Cutlery 101

Many of you know firsthand that a good knife is a cook’s best and perhaps most important asset. Little wonder that one of the most frequent questions GadgetGals is asked is, “What kind of knives should I buy?”

The simplest answer: Buy the best quality you can afford. This is one category of kitchenware you don’t want to shortchange. You’ll use them nearly every time you step in the kitchen to cook. With the right use and care, high-quality knives make your cutting jobs easier, and they will last a lifetime. Here’s the scoop on what you need to know.

Basic Needs

How many knives do you need? A minimum of three. Sure, a countertop storage block full of knives looks impressive and is nice, but not essential. If your kitchen storage space is in short supply, think of the room you save for other tools you do need.

With this trio, you can accomplish almost every slicing, paring, chopping, dicing, and mincing task:

Paring knife, 3- to 4-inch

Chef’s or cook’s knife, 8- to 9-inch

Serrated or bread knife, 9-inch

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with adding to the basics. These nice-to-haves diversify your knife “wardrobe”:

Santoku,a favorite of Japanese chefs, it’s known for its sharp edge for chopping, dicing, mincing

Slicer, a long-bladed knife for carving meats

Boning knife, a long, narrow knife; save money by boning meats and poultry yourself

Sheep’s food paring knife, so named for its hoof-shaped tip, the blade has a straight edge ideal for paring and peeling fruit

Tomato knife, a small, serrated knife perfect for slicing tomatoes and other soft fruits and veggies

Asian cleaver, heavy-duty for cutting up meats and poultry; also favored for prepping ingredients for Asian stir-fries and other dishes

What to Look For

The Blade: This should be a priority decision maker. Identify what metal is used. You want a knife that cuts and sharpens well over long, repeated use. You can opt for either high-carbon stainless steel alloy (contains varying amounts of metals depending on brand and style) or plain carbon steel. Truth is, with either there are trade-offs. A high-carbon steel blade doesn’t rust or discolor but dulls more quickly. A plain carbon steel knife can pit, discolor, and rust but holds its sharpness better. Despite the drawbacks, many professional chefs prefer plain carbon steel because it holds a sharp edge longer.

Stamped vs. Forged: Stamped blades are punched out from sheets of steel using blade-shaped dies; they cost less to produce. Making forged blades involves multiple steps and human involvement, resulting in higher quality but more expensive, knifes.

The Tang: This is the strip of metal that runs from the blade into the handle, thereby securing the two together. A full tang runs the entire length of the handle; a partial tang is concealed within the handle. The length of tang effects how balanced the knife feels as you cut. Good balance makes a knife easier to use.

The Handle: What material is the handle made of–molded plastic, wood, rubber, or metal? Choose a handle by what you like in looks and how it feels. Hold the knife in YOUR hand. It should fit comfortably and not be too large or too small for your grip. The handle can be, but is not necessarily, price driven.

The Bolster: Often found on chef’s knives, this thick piece of metal between the handle and the heel of the blade acts as a safety shield, protecting your fingers from the cutting edge. It also adds balance to the knife.

The Feel: Take hold of the knife and see if it feels comfortable and balanced in your hand. Don’t go too lightweight. You want a knife that has some weight to it for easy chopping and cutting.

What About Ceramic: The more recent additions to kitchen cutlery called ceramic knives have created plenty of culinary buzz. Made of a high-tech material called zirconium oxide, they hold a sharp edge longer than steel. While ceramic is second in hardness after diamonds, it also is more fragile and brittle than steel, meaning blade tips and edges can chip. Also, sharpening ceramic knives, while not needed as often as steel, requires special equipment and the hand of a sharpening professional. It’s certainly okay to own a ceramic knife or two if you like, but you’ll still want and need classic metal knives to do the bulk of your cutting chores.

Cost: Ever tried to cut with a really bad, dull knife? Then you know why we say again, buy the best knives you can afford. The price range in knives can seem huge, from a few dollars to hundreds per knife. But the initial higher cost of a quality knife when amortized over a lifetime ends up being miniscule per day. And the ease and pleasure you’ll get from cutting with a good knife will make you glad you bought smart.

Storage and Care: Our first choice for storage is a kitchen drawer with a knife tray consisting of separate slots that keep each knife from rubbing and nicking other knifes and utensils. You can buy separate knife tray inserts at cookware and organization stores. Countertop knife blokcs and magnetic strips are handy, but they take up valuable counter space, collect dirt faster, and are harder to clean.

Wash and dry you knives individually in hot soapy water. Do not put cutlery in the dishwasher. Over time, dishwashing dulls the blades and can cause discoloration.

Brands:

These are some of the most popular brands on the market today. Each offers a variety of styles and price ranges:

Chef’s Choice by Edgecraft, USA, www.chefschoice.com

Chicago Cutlery, USA, www.chicagocutlery.com

Global by Yoshikin, Japan, www.yoshikin.com

J.A. Henckels, German, www.jahenckels.com

Lamson-Sharp, USA, www.lamson-sharp.com

Messermeister, German, www.messermeister.com

Mundial, Brazil, www.mundialusa.com

Shun by Kershaw, Japan, www.kershawknives.com

Victorinex by Swiss Army, www.swissarmy.com

Wusthof, German,www.wusthof.com

Zwilling by J.A. Henckels, German, www.zwilling.com

Sharpen Up

A sharp knife is far safer than a dull one because it requires less pressure to cut, enabling you to control the knife more easily. The tools to consider for sharpening include the following:

Honing Steel: Any culinary pro will tell you that a honing steel, available from knife manufacturers, is essential to own. Using a honing steel regularly keeps knives sharp and reduces the need for professional sharpening to once a year.

Learn how to use the steel. And every time you start to use a knife, hone it first. It takes less than a minute. Everytime you cut, a microscopic portion of the knife edge bends. Using a steel helps to unbend and realign that microscopic edge.

Manual Knife Sharpener: Often are hand-held devices, these are a good companion to a honing steel. You can run the blade through each time you use the knife. The sharpeners are set at the correct angle for the blade. Prices vary from $10 to $50.

Sharpening Stone: Professional chefs think you should be able to sharpen your own knives, preferably with a sharpening stone. But let’s face it, they’ve been taught in culinary school. The bottom line: use a stone only after you’ve had professional instruction in how to do it. Otherwise, you may end up doing more damage than good.

Electric Knife Sharpener: Like a stone, electric sharpeners help restore the factory edge to your knives. They position the knife at the correct angle to creat a new edge. Popular brands such as Chef’s Choice, Finestone, Sun One, and Wusthof offer different types of sharpeners at different price points.

If none of the devices for annual sharpening appeal to you, call on a professional sharpening service. They can be found in the Yellow Pages.

Additional Reading

Getting to know your knives and how to use them well is both art and science. GadgetGals recommends these books to further your knowledge. Trust us, they are not dull reading!

Knives Cooks Love by Sarah Jay, published by Andrews McMeel, $25

Mastering Knife Skills by Norman Weinstein, published by Stewart, Tabori and Change, $35

An Edge in the Kitchen by Chad Ward, published by Harper Collins, $35

All books are available at www.amazon.com

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