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Cooking 101: Knife Buying Guide Kitchen

This knife buying guide kitchen is supposed to be an alround-article explaining.

Cooking 101: Knife Buying Guide Kitchen

I’ve been writing culinary articles for a while now, and it occurred to me, that while I do my best to put all the steps into simple language that almost anyone could understand, I’m still making a few assumptions about the skill level of the reader.

I’ve been jotting down notes while at work and while cooking at home for some time now and hopefully this series will help out those who aren’t as skilled in the kitchen.

A quality chef knife might be the single most important tool in the kitchen. Outside of the realm of baking, not much else can affect how quickly you get finished like a good sharp knife. Unfortunately most people end up buying their knife at a store like Wal-Mart, or worse through some bullshit catalog like Pampered Chef. They then proceed to abuse the hell out of the knife and use it incorrectly.

This article is a longer one. Use the anchors to jump to the chapter:

  1. Buying a Decent Knife
  2. Caring for Your Knife
  3. Using Your Knife

 

Buying a Decent Knife

Style

The two main styles of chef knife that you’ll see on the market are the French style and the Japanese santoku. The French style is what most people think of when they think “butcher knife” it as a slight curve that goes up to a tapered tip.

 

 

 

The santoku looks somewhat like a clever, with a straight cutting edge and the curve and taper being much shallower, and on the spine of the knife. Which you choose is a matter of preference.

 

Quality

Don’t skimp on your knife. Being a chef people with nice kitchens like to show off when I come over. They’ll show me the Vulcan oven, the custom built salamander over the 6 burner range, and the stainless steel “professional quality” hood over the whole setup, yet the knife in their block cost $20 and they bought it at Target. This is the culinary equivalent of putting 24″ backlit spinner rims on a 1987 Nissan Stanza.

Weight

Now this is a huge matter of opinion that I’ve gotten into arguments with other culinarians about, but personally I believe a good knife is a heavy knife. I’ve seen some ultra lite knives marketed, made out of titanium of other lite metals, but I don’t like them. A heavy knife is easier to control, its weight and mass make it less prone to moving from accidental fidgeting as well as helping drive the knife down when you’re chopping something.

Brand

My top three brands when choosing a chef knife are Wusthof, Henckels, and Ken Onion Wusthof and Henckels both make good affordable knives. Ken Onion chef knives tend to run higher in price but I personally use a Ken Onion knife at work and will vouch for the quality that comes with that price. I’ve put over 1000 hours onto that knife and it’s still cuts like the day I bought it after its sharpened. The handle, the blade, and the rivets have held up amazingly, despite the abuse I’ve put it through.

 

Caring for Your Knife

Sharpening and Honing

This is the most misunderstood aspect of knife care. The major difference is that sharpening (and dulling) of a blade requires the removal of material, while honing is the reshaping of material. This is where the misconception comes from. That metal rod that we’ve all seen does NOT sharpen a knife. It should be called a honing steel or simply just a steel. A steel does not sharpen a knife because it does not remove metal from the knife.

What it does do is straighten the edge out, which does increase the cutting ability of the knife dramatically. A sharpening wheel or a whetstone physically remove the material from the blade, thereby making it thinner, and sharper. The main difference is that a blade should be honed at least every day you use it. A blade should be sharpened once every week or two, or as needed.

(explaining how to hone and sharpen a knife gets really wordy really quickly and I feel like I’ll lose people if I try to. If you’d like instructions on how to do this, I’m debating doing some YouTube videos on knife care, if you want to see this just leave a comment saying you do, if enough people say they do I’ll get a webcam and make it happen)

The Bell Pepper Test (The Boner Test for Knives)

A lot of people ask “how sharp should a knife be” and the best answer I have is if it can pass the bell pepper test, then its sharp enough. The test is simple, get a bell pepper, stand it up and cut off one of the sides. Now firstly, if that was difficult, your knife is dull. Now take the side of the bell pepper, and turn it skin side upand try to slice it. If this is difficult, your knife is dull. The reason this works is because bell peppers have very leathery skin when they’re raw. This makes them naturally cut resistant.

As well as being cut resistant when turned skin side up there should also be a slight curve in the pepper so when you go to apply pressure the pepper flattens out, this dissipates the energy you’re applying making this way of cutting very inefficient.

If the edge of your knife is sharp enough to compensate for that lack of efficiency than its sharp enough to work under ideal conditions.

Choose a proper cutting board

There are three major materials that I see cutting boards made out of. Wood, plastic, and glass. Can you guess which one is really fucking stupid? That’s right, glass! Glass is surprisingly hard, relative to metal. It’s a fact we don’t think about because glass is very brittle, so it breaks easy. A glass cutting board will dull a knife incredibly fast because of this fact.

Of the other two there’s a pretty heated debate in the culinary world, plastic or wood. Personally I think its easy, plastic. Plastic is cheap and recently we’re starting to see plastic cutting boards impregnated with antimicrobial compounds. I like the price. Any kind of cutting board will wear out with use, a plastic one is cheap enough to simply throw away when that times comes.

If you choose to go with wood, go with butcher block.

Yes its expensive, but if you go with the cheaper “plank” style board made out of a single piece of wood whats going to happen is the wood will eventually warp, leaving you with an obnoxious curve in the board. The advantage to butcher block is that it’ll last forever. I’ve seen 100+ year old butcher block boards that still look brand new. If you go with butcher block make sure its thick, at least two inches, because when the board starts to wear out you simple sand it down a bit until you’ve got a new surface to cut on.

Don’t Scrape Me Bro

Scraping the blade across the cutting board is something that I see a lot of inexperience or ignorant people do when cooking. They’ll finish mincing something like parsley or garlic and then use the knife to scrape and scoop it up off the board. Now instructors will tell you to never use the knife and to use something like a bench scraper.

While that isn’t a bad idea, to me, its like buying white out when you’re writing in pencil. What most people do wrong is that they keep the knife to vertical when they scrap the board with it. It’s really obvious if you’re doing this because the knife will usually stutter and jump as you pull it. Now most people will say this is dulling the knife, bu as long as you aren’t using a stupid cutting board it’s not dulling the knife its misaligning the edge.

Simply hone the knife and everything will be forgiven.

The proper way to use your knife to scoop something up off the board is to lay the knife almost flat on the board, with enough of an angle so that the edge is just touching the board and then slide the knife forward and scoop up the product. If you do it right it looks like you’re making a long slice on an invisible piece of meat, or like you’re shaving the cutting board. A lot of people don’t like this method because they think y0u’ll cut your hand doing it, but as long as your smart and careful you wont.

Washing

Handwash your knife. End of story.

It’s tempting to stick a knife in the dishwasher, but this can have consequences in the long term. Dishwashers can not only bang the knife around, causing physical damage, but the heat and chemicals involved can effect the composition of the metal the knife is made of.

Using Your Knife

Holding the Knife

You wouldn’t think this is grounds for discussion, but unfortunately this suffers from a misnomer, just like the “sharpening” steel. Most people know the two basic parts of a knife, the blade and the handle. The problem is that the “handle” isn’t really a handle, it’s a counter weight and a stabilizer.

Now this isn’t always true though, but for general use like chopping onions, slicing meat, and mincing herbs it is.

The proper way to hold a knife is to pinch it at the very base of the blade, using your thumb, and second knuckle on your index finger. If you need more leverage or stability you can wrap your pinky and ring fingers around the handle.

The times when the handle is to be used as a handle and gripped with all four fingers and your thumb would be if you’re cutting through something that requires an excessive amount of force. Two obvious examples that come to mind are splitting a lobster tail and cutting a whole chicken in half. In both cases you would set the tip of the knife on the board, grab the handle with your whole hand, hold the tip down with another hand, and then drive all your weight down on the handle to bifurcate.

Knuckles and Tips

When using a knife you’re man hand will be grasping the handle, and your off-hand will be holding the food your working with. Now most instructors will tell you to “always always always curl you fingertips back and put your knuckles forward” I don’t like this thinking for two reasons. First there are times when having your hand flat and your fingers extended is required to keep whatever your cutting in check, and secondly I think it builds a false sense of security that, if you do this you wont hurts yourself.

Now I’m not saying don’t keep your finger tips tucked back, I do it about 80% of the time because it does work, but don’t think of it as the only way and don’t think of it as a surefire way to keep safe. The best way to keep from cutting yourself is to be aware of what you’re doing and to practice proper knife usage. You’ll find proper way is also the most natural way to use a knife.

Chopping, Slicing, and Mincing

Chopping and slicing are the two most general things you’ll do with a knife, the major difference between the two?

Chopping is when the knife leaves the board between strokes, where slicing the tip of the knife remains on the board between or during strokes.

These two terms, again, get mixed up often by pop culture. Chopping is simple, grasp the knife firmly, and moving from the elbow go up and down. The best way to think of it, its like jerking off with your wrist in a different position.

Slicing has a little more finesse. When slicing you’ll place the tip of the knife just north of whatever your cutting, you’ll drive the knife the down and forward. Once you’ve completed the cut you’ll lift up the handle, keeping the tip on the board and drawing the knife back towards you. This movement should be very smooth and fluid.

The third use, mincing, is a combination of the two. Like chopping, it’s a rapid up and down motion from the elbow, but like slicing you keep the tip of the knife on the board. When mincing most people will place their off-hand on the tip of the knife to hold it down and to help steer the blade. This isn’t required, but its hard to not use your other hand when you’re first starting out.

If you have any questions, feel I missed something, or want to know more about a specific topic I covered leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you. If I get a lot of comments I’ll post a Q&A response to this.

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