Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Knife: A Cook's Best Tool

Even though I have been preparing and cooking food since I was in my teens, it rarely crossed my mind to take a knife skills class. Guess I was feeling pretty confident with so many years of using and selling knives in my store. But then I thought what if I were to teach someone else? Maybe I need the tried and true techniques that professional chefs use- I'd feel better passing on this info to others in my new health coaching practice, hone my skill and a gain a new perspective.

So this past weekend I attended a knife skills class at The Chopping Block and walked away with more knowledge, more confidence and a better understanding of just how important it is to know your knives! I took 4 pages of notes so you know it had to be good!

It was no surprise to me what the most important knives are for any home cook to have- so I was right on par with the instructor.  There are so many on the market but it boils down to basically this: German vs. Japanese. Germany has been the home to knife companies for centuries- many of these companies, Wusthof-Trident, Henkels and the like, were forging swords and daggers long before any of us were on the planet. These knives tend to be of the fully "forged" variety and are made up of multiple metals they call high carbon stainless- which basically takes the sharpness of carbon and the hardness of stainless steel and rolls it into one. They tend to be heavy which is good, and well balanced.

The Japanese knives, on the other hand, are made of softer metals are often thinner and this results in  thinner slices of your food as well. These include Shun and Global to name a few.  Like Chef Michele, I think a combination of German and Japanese is the best way to go-  knife sets are not always a good choice as they often have knives included that you really don't need. So shop around and hand pick your knives. Oh- and spend the money! You will be making a lifetime investment and will be able to hand them down to several more generations if you take good care of them.

Drum roll please! Pictured above are the knives I use almost on a daily basis. From left to right:

A.  Paring Knife- this is for slicing lemons, limes, etc and for peeling apples and small fruits. I have a 3.5" parer from Wusthof.

B.  Chef's Knife- this is for chopping, slicing, mincing and cutting- an all-purpose knife. I like the 8" from Shun because it's just big enough to handle winter squashes and watermelons and it's a beautiful knife too! You could also do a 10" but I find those to be too large for everyday cooking. If you are small to average in stature, you really don't need the 10". A chef's knife gives you that "rocking motion" which is the most efficient way to cut.

C. Slicing Knife- here is where I differ from the chef instructor's choice. She showed us a flexible fillet knife as essential, and while I think that is a good choice for filleting fish and cutting up chicken, I am a carnivore and there's nothing like a good slicer to carve you meat with. I have had this knife for a very long time- it's actually an 8"Sabatier (French) and it does the trick! I do however want to get a flexible fillet knife now!

D. Bread Knife- if you are a fan of crusty bread, this is indispensable! A good serrated knife will last years and years without needing sharpening, and will cut through any kind of bread. I have one by Shun, but Wusthof makes a very good one too.

I already knew the importance of keeping your knives sharp, so this was great to relearn how, why and when to sharpen them. I learned the difference between a sharping steel and a honing steel, which I will share with you here.

Honing, can be done daily and it just "re-aligns" your knife's edge and doesn't remove any material, whereas, a sharpening steel will actually put a new edge on your knife. Most sharpening steels these days have tiny diamonds imbedded in the steel and these being harder than the metal in your knife, act to sharpen the blade- you don't need to do this but once every few weeks especially if you are honing everyday. If you have sharpening fear like a lot of folks do, there are sharpeners on the market that make it so easy. Pictured below is the Chef'sChoice® Diamond Hone® 2-Stage Sharpener #450. I love this one especially when I am in a hurry but actually have been using my honing steel (on the far right in photo) since taking the class- it really does make a difference!! More accidents happen in the kitchen when you use dull knives! The steel in the center is a diamond steel and this I use every month or so. Both steels are from Wusthof but there are many others on the market as well so shop around.

Bonus Section! 

You can always have more knives than just your core group of course! It's just that so many peeps have asked me over the years what are the most important, the most crucial.

I happen to be a big fan of the Santuko knife. And just about every knife company makes one now. Santuko means "three virtues"and has Japanese historical significance. They are best known for their sharp edges but the most significant feature is the "granton edge" release pattern (scalloped) on the blades that are designed to aid in the release of food after slicing.They also make for creating very thin slices.  They range from 5-7" and sometimes even smaller. I use the Wusthof 7" and highly recommend it. It's easy to sharpen and works like a charm. I did try Global's Santuko at the class and really liked it too.

Pictured below on the left is my favorite little slicer. I actually won this in a sales contest many years ago when I was working at Williams-Sonoma. It's a Wusthof (the logo has long rubbed off) 4.5 inch utility knife and it is great for small jobs. I think they still sell this one.

The knife in the center is a cheese knife that I use a lot for soft cheeses like brie. It's serrated and the cut out areas keep the cheese from squishing down as you cut. Love that. And speaking of serrated, I actually lost my small serrated Tomato Knife. This is another must have if you eat a lot of tomatoes and can double as a great sausage slicing knife- it gets through the tough sausage casings easily.

Well, there you have it. A not so brief knife lesson. Next up I will talk about cutting boards because the surface you cut on is equally as important! You want to maintain your knives by using the correct cutting surface. Stay tuned!


  1. I just bought knives to supplement my collection based on your recommendations! I then had my old knives sharpened and now my collection is amazing. I need a hands on demo on sharpening and honing though. You'll have to come visit to show me!

  2. very nice!! Doesn't make such a difference?? I will come visit and we can chop and cook!