Builders and mechanics aren’t the only ones who need a well stocked toolbox. The budding chef also needs the right tools for the job and that is particularly true when it comes to knives. You can’t build a house with just one hammer, nor can you construct a culinary masterpiece with just one knife. So where do you start? Well, know what knives do what and you are heading in the right direction.
The A-Z of Knives:
Visit your local kitchenware store and you will find knives of every shape and size imaginable. Our A-Z guide highlights the most common:
Boning knife: used to remove skin and meat from the bone. The boning knife is strong enough to cut accurately and flexible enough to follow the shape of the bone, therefore removing more meat.
Bread knife: used to saw through bread and cakes. Bread knives have a serrated edge enabling them to cut through the hard crust. Using a sawing action will stop the bread from squashing when cut.
Carving knife: used to cut slices of meat. Like the boning knife, it is strong enough to cut through the meat yet flexible enough to follow the shape of the bone.
Cheese knife: used to cut through cheese. Often has a forked end which can be used to pick up the cut pieces.
Chef knife: used for general cutting and chopping. Large in size and designed so the blade can be rocked from tip to the end when cutting, this is one of the most common kitchen knives on the market. The chef’s knife is also referred to as a Cook’s knife or a French knife.
Cleaver: used to chop and crush a variety of foods, especially vegetables. A cleaver can also be used to pulverise meat. It is a heavy knife with a thick blade and often has a hole at the end so it can be hung up for storage.
Filleting knife: used to fillet fish. A narrow bladed knife about 15-20cm long that easily separates the flesh of the fish from the skin.
Mezzaluna: half moon shape knife available with a single or double blade which is used to finely chop herbs.
Paring knife: used to peel and cut. A smaller version of the chef knife, the paring knife usually measures 6-10cm and is considered an all purpose utensil perfect for delicate jobs.
Santoku knife: used to chop and slice foods into fine and narrow pieces. Used mostly for the preparation of Asian cuisine, the santoku is similar in shape to the chef knife, but with a slightly wider blade and shorter length. It has a hollow ground edge (granton edge) which stops foods sticking to the blade, therefore reducing friction and enabling faster cutting.
Utility knife: used for slicing and chopping small foods. A basic all-purpose kitchen knife that is slightly larger than the paring knife.
Best Kitchen Knives:
There are three must have knives for every kitchen – a chef knife, a bread knife and a paring knife. Add these to your collection and you will have most cooking capers covered. When choosing a knife you are looking for balance between the handle and blade, a secure grip and a good quality blade that sharpens well. And of course ease of use is paramount which differs from person to person.
There is a lot of technical jargon out there relating to knives, here is just a few we wanted to highlight:
Bolster – is the thick divider of metal between the handle and the knife blade. It makes the knife strong, adds durability and provides counter balance as the handle is usually lighter than the blade, so the bolster provides balance which improves control of the knife.
Forged – knives constructed from one solid piece of steel.
Full tang – the tang refers to the blade so a full tang means that the blade extends all the way through to the handle in one continuous piece of metal.
Granton edge – these are hollow spots on the blade which are designed to minimise the friction between the blades surface and food for speedier slicing, you often see this on some cheese knives and Santoku knives (images above).
Heel – is the back edge of the blade
Taper – is the angle at which the blade thins out from the bolster to the blade tip
Ceramic v Stainless Steel v High Carbon Knives:
Chances are most knives in your kitchen will be made from stainless steel, which is strong, durable and easy to maintain. Steel knives are generally the most affordable type of knife.
However, you are better off looking for a knife that states ‘Carbon Steel or High Carbon’ which refers to the carbon content in the blade, by adding carbon the strength of the blade is greatly improved. Asian blades tend to be made from carbon steel or high carbon and are considered stronger than Western Knives. These knives are also easier to sharpen but can be more expensive, if you cannot afford a high carbon knife go with a pure stainless steel blade to start with.
There is also the Ceramic knife which is made from zirconium oxide, a material which is almost as tough as diamond. Ceramic knives are incredibly sharp, do not corrode and rarely need sharpening, although they are easily chipped and can break if bent at an angle as their flexibility is limited.
Maintaining and Storing Knives:
To prolong the life of your knife always cut on a plastic or wooden surface to avoid damaging or blunting the blade. Blades may be damaged by being corroded by acid (when cutting lemons or tomatoes) or by high temperatures and corrosive chemicals in a dishwasher, which can result in scratches to the blade’s surface, dishwashers can also melt glue or plastic used in the knife’s construction.
If you want your knives to last, then you need proper storage. Tossing them in a kitchen drawer will lead to chips and scratches, unless you use a hard plastic sleeve to protect the blade. The most common means for storing knives is a knife block, which sits on the kitchen bench and keeps the blades safely slotted away. TIP: Store knives in a block with the blade up so they are resting on the heel. Wall mounted magnetic bars can hold knives in place, although this is not a suitable option for ceramic knives which are non-magnetic. A padded knife case is the professional’s choice, offering the best protection. Of course safety should always come first, so no matter which storage option you use make sure your knives are out of reach of small children.
How to Sharpen a Knife:
Different knives are sharpened differently according to the composition of the blade, use and edge of the knife. For example, Western knives are traditionally made of softer steel and take an edge angle of 20-22 degrees, while East Asian knives are traditionally made of harder steel and take an edge angle of 15-18 degrees.
The two most common knife sharpeners are those that straighten the edge of the blade (sharpening steel) and those that file away the blade to create a new sharper edge (sharpening stones).
Whetstone and Carborundum are the most popular sharpening stones, although they require a degree of skill to use efficiently. They are a messy choice, needing to be lathered oil before use. Stones usually have a course side for grinding a new edge and a smooth side for polishing and finishing.
A sharpening steel is a rod used to straighten and recondition the blade. Rods come in different materials such as steel, ceramic & diamond. The easiest way to use this type of knife sharpener is to hold the rod upright, with the tip resting on a board, then rub the blade across the sharpener starting as close to the handle as possible and then pulling it towards you.
Personally I am just not proficient or coordinated enough to use either of these methods so I go for an sharpener that you ‘pull’ the knife through either a manual or an electric sharpener. Most of these come with Course, Medium and some have a Fine edge options, they are also set to an ideal 20 degree angle on both sides. TIP: Check the brand of sharpener to see if they recommend using for Asian or Western knives as the strength of the blade and angle required is different. For example Shun & Global knives have a recommended type of sharpener which will be different to Wusthof or Mundial.
Images from Amazon.com