1.11.2012

Home Ec: A Guide to the Knives You (Actually) Need

photo courtesy of Andrea Gentl / Gentl and Hyers Photography/ Hungry Ghost Food + Travel

Let's talk knives for a moment.

I'm thinking about the knife skills class I'll be teaching as part of the Home Ec series at 18 Reasons next month, putting together a list for my students.

Over the years as I've guided plenty of professional and amateur cooks toward cutlery purchases, it's come to my attention levels of insanity at the knife shop can seem, at times, to be directly correlated to testosterone levels and the amount of food television watched.

Ahem.

All I'm saying is that some of the best chefs and cooks I know have some of the humblest knives.  A fancy, long, expensive Japanese knife does not necessarily a good cook make. 

Tamar's book has done a lot to remind me of the value of amateurism.  So many of the problems that home cooks face result from a cultural tendency to conflate what is appropriate and/or necessary in a professional kitchen with what is appropriate and/or necessary in a home kitchen.  That conflation, or confusion, really, is actually just a terrible story being told to us by the people who want to sell us more crap and make us think that we can't cook, and cook well, without every single doohickey they're trying to get us to buy.

However, having the proper tools on hand definitely makes things smoother, easier, and more comfortable.  And frankly, you waste a lot less when you use the right, sharp knife for a task.

For most home cooks, three, maybe four knives are plenty.  When I'm too lazy to unpack my knife roll at home, I often get away with just a chef's knife and a bread knife.

Knife blocks are a waste of space, and sort of silly, if you ask me.  Knife sets are just ways to get you to spend way more money than necessary.  Expensive German and Japanese knives are nice, and can definitely feel really luxurious, but I tend to think of them more as fancy cars than workhorses.

I've done my best to put together a no-nonsense knife shopping resource for you.  I hope it explains what needs to be explained and guides you toward purchases that make sense for you, and most importantly, help you feel at home in the kitchen.



illustration from MarshallMatlock.com



Glossary

Forged Blade: A blade shaped by pounding a single, thick piece of heated steel under extreme pressure using a hammer and die.
Tang: The part of the knife that extends into the handle.  On a typical wooden handled knife, you can check the length of its tang by looking at the top of the knife handle and seeing how far the metal extends.
Stamped Blade: A knife blade that's stamped from a piece of steel, much like how a cookie cutter stamps cookies out from dough.
Bolster: The knob of steel located at the back of the blade, where it meets the handle.  Typically, forged knives have bolsters while stamped knives do not.
Carbon Steel: The metal of choice back in the day.  It can get really, really sharp, but dulls quickly and rusts, so most knife makers have abandoned it in favor of stainless steel.
Stainless Steel: The metal of choice these days, because it doesn't corrode or rust, but the average stainless steel blade can't get as sharp as its carbon steel counterpart.  However, the higher quality the steel, the fancier and more expensive the knife.  Some Japanese knives are made with extremely fancy stainless steel that can actually get sharper than carbon steel, and hold an edge for even longer, too.
Sharpening: Redefining the edge of a knife's blade by using a sharpener or whetstone.  Sharpening a knife blade actually whittles away a fine layer of its metal, giving it a completely new edge that's ideally set at an angle that will allow you to cut thinly, quickly, and easily.  A well-set edge will last several weeks to several months, depending on how much you use your knife, how well you take care of it, and what material it's made of.
Honing: Running a knife blade across a honing steel to realign all of the little metal teeth that get all mixed up each time you use a knife.  Honing does not actually sharpen a knife, extending the lifespan of a sharpened blade instead.



Forged versus Stamped Blades

Let me break things down for you.  Basically, there are two methods for constructing knife blades: stamping and forging.  Generally, stamped blades are considered to be of lesser quality and forged blades of higher quality.

A stamped blade is cut, or stamped, out of a roll of steel, and then handles are attached.  Since there is no bolster, and since stamped blades tend to be on the thinner side, a stamped knife is typically lighter and less expensive than its forged counterpart.

Though stamped knives are often considered, and often are, inferior to their forged brethren, there are some great knives with stamped blades out there, appropriate for both professional and home cooks.  Global knives, omnipresent in restaurant kitchens and on cooking shows, are among the highest quality (and most expensive) stamped knives out there, though I don't much care for them myself.

I'm a huge fan of Victorinox-Swiss Army (formerly Forschner Victorinox) knives with rosewood handles.  I can't tell you how many of these knives I have owned, given away, and recommended over the years.  Made in Switzerland by the same folks who've been making Swiss Army knives since the 1880s, this line of stamped knives is well-constructed, durable, and completely reasonably priced.  The wooden handles are attached with rivets, and the tang, while not full, reaches deep into the handle so there is little risk of the blade snapping off.

Forging a blade is a more complicated process which requires a more skilled hand, resulting in a better crafted, more expensive knife.  In the process of forging a thick, hot piece of steel is shaped by pounding it with a forging hammer and die (think Hephaestus).  Forged knives are also given bolsters, or thick pieces of metal where the blade meets the handle that can serve to protect straying fingers and offer balance between the blade and handle.  Because of the bolster, and the thicker steel, forged knives are often substantially heavier than stamped knives, which can be useful for chopping, but which can also lead to fatigue more quickly.  Forged knives often, but not always, have a full tang, which means that the knife is made from a single piece of steel from the tip of the blade all the way to the end of the handle.  Besides being sturdier than a partial tang, a full tang will make a knife better balanced, which in turn can make it easier to use.

A lot of people, myself included at times, are really into Japanese forged knives, which can offer the best of both worlds--an extremely well-crafted yet light, thin bladed knife with superior design.  Some of my favorite Japanese knives combine carbon steel, which can get really sharp, with stainless steel, which does not rust, for blades that sort of do it all.  The thing is, Japanese knives can get really expensive really quickly.  Does the average home cook need a fancy Japanese knife?  No.  Will it make you a better cook?  No.  Will having one make certain tasks much more enjoyable?  Definitely.

The most important thing to consider when buying a knife (assuming you've already checked to make sure that it's not serrated or micro-serrated, like a Ginsu) is how it feels in your hand--that's why I highly recommend going to a cutlery shop in person to try out knives before purchasing them.  We all have different body types, hand shapes, and likes and dislikes, so different knives of equal quality will be preferable to each of us.  That being said, the Victorinox Rosewood line is a great place for almost everyone to start--those knives are well-priced and well-made, not too heavy, not too light.




The Three (or Four) Knives Every Home Cook Needs


An 8-inch or 10-inch chef's knife.  If you prefer, you can choose a Japanese santoku knife instead, but since santoku blades are rarely longer than seven inches, this could prove frustrating when chopping large amounts of herbs, vegetables or greens.  Since this Hiromoto 2800 santoku is relatively inexpensive (and really awesome), it might be the ideal gift to request for your birthday in a year!

A paring knife.  I prefer bird's beak paring knives because they offer greater mobility and are really
useful for trimming vegetables and other tasks that require a delicate, precise touch.

A serrated knife for slicing bread and tomatoes.

A boning knife with a thin, flexible blade is extremely useful for butchering and slicing raw and cooked meat.  Anyone who plans to cook fish, chicken, or other meat at home should invest in one of these.  I also LOVE this one with the granton, or dimpled, edge.



Basic Accessories

photo from Martha Stewart Everyday Food
Honing Steel. Rather than sharpening a knife, a few swipes across a steel simply realign, or hone, the tiny metal teeth along the edge of the blade.  These teeth get out of whack each time you use the knife, and regular honing will extend the lifespan of a sharp blade, prolonging the time between each sharpening.  Using a steel is not a replacement for sharpening your knife!

I love this black ceramic steel because I can use it with my Japanese knives as well as my Euro-style knives.  It's also really sturdy, unlike most ceramic steels that will snap in two if you just look at them the wrong way.  


Vegetable Peeler.  These inexpensive Swiss vegetable peelers are the best, and their ergonomic design allows you to swiftly peel a pile of carrots without straining your wrist.  I basically can't use any other peeler.

photo from Martha Stewart Everyday Food
Sharpener or Whetstone.  Learning how to use a whetstone to sharpen knives is an invaluable skill that takes a bit of trial and error and a good dose of patience to master.  But, in the long run, it's totally worth it because having sharp knives will become the rule instead of the exception in your kitchen, and sharp knives are not only more pleasurable, but also safer, to use.

If a whetstone just isn't your cup of tea, then consider getting a sharpener or commit to taking your knives to a local sharpener at least twice a year.  



Getting Fancy

FujitakeMisono and Hiromoto are three of my favorite Japanese knife makers.  All of them make well-constructed, gorgeous knives that are a pleasure to use.  I have a Fujitake 240mm and Hiromoto 180mm that use all of the time.

Mac Knives are sorta hip these days.  I've been through three of these over the years (between losing them and just sharpening them down to nothing)....they are invaluable for fine slicing and dicing if you find yourself doing that kind of thing.

Cut Brooklyn.  Simply beautiful.  A total luxury.

Cleaver.  I have and love an older version of this cleaver from Due Cigni.  If you plan to buy whole chickens, ducks, or work with any other meat bones, a cleaver is handy.  I was taught never to use a knife to cut through bone, and grimace every time I see someone do it.

Saladini knives.  Scarperia is a medieval hamlet in the Tuscan foothills with a rich history of ironworking and knife-making.  In the fifteeth and sixteenth centuries, knives from Scarperia were unparalleled in quality, and by the late 1800s, the town had become recognized throughout the country as the home of Italy's most skilled knife-making artisans.  As a result of industrialization and the passage of laws prohibiting the production of certain types of knives in Italy, only a few knife makers remain in Scarperia today, down from something like 80.  Saladini is by far my favorite.  I spent some time in their workshop when I lived in Tuscany when I chose each and every handle for the steak knives we used at Eccolo.  The level of craftsmanship is extraordinary, and all of the horns the handles are carved from are naturally shed.

Vintage Sabatier Carbon Steel Knives.  I'm obsessed with these beauties.



Knife Shopping Resources

In the East Bay
Hida Tool
Tokyo Fish Market
East Bay Restaurant Supply

In San Francisco
Bernal Cutlery
Columbus Cutlery
North Beach Cutlery
Economy Restaurant Fixtures
Town Cutler

Online
My Guide to Basic Knives for the Home Cook on Amazon
Cut Brooklyn: Gorgeous artisan knives.  Made by hand in Brookyln, NY.
Korin Japanese Knife Shop



And finally, here is a gorgeous video profile of Joel Bukiewicz of Cut Brooklyn, with shots of him working on the knives, at various points in the forging process.




13 comments:

  1. Very helpful and informative. Thanks for posting this. It will also help as I purchase knives as wedding gifts for just starting out cooks!

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  2. This post sent me running for my utensil drawer, for an old knife of my grandparents that I stashed there years ago. Without knowing it, I've had a ancient carbon steel Sabatier gathering dust. Time to get it sharpened and bring it back into regular use. Thank you!

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  3. That is SO AWESOME, Marisa!!! Post a picture of it when you put it back into rotation!

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  4. It's no matter whether you publish this or not... I just decided to pass this along My favourite knife comes from a local company in Canada. It's called a peasant chef's knife from Lee Valley. Solid carbon steel tapered from handle to point and spine to edge, modeled after a traditional French kitchen knife. Just under $30

    http://www.leevalley.com/en/gifts/page.aspx?p=52770&cat=4,104,53214&ap=5

    I love your page. My vegetable peeler may not be too ergonomic but it comes from my mother who bought it close to 70 years ago. It does the job for me. All the best,

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for the tip! Those knives are indeed beautiful! And I love that you are still using your mama's peeler. Sometimes, heritage outweighs ease.

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  5. I've got a set of cold knives at home and I use them in so many ways. I usually use them for peeling and cutting vegetables. Anyway, thanks for sharing these factual tips.

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  6. Hi,

    Great stuff on knives and what you need to consider.

    The video of Joe was fantastic. Great inspiration. I might embed that to my own post in a future articles talking a little bit about this topic. Would that be OK?

    Thanks for the great share.

    Kind regards,
    Tony
    http://kitchenappliances-reviews.com

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Tony,

    Thank you for the kind words. Yes, it would be totally alright for you to embed that video, especially considering that it's not mine!

    Best,
    Samin

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  8. I think the boning knife is what I really need because I love to eat meat and fish. My wife loves cooking, and this knife will be an incredulous birthday gift for her. I also have my own collection of knives that may also be used for cooking. I have cold steel knife, horned crook knife and buck knife. They have multipurpose functionality. By the way, the idea of using a steel to sharpen a knife is great. Honestly, I don't sharpen my own knives. I usually take them to a knife sharpening shop to protect the blades.

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  9. I love the anatomy of a knife photo. I was not very particular with the parts of a knife as long as I could use it to cut something. We have a set of knives at home and we use it as to where it must be used. I also have a kershaw pocket knife that I always bring with me for emergency purposes.

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  10. It's my understanding that many forged knives are not fully forged. But, they're first stamped, then the bolster is forged. And, stamped technology has advanced in such a way that they do stand up to forged knives. It's all in the heat treating process, which both stamped and forged knives are exposed to.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the info, Kathleen!

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  11. Love the post, great recommendations & information. The music on the video of the knife artist was poorly matched to the sincerity and straight-shooting vibe of the knife maker. I almost had to stop the video because of the over dramatic music, it set the wrong atmosphere. It's fantastic to make a short film focusing on an individual and their craft, it's obnoxious to stylize it to the point of distraction. Take it easy on the production.

    -An Interior Design, Music & Film Lover in Brooklyn.

    ReplyDelete