sharpening steels." Because they really are.

This, by the way, is a large part of the reason my posts on knife care and maintenance have been delayed. Murray pretty much took what I knew about sharpening, and knocked it into a cocked hat. Politely, and with great patience. I finally pestered him until he became annoyed, and rightly so. He has paying customers to communicate with, and here was this guy only trying to find the truth for his blog.

Also, his standards of sharpness are much higher than mine. I'm happy if my knives can slice tomatoes without smooshing or tearing them, he is only happy if his knives are, in his words. "scary sharp." And, since I can no longer shave with mine, apparently he has the right of it. If you are interested in learning the correct way to sharpen your knives, take a look at his site. He even has instructional DVD's that will show you how.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cleaning "ruined" pots

Ruined? Nope.

I'm happy right now. I have just resurrected an apparently hopelessly burned pot, and what is more, one of my favorites.

Okay, most of us have done it. We're cooking something in a pot, and we forget about it, or we serve out of it, and forget to turn the burner off. I've done it more times than I care to admit. (Okay, twice, but that's twice too many with good quality cookware.) And then what happens? Whatever is in the pot dries up, turns black, and molecularly bonds to the inside of the pot. If someone could make paint this tough, they'd make billions.

So, no matter what you do, the inside of your pot is coated black. Scrub it with Scotch-Bright, or Brillo, and it stubbornly stays black, no matter how long you keep at it. Scrub for ten minutes in front of the sink, or go watch a movie and scrub for the whole hour and a half, and the pot stays black.

So your beloved pot or pan is ruined, right? Unless you have access to some industrial grinding and polishing machines, you just have to buy a new pot. Or so it would seem.

As I said, I've been there. On the most memorable occasion, I had made a beef stock, and was reducing it to a glace, when this woman showed up, distracted me, and it wasn't until the next morning that I remembered my glace. When I got back to it, it was a thick coating of carbon on the bottom of the pot. I scrubbed, sanded, and chipped at it, and it never seemed to get any thinner.

Fortunately, my roommate at the time was one of those people with their own opinions, and the will to express them. Otherwise, I probably would have given up. But he kept at me. "No WAY are you going to get that pot clean," and so on. So, just to prove him wrong, I kept researching it. And then, one day, I came across a site that told me to use Cream of Tartar.

My Hero!

I could hardly believe it was that simple, but I went and got some Cream of Tartar anyway, poured a couple of inches of water into the pot, a couple tablespoons of Cream of Tartar, and brought it to a boil. I then took some steel wool, and pushed it around the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. The black disappeared as if by magic, and soon my pot was all bright and shiny again.

And, that of course, is what I just did with the other pot last night. And that is what you can do if you ever burn a pot like that.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The perfect hash browns

I'm still going to get to the knife care and maintenance article. However, this is somewhat of a newsflash. After many years of searching for the secret, I've finally discovered how to make perfect hash browns from raw potatoes.

Would you like to be able to make hash browns in endless quantities, hash browns that are just like the ones you get from your favorite restaurant, from a large, inexpensive bag of potatoes? Would you like to forever forsake the need to pay five dollars for a bag of frozen hash browns that contains about fifty cents worth of potatoes, if that? Would you like to impress your family and friends with your hash brown prowess? Then read on.

I know a bunch of guys who, while they don't claim to be chefs, or even particularly good cooks, pride themselves on their ability to make breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, these they can make. But, if they want to make hash browns, they have to resort to frozen shredded potatoes, and proceed from there. Why? Because if they attempt to start with raw potatoes, the result is inevitably gray, gooey and heavy. Perfectly white potato shreds turn into discolored gelatinous masses in their frying pans, without fail.

Now, conventional wisdom states that in order to make the perfect hash browns, meaning crispy and light, with the only change in color being to golden brown, you must first eliminate the moisture. And this works, sort of. I have tried various methods, with various degrees of success. I tried wrapping them in a towel, and twisting the towel to wring the moisture from the potatoes. This worked as well as anything I'd previously tried, in fact, somewhat better. My hash browns only came out slightly gray and gummy, which lead me to believe I was on the right track. Slightly, after all, is better than completely.

But, as it was a real pain to get all the shreds off the towel, I decided to try a potato ricer. If you are not familiar with these, they are rather like a giant garlic press. (The rotary things people often call ricers are actually food mills, and something else entirely.) What ricers are designed to do is to extrude cooked potato out their myriad holes when you push on the handle. Because potatoes don't extrude the same way as something like Play-Dough does, they wind up in short extrusions, the resultant pile looking a bit like rice. Hence the term "ricer."

When raw potato shreds are put in a ricer, however, the results are different. Raw potatoes are tougher, and are not so easily smashed through the holes. What happens instead is that the water is squeezed out of the potato shreds, at which point it runs out through the holes, leaving you with mechanically dehydrated potato shreds. Exactly like what happens when you squeeze a wet sponge.

In regard to hash browns, however, what you wind up with is hash browns that are still a bit gray and gummy, but with a utensil that is a bit easier to clean. Rinse the ricer, and you quickly remove the potato shreds that stubbornly cling. Rinse the towel, and you wind up with a wet towel with potato shreds stuck to it.

With either method, however, you still wind up with hash browns that are still a bit gray and gloopy.

But, here's the thing. If you simply grate your potatoes and then put them in a pan to cook, they wind up a hopeless mess, right? So then, after you research it a bit, find an "expert" who tells you that the key is to get all the moisture out, try it yourself, and get markedly better results, you assume you are on the right track, right?

So the "wet" potatoes get all grey, gummy, and yucky, but the ones from which most of the moisture has been removed are only slightly grey, gummy, and yucky. The logical conclusion at this point would seem to be that your hash browns would be perfect, if only you could get enough of the moisture out of them.

And so I thought, for many years. I always thought that if I could just get enough of the moisture out, I would have perfect hash browns. And, so, though my quest for the perfect hash browns has spanned decades, I seldom even tried to make hash browns. It really bugs me when I can't figure something out quickly, and when something like this bugs me, I tend to shy away from it.

So, though I am pretty sure I encountered the actual solution many years ago, I'm also pretty sure I dismissed it out of hand when I heard it. First, because it flew in the face of the idea that the reason that the hash browns I cooked got gray and gummy was because they had too much moisture in them. As I said, I'd gotten better results when I squeezed the water out. Second, because it was too simple a solution. And third, because there is a lot of plain bad advice out there.

But, a couple of days ago, I watched a video by Chef Todd Mohr over at (Please go check him out. He has a an incredible amount of vids demonstrating cooking techniques rather than recipes, and can teach you a ton. And I'm a HUGE fan of his. Click his link in the link section. ) He was making potato pancakes. Now, the only potato pancakes I have ever been served were made out of leftover mashed potatoes, and I didn't much like them. But, I watched his video because I watch all of them, and because I was hoping to learn that potato pancakes don't have to be quite as awful as the ones I'd eaten.

Well, they don't, but what amazed me was that he made them out of shredded, raw potatoes.

Now, here is the "secret" I have been building up to. The first thing he did, after shredding the potatoes, was to put them in a bowl, fill the bowl with water, dump the contents of the bowl into a strainer, and rinse, repeat, until the water ran clear. He then coated them with, I think it was Parmesan cheese, and fried them in a pan.

Now, of course, since I still didn't want to believe it was so simple, I told myself that he wasn't making hash browns, and that it must have been the parmesan coating that kept them from turning grey and gloopy. So, I tried it myself.

I shredded a Russet potato, did the routine with the bowl and the strainer. Meanwhile, my pan was heating. When I got done rinsing them, I left them in the strainer to drain for a couple of minutes. (I made no further effort to get them dry, because Chef Todd didn't either.) When the pan and cooking fat were hot, and with a "here goes nothing" attitude, I dumped the shredded potatoes into the pan, spread them out a bit, and waited for them to get grey and gooey.

Guess what? They never did. The end result was the perfect pan of hash browns.
So, no more frozen shredded potatoes for me. No more trying to squeeze the water out of the potatoes. Turns out it's not the water, but the starch that turns the potatoes grey, and makes them gooey. Get rid of the starch and you get rid of the problem.