Dare I say, the most important tool in the kitchen
I have watched people discover how much easier things can be with the right tool, and most often, it’s with regards to knives and cooking. If you're a big knife geek, you’re not going to get anything out of this, but if you’re:
A home cook;
A potential culinary student;
Using your steak knives for everything;
Using any single knife for everything;
Not sure if you’re knives have ever been sharpened;
Have no knives at all;
...keep reading this general overview. I have no doubt you’ll find it super helpful!
“What’s the best?” ~
Sometimes there is a “best”, but for things like a knives, so much of it really is simply personal. The knife that feels safe and comfortable in your hand is usually the best knife for you. Of course, the right tool for the job is always the best tool for the job. What do you cut? What would you like to do in the future? Try-out some knives at a store that offers the opportunity to hold them in your hand, hold them properly, and “use it”. You may have to pretend to use it, but a smart sales person will be able to help you with your grip if you need it, and will have something for you to cut too. Basically, you’ll pinch the blade of the knife, just above the handle, then wrap your hand around the handle. You have more control this way.
Kinds of Knives ~
There are other choices out there, but a fairly broad search will give you European, Japanese, and Ceramic knives.
European knives have been pretty standard in American kitchens for a very long time. They are the most forgiving of the three. If you insist on using a glass cutting board or a dishwasher, you’re not doing your knives any favors, but they won’t likely chip as a result. You should never plow through a pound of frozen sausage, but if you’re going to cut through it one way or another, this is the knife for the job.
The Japanese are known for their swords, and they make fine knives too! The metal used in Japanese knives is harder than European, so it keeps it’s sharp edge longer and can achieve a sharper angled point, making for some very fine and precise cutting, however it could chip if used on a glass cutting board, cutting bone, or whacking avocado pits. It won’t survive the frozen sausage situation either, but that whole thing was a bad idea from the start.
Ceramic knives hold their edge the longest, and stay shockingly sharp, but they are the hardest of the blades, and will not like any misuse. If you’re cutting meat, cheese, produce, and other typical items on the proper cutting board, you’re going to love it. People say, “sure they’re great, but don’t drop it!” Well, I say don’t drop any knife. If it’s falling, get the heck out of the way!
Styles of Knives ~
There are many, many different styles of knives, and they all have different purposes/strengths/weaknesses. At minimum, I believe most people should end up with a 6”-8” Chef, a Paring knife, and a decent length Bread or Off-set Serrated knife. It really depends on what you’re going to do though. There are some Utility knives that I like. I’ve never cared for Utility knives before because they tend not to have room for fingers wrapped around the handle and against a cutting board, but the ones with space for fingers are winning my heart as a really good gift knife. I absolutely love the Rocking Santoku for gift giving too. They tend to be about 7”, and are good for both rocking, slicing and chopping, meeting many people’s needs, exceeding expectations. Gift giving is hard with knives, but those two seems to be safe bets for non-professionals. Professionals will tell you what they want, or stay away from that situation altogether.
What I’ve got ~
10” Chef, three 8” Chefs, 9” Bread, 12” Slicing, 7” Boning, 6” Chef, and a handful of Paring knives. Frederick Dick was among the first few knives I got for culinary school. I mostly use them when teaching classes. Most of my everyday knives are German, Twin Cuisine by Henckles/Zwilling. I’ve had them for close to 15 years and I have no complaints. The ones I use most are the 8” Chef, the Bread, Paring, and I used to use the Boning alot. My beloved Bob Kramer Essentials 6” Chef knife is my newest. It’s a bit of a hybrid, as it is designed by an American Bladesmith, Bob Kramer, and made by German Henkles/Zwilling in Saki Japan. I do love this little beauty! I also have a few handy for traveling, Kuhn Rikon ceramic coated steel knives. They come with a tight fitting plastic guard, and I keep one each in my lunch box, cooler, and picnic basket. I’ve got family heirloom silver plated carving sets that come out for special occasions.
The Rules ~
Of course there are rules, Not only is it important to have the right tool for a job, but you should know how to use it safely. I think these are perfectly reasonable:
Use. Hand wash. Dry. Put away.
Wood, wood composite, or plastic cutting boards only.
A falling knife has no handle.
There is no particular order. They are all equally important. A good sales person can give you very basic instructions on holding a knife properly. You may even be interested in taking a knife skills class.
Not only is it important to have the right tool for a job, but the tool should be in good condition. All things being equal, which they most certainly are not, think of it this way: While a European knife may need sharpening every 12-14 months, a Japanese blade may need it every 14-16 months. A Ceramic blade could last 3-4 years! Any way you slice it, that’s not too often.
You could use a whet stone, which I recommend to people who totally dig their knives, like detail oriented hobbies, and have a tolerance for annoying noises. If you fit the bill, this is the best way to care for your knives, and you are doing the best by them.
You could find a blade smith in your community. Around here, our guy at local farmer’s markets has all his gear in an outfitted truck. This is the absolute best way to go for almost everyone. These folks will also sharpen lawn mower blades, sabers, and any other sharp pointy thing you’ve got—they’re the real deal!
Some stores that sell knives will also have a sharpening service. If they take training seriously, this is a perfectly fine way to go, but honestly, training is pretty hit or miss when sales people aren’t necessarily “knife people”. If you’ve got special knives, I would go with the first two options first.
There are some nice electric sharpeners, but that gets VERY pricey quickly. Particularly if you’ve got a mix of knives/blade angles, as that takes switching sharpening elements-a tough item to find at all!
Don’t use the little manual things. In my opinion they do more harm than good. Enough said.
Ceramic blades should go back to the manufacturer for sharpening.
I have sharpened mine at the cookware store I worked for, I have used professionals, but mostly I do it myself on a whet stone.
Then there is a honing steel. This isn’t a sharpener. Some say they are. It’s a little confusing… The honing steel is something you use for regular light maintenance to straighten the blade’s slightly curled, but otherwise sharp edge. Professional restaurant chefs use it every day, I use mine about twice a week these days, but that varies based on use, you may use yours once a week. Whenever you feel like your knife isn’t particularly sharp, use the steel and it’ll be freshened right up. The day it doesn’t work, it’s time for sharpening. A good sales person can walk you through using one.
What’s most important ~
You need to feel safe and comfortable, use the right tool for the job, and remember that safety is always first!