The knife is the most essential kitchen gadget of all, yet people still buy those 25-in-one Ikea knife blocks. I called up Norman Weinstein, knife guru at New York's Institute of Culinary Education, to get some straight talk on knives.
Those all-in-one knife sets you can get at a department store are for suckers. "You really shouldn't buy a set with 42 knives," says Weinstein, "since you'll probably only need five or six." Here are the useful knives, in descending order of importance:
Chef's Knife: This is your all-purpose knife, so don't skimp on it—get a forged knife, which is molded through a process of pounding heated metal into shape and treating it, rather than stamped out of a sheet. Chef Weinstein suggests (mandates, really) a minimum of 8 inches, and preferably 10. Just because you have small hands or uncertain kitchen skills doesn't mean you should get a smaller knife, since all it'll do is decrease your leverage and "make the whole job much more difficult."
Buying a chef's knife can be difficult, but the key tip is to remember that this knife is all about weight and balance. "It shouldn't be blade heavy or handle heavy," says Weinstein.
Paring Knife: The paring knife is about 2 to 4 inches long and used for extremely delicate work (think small fruits like grapes and berries) as well as smaller items like shallots.
Bread Knife: Perhaps the last of the absolute essentials, this long, straight blade should be the only serrated knife in your collection. Use it for slicing bread and delicate or gooey produce like tomatoes.
Utility Knife: This knife has a smaller and thinner blade than the chef's knife, around 6 inches. Chef Weinstein notes that it's "the perfect fruit knife" but concedes that if you're on a budget, a paring knife can do the work of a utility knife.
Carving Knife: A long, thin blade, the carving knife is used to, well, carve thin slices of meat. It's extremely well-suited to this task, if this is a task you find yourself regularly performing.
Boning Knife: Like the carving knife, you may have no need for the boning knife, but if you are prone to buying whole chickens and other plucked or butchered fare, you'll find it invaluable. Boning knives have a thin and flexible blade and are used pretty much exclusively for boning.
So you've bought a sweet new 10-inch forged chef's knife. How do you keep it in tip-top condition? There's nothing more dangerous than a dull knife, after all—not only do dull knives tend to slip more easily, but they require more force to cut through things. More force equals more danger. Chef Weinstein's tips:
Use a honing steel: A honing steel, which is that long cylindrical piece of metal all too often mistaken for a sharpener, is actually used to realign your knife's blade. Use it "practically every time you use your straight-edge knife," says Weinstein. "It should only take about 15 seconds, done properly." The key is to anchor the steel perpendicular to your countertop, and slice both sides of the knife across it at a 22-degree angle.
Avoid the dishwasher: Knives and cutting boards alike should be cleaned in the same way. Immediately after use, clean with soap, hot water and a non-abrasive scrubber (sponges are fine here). Never stick a good knife in the dishwasher: The force of the water can dull the blade, and it's never a good idea to have an extremely sharp pointy object rattling around a dishwasher. Knife handles could potentially warp, too, because of the heat.
Take your knives to a professional sharpener: Don't use a home sharpening machine unless you feel your knife has wronged you in some way and must be punished. Send your knives away to a professional sharpener about once a year to have your blade re-shaped.
There's a lot of misunderstanding about cutting boards. Chef Weinstein says only one material will do: Wood. Not plastic ("It'll dull your knife"), not bamboo ("It's harder than wood and lousy for your knife"), and certainly nothing like stone ("Are you crazy?!").
Go for a nice hard maple board—it's just about the best investment you can make after a good chef's knife. "A good maple cutting board will go into your will," says Weinstein. Plus, if you're doing some hard cutting and you end up gouging the wood, a maple cutting board can simply be sanded down and re-seasoned with mineral oil and be good as new.
Just don't ever stick it in your dishwasher—wash it with warm soapy water immediately after use, and oil it up with mineral oil whenever it starts looking too dry.
Chef Weinstein's instruction for actually using a knife is all about relaxation. Keep your arms in a relaxed position and choke up on the knife: Your thumb and forefinger should be pinching the actual blade, not wrapped around the handle. It'll take some adjustment to hold the knife this way, but Weinstein reminds us, "You have to use the knife correctly before you can cut anything."
The actual motion of the blade is much more a sliding, fluid movement than a choppy-chop staccato rhythm. "It's all about relaxing and following through, just like golf or tennis," says Weinstein.
These tips are a good primer, but once you've got the basics down, you've still got to practice. Over and over again. Mince about a few hundred cloves of garlic, chop a couple dozen stalks of celery, and dice an army's worth of onions—more than anything else, repeated use of proper knife skills will save you time, keep your fingers safe, and improve your cooking. Thanks Chef!
For more than 20 years, Norman Weinstein, a chef-instructor at New York's Institute of Culinary Education, has taught everyone from enthusiastic amateur cooks (including our own Wilson Rothman) to professional chefs how to select and use knives. He is also the author of Mastering Knife Skills. He has been profiled in Wine Spectator and the New York Times Magazine, and has appeared on the Food Network. The 2003 honoree of the New York Association of Culinary Professionals, Weinstein lives in New York City.
Note: The images of knives above do not represent any particular brand endorsements by Chef Weinstein or Gizmodo. They are merely used to indicate general shapes of the discussed knives. Top image from Wikimedia Commons.
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