In starting our discussion of cooking techniques we start with the knife. The knife is the basic tool used for breaking things down, removing parts, partitioning or reducing. Anytime you have one large item that needs to have some part separated from other parts or reduced in size you are using a knife or a knife analogue. Blenders, food processors, graters, peelers, rasps; all of these are stand ins for a knife and generally do the same type of job: unwanted parts come off or large parts become small parts. Here at The Skills we are going to spend the next four weeks concentrating on knives. For all cooks they are usually the first tool picked up and it is worth spending the time on them.
Why do chefs focus on the knife so much? Besides being extremely sexy knives are also some of the oldest tools humans have ever formed. We have a long history of struggling to get our little mouths full of not-so-sharp teeth around the things we have hunted down for dinner. Ancient and not-so-ancient man has always loved this tool for the utility and comfort it brings. After all how many times have you seen a movie where the babysitter, in the dark of night, hears a bump in the basement and runs into the kitchen to grab a spoon? No, she always grabs the 10” razor sharp German chef’s knife, right?
Well, we don’t need to convince you that you need a knife but we do need to discuss what kinds of them you need. Walk into your local Home Gadgets-n-Things big-box style store and you will literally walk into an entire section of nothing but knives. Every size, every shape, every purpose and of course, every price. They will be displayed in their boxes, in plastic clamshell packages, behind glass, singly and in large sets. It can easily bewilder a prospective buyer. There’s no reason for any of that fluffery other than to try to separate you from your hard-earned cash as painlessly (for them) as possible. So what’s a shopper to do?
First things first, make sure you are shopping in the right location, and that big-box isn’t it unless you already know the exact brand and type of knife that you want and are just taking advantage of a sale or coupon. No, for this tool, this kitchen essential, you need to hit a specialty shop. You are looking for a store that has good selection, knowledgeable staff and will pull out a cutting board and a bag of potatoes to let you play with, errr we mean test drive the knife.
Why all the concern over where you buy? Serious chefs of any strip spend most of their time with a knife in hand. Much more so than any other manual tool in the kitchen. There are a lot of different knives out there and you need to know that the one you take home is the perfect one for you. No online catalog can let you feel a knife’s grip in your hand, can tell you how the balance will play out or how sharp it truly is. For each and every one of those decision points you need to have the knife in your hand, running it through some vegetables. Only a true test drive will tell you if this is your baby.
So where do you find a great knife store? Any city of any size has at least two restaurant supply shops and usually at least one of those will sell to the public. Many times they have a decent selection and their staff is always well-informed. Failing that you can usually find knife shops that sell everything from kitchen knives to survival knives and faux samurai swords. Try to talk with a senior staff member or better yet wait until you can talk to the owner himself and you will be in good hands. One more recommendation… In recent years there has been a surge in foodie kitchen supply stores like Sur la Table or Williams-Sonoma. We strongly recommend these folks for their selection and staff knowledge but be alert to the prices you will be paying, look for sales or price-matching, etc.
What about online? Yes, we fully support online via Amazon or other specialty sites but you won’t get the chance to test-drive the knife and there are no skilled store associates to ask questions of. That said you simply won’t beat the prices online, hands down these guys will trounce the competition on price, so if price is important to you (!) then by all means please fire up the old browser and click away. Just make sure you know the site’s return policy if the tool isn’t what you want and make sure you follow that policy.
All knives have at least seven different areas of anatomy: tip, edge, spine, bolster, heel, handle and tang. A quick illustration will give you the skinny on what we mean by these and most terms are very familiar. However some things may require a bit more discussion. The tip, edge and spine are all pretty fundamental but the bolster might be a new one if you are unfamiliar with knives. The bolster is the transition part between the handle and the blade. In most knives it is a solid piece of metal who’s weight is designed to offset the tip-heavy weight of the blade itself, thus returning center-of-balance back toward the handle. That’s all fine and well, but keep in mind that the experience of having the knife in your hand will far, far outweigh the fact of actually having a bolster or not. In other words, do yourself a favor and look at knives with and without bolsters. Apparently in some circles it has become cool to prefer, indeed insist, on only bolstered knives. Bah, the feel is the thing, follow your senses on it.
The corner where the edge meets the bolster is the heel and it deserves mentioning for one simple reason. If the knife you buy has a tapered bolster that reaches down towards the heel then keep in mind that extra thickness will effect the sharpening of the blade. Over the lifetime of the knife as you regularly sharpen it (you are planning on regularly sharpening, right?) the rest of the edge will grind away upwards but the heel won’t. This will effect the shape of the blade belly, or curve and will eventually cause issues. For most home users this is probably not enough to steer you away from purchasing a particular knife, but just keep it in mind and if possible avoid it.
One more anatomy part worth mentioning is the tang. Like the bolster many people think that a full tang, which runs the length of the handle, is the only type of knife to ever consider, and that is simply not true. In fact before WWII almost no knives had full tangs, and some exceptional pieces of cutlery are far older than that. But tangs are shiny, look good, and make a great faux-sales-pitch data point. If the knife that makes your fingers dance, your heart swell and your eyes mist over has an embedded tang then get it and don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Now we come down to it, the ultimate knife question: Which knives do I need? We are going to assume that at this point in your cooking career you are not a professional chef in a starred kitchen in downtown Manhattan. If you are then please let us know, we want to stop by your place for lunch one day! Pro chefs need a full set of specialized tools: filleting, boning, carving, paring, etc. They are the folks who can justify the large canvas rolls of edged weaponry. Also we are going to assume that you don’t have a specialty job that requires one specific knife like shucking oysters or working in a poultry processing plant. The target demographic here is simply the food affectionado who wants to get really serious about the food that they serve their friends and family.
In that case we’re happy to tell you that you can accomplish 95% of all kitchen chores with exactly three knives. The Three Amigos, The Triplets, The Holy Trinity, yes just three. In order those are the chef’s knife, the paring knife and the slicer. Get a good set of these that fit in your hand, meet your budget and perform well and you will know what chefs all over the world have known, the knife is the heart of what you will be doing. Get this purchase right.
The Chef’s Knife
Within this class there is a lot of variability and innovation. But you can toss most offerings into one of three groupings. Your chef’s knife is usually either a western-style German made knife and therefore thicker, heavier and stronger. Or it is Oriental-styled, Japanese made and lighter, more agile but also weaker. Or finally it is a Japanese-made Western-style knife, the group that has been taking over the market in the past few years. This last grouping is a combo of features of the previous two and contains some truly amazing blades. Know what you are looking at and proceed accordingly.
The Paring Knife
So here we come down to it, what knife should you actually put your hard-earned cash down for? The very first qualifier is how much of that hard-earned cash do you have to throw into this. Thankfully, unlike years past, there are excellent options at all price points.
At the extreme lower end, under $100, there are some amazing knives. You might be in this category if you are just dipping your toe into the kitchen and not sure if this is your thing, on a tight budget or even if you just don’t want to have to call in the FBI if you lose your knife. If you find yourself here then we have some great news. One of the higher rated knives available today is in this category and its at the lower end. The Victorinox 40521 10-Inch Chef's Knife is where you want to be looking. For a dollar or two less there is also an 8” version but either way for under $30 you are getting a really good knife that is lower priced than almost anything on the market. These knives have the fibrox handles which make them completely dishwasher-safe and good quality steel that will take and hold some very sharp edges.
If you want to step up your game just a little more then we can recommend several options. We expect most foodies live in this zone somewhere as the knives are not budget killing, extremely elegant and professional grade. In fact both of your authors have knives from this range and we love them. Dearly. In fact our wives sometimes get jealous.
First up in the $100+ range is the Shun Classic 8” or 10” chef’s knife. This blade comes from the ‘oriental origin with western styling’ group and brings with it the best of both worlds. With no exceptions this is Lee’s favorite knife and has actually gone on vacation with him. True story. (”They were expecting me to cook, what was I supposed to do?” - Lee) A super hard VG-10 steel core wrapped in 32 layers of SUS410 high carbon stainless give the blade’s surface a damascus styling that really draws the eye. But the Shun people don’t layer the blade merely for looks. That layering gives you a super hard (but potentially brittle) core and the layers soften that brittleness to working-kitchen levels. Add to that a whole array of fantastic reviews online and you have a winner on all fronts.
One additional note about the Shun Classic line, by default they come with right-handed oriented handles. If you look at the knife from the top, sighting down the height of the blade you will notice that the handle is ‘D’ shaped and bulges out to the right. Also that the blade comes out to the left of the handle slightly. Both of these very subtle adjustments make for a very comfortable experience… if you are right handed. But fear not if you happen to be in the 10% of the population that are southpaws, you can order left-handed versions straight from the factory.
If you are looking for pure German cutting prowess then you will like our second contender. The Wusthof Classic 10” is a monster in the kitchen. The blade is very tall, very thick and perfect if you work with a lot of bone-in meats and need this kind of raw power. We aren’t entirely sure we buy into 100% of the ad copy on their Amazon page, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an amazing kitchen tool.
Finally we have one more knife and this one comes straight out of Japan, styling and all. That is the MAC MTH-80. Pricewise it fits right in with the other two, low $100’s range. Since it is Japanese you can expect super-sharp 16* angles on the edge, very light and very fast. About the only negative reviews we found were that it is hard to locate online but otherwise everyone who has one loves this knife.
Get above $200 per blade and in most cases you are looking at custom-made once-in-a-lifetime type purchases. Yes, we have some of our own favorites in this category and there are some take-your-breath-away tools in here but there are none we can comfortably recommend. If you are dropping this kind of cash then by all means get into a Williams-Sonoma or someplace where you can handle it before you walk out with it. At that price point you had darn well better be comfortable holding the knife and quite honestly its ‘feel’ trumps all other considerations.
Whew, that was a lot for one sitting but thanks for sticking with us and hopefully everyone enjoyed it. Next week Eric will be taking over the writing duties and will teach us what to do with these beautiful instruments. We’ll spend two weeks on cutting skills and then he will show us how to properly sharpen the knives, which is a critical skill to have. Keep in mind that in writing these articles we are leaning on work done by Chad Ward in his book An Edge in the Kitchen along with info on the www.bestchefsknife.org website and both have been valuable resources. Check them out! See you all next week.- Lee & Eric