Wednesday, October 06, 2010

REAL MEN COOK 20: Supplies - Knives

"Keep your knives ever sharp and -- toujours bon appetit!"
-Julia Child

In order to be a cook at all, you will need some basic supplies. Now, when it comes to shopping and buying kitchen materials, this tends to be something men try to avoid. But I say you need to change your mindset. Don't think of it as buying girly stuff for the kitchen. Think of it as stocking supplies to feed yourself; you're buying weapons and survival equipment. This falls under the same category as camping or barbecue gear, its rough and manly.

Start off with knives. not only are knives basic weapons and very military, but they are one of your most basic critical tools for good cooking. From gutting a fish to dressing an elk, you need a good knife set to feed yourself and your family. So get cutting.

You need a variety of knives, because one won't do the job any more than a phillips screwdriver will work for all your repair work. Yes, technically you can use it to hammer in nails, but its going to suck. In the same way, while you can get away with using one knife for a lot of different tasks, you're going to suck with it.

At the bare minimum you'll want a paring knife, a chef's knife, a serrated knife, and a hone. You'll want more than this if you cook a lot, but this will get you by for nearly every task. What are these?

This is a small, very sharp blade used for small work such as peeling, coring, and detail work. It has a small, single edged blade (all kitchen knives do, this isn't a fighting weapon, but a tool) usually smaller than the handle. This blade is going to be used a lot for any small work such as removing seeds, cutting out bad spots from a potato, and deveining shrimp. This is the knife you probably used as a kid to clean your cleats, tighten screws when you couldn't find the right screwdriver, and carve a pumpkin. Weep for mom's kitchen tools.

Shaped somewhat like the paring knife, this is the big blade you see chefs using a lot on television. This will be your main gun for preparation in most cooking, its great for chopping and dicing things up, and is around 8 inches long. Like the paring knife you'll note the blade is slightly curved, so you can rock it back and forth on a cutting board to chop things up rapidly and easily.

Serrated knives are of any size but instead of a smooth, clean blade, they are shaped more like a saw, with teeth instead of a single blade. There are a lot of different varieties of this, some wavy, some scalloped, some jagged. The "Ginsu" knives have a special set of teeth that alternates left and right for strength and sharpness that tends not to ever diminish much, but they're awful to clean. Serrated knives are used for cutting soft things like bread, tomatoes and such. Because the cutting action relies on sawing rather than pushing a thin edge through, they tend to cut softer things very well without smashing them. You'll actually want a larger bread knife at some point, but at bare minimum you want a smaller serrated blade.

Funny thing about knives, they get dull. Now, you can take them to be sharpened or run them on the wheel down in your shop, but usually that's not necessary (and it almost never gives you the same edge you had originally, not to mention it reduces the size of your blade every time). What normally happens is that as you cut things, the blade starts to curl over like a sheet of paper. The more you cut, the more the very thin edge of especially good knives tends to bend over like the top of an "f" leaving you with a dull blade. That's where a hone comes in. This is what you see chefs sliding their knife against back and forth with speed and precision before they start to cut: they're straightening out the blade. Hones are super hard metal in ridges which, when used properly straighten out that "f" into a "|" again, giving you that edge.

Using a hone properly takes a bit of learning, but not much. You want your knife to be at an angle to the steel so that you're straightening out the blade, about 20 degrees. The easiest way to get that is to hold the blade at a 45 degree angle and get about half that by leaning the knife closer to the hone. Strop it along that like your polishing the edge of the knife, sliding the blade from one end to the other along the hone, six times at least on each side. If you've done it right - or even if you dont do it very well - you'll notice a significant benefit in cutting ability of your knife.

However: this does not work for most serrated knives. They're constructed in a way which doesn't exactly benefit from honing (or sharpening for that matter) especially the Ginsu type. Then again, they don't tend to dull very much anyway.

Here's where you have to hunt around and catch a good specimen. Buying cheap knives tends to give you crappy quality and you get poor results. Buying a good knife usually means spending a lot of money, but not always. You can get ceramic knives and carbon steel knives and laminated knives and more. What you're looking for is a good carbon or stainless steel blade that you can sharpen and hone but will resist corrosion and still be sturdy. Ceramic is nifty and really durable (keeps an edge really well too) but it can't be honed and its really hard to sharpen - and very expensive.

Looking around in stores, don't bother with the super high end blades if you're just going to cook in at home. Unless you're Gordon Ramsay or Anthony Bourdain you don't need a thousand dollar knife that you can add sand in the handle for the perfect balance. That's like buying a Bugatti Veyron for driving to work every day. Keep an eye out for knives with scallop shaped designs called "grantons" in the metal along the blade like this:
The serrated blades won't have that, but your chef and paring knife should. What these do is help the blade slide through things without adhereing to anything, it helps keep your cut clean and easy. I recommend Chicago Cutlery, which has a very wide range of different knife lines, some of which are pretty inexpensive. For serrated, Ginsu works great, as does most any design, as long as its not at the dollar store. Buying a good set with a knife block will work, as long as you don't go cheap on it. However, even cheap knives, if properly cared for and used, can be pretty effective - don't think you have to break the bank on kitchen knives.

Here's a handy guide: A good knife will be so sharp its dangerous. You will feel an almost electric sensation when you brush your finger lightly against the side of the blade's edge. This kind of knife cuts so well you don't feel it right away, and you'll find cutting things up a breeze. Just be really careful, they will cut you that well too.

Oh, and be ready with the bandages. Its impossible, no matter who you are, to avoid cutting yourself once in a while when you use knives enough. The greatest chefs in the world cut themselves, curse, cover it up, and go on.

OK so you have a bunch of good knives and know how to keep them sharp, what now? You want to store them so they aren't banging up against anything else, which is why those knife blocks usually sell with a set. These have the advantage of storing blades safely and in protective slots, but the slots get dirty over time and are very difficult to clean properly. You can also set up a magnetic strip in a cupboard and slap the blade on that, just make sure its a very strong magnet so you don't end up with a knife in your foot because you opened the door too vigorously.

Cleaning knifes is important as well. Carbon Steel knives need to be lightly oiled when you're done cleaning them, but stainless and ceramic do not. For best results, clean knives soon after you're done with them. Never leave them sitting in water for long periods of time, try not to leave them sitting with gunk on them for long periods of time, either. Don't toss them in a bowl with silver wear or other knives either - that bashes the blade and curls it over. Enough of that and it curls completely over like the hem of a garment and cannot be honed. That gives you a profile more like an "n" than a "f" with the blade.

Knives are made of very tough material, so you can use steel wool like SOS pads or Brillo to clean them. That will get them very clean and remove anything stuck to them. Remember to clean both sides and the handle so they stay in good shape.

A final word on cutting boards: you want one. While using lids and yesterday's newspaper works, you will want something more permanent eventually. Some people prefer wood, others prefer plastic, and honestly both work well. The key thing about cutting boards is that you want a good smooth surface and you want to clean it regularly. Every week or so you should clean them with 1 part bleach to 5 parts water, just to kill the nasty stuff living in them (that gets in your food).

For best results, don't just use the boards that pull out of your countertop. They're handy but hard to keep really clean. Get a portable board and lay it on top of that for most work. If you're just cutting cheese or an apple in half, the pull out board is fine, but for other stuff you want to be able to clean it easier.

Now, get cookin!

This is part of the Real Men Cook series.


eric said...

Aside from being a good skill for cooking, keeping a sharp edge on a knife is a good skill that every man ought to know. My grandfather was a compulsive pocket-knife sharpener. When he wasn't chain smoking Camels he was sharpening his Case pocket knife. I actually have one of his old Case knives and the blades are all shaped like crescent moons from being filed down over the years. It is awesome.

Another knife I would add to the list of 'must haves' for cooking is a good break knife. I have been on a sourdough bread baking kick for the last few months, and getting a good slice of bread off a fresh baked loaf is highly dependant on having a good bread knife, and knowing how to use it (saw lightly and let gravity do the work, don't press and slice).

eric said...

bread knife... not 'break' knife

kershaw knives said...

This article is quite informative. People interested in cooking should read carefully and absorb what's written here to have a good insight as to each knife's use.

gerber knives said...

Thing is, for most people outside of the cooking circle, a knife is a knife and could be used to cut, mash, or mince any food, but that's not the case. Every blade has a function; teeth, a determined object.

cold steel said...

Knives are indeed one of the most important tools in cooking. Without a knife, you can never cut vegetables. You may end up cooking a dish with whole vegetable on it. It sounds weird. Anyway, knives must be sharp too to give you the right shape you want for a vegetable or fruits.

Billy said...

My wife loves cooking. That is the reason why I purchase a set of knife. It has several types of knives from cutting, mashing, mincing and more. I only have one knife which I really love. It's a buck knife I bought online. It can be used on any kind of object. It's sharp, portable and can be folded. No need to use sheaths to house the knife. Anyway, the invention of these knives made the job of the cooks, hunters and artists easier and comfortable.