Hardware & Software: Knives Part I - The Basics
Tools for a City Cook's Kitchen
Not long ago I was trying to make a dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen in an apartment rented for a vacation in Rome. I couldn't believe anyone had recently really cooked in that kitchen, certainly not a true Italian, because to begin with, the only knife was a single blunt-tipped steak knife (there was also no colander but that's another story). I met the challenge by buying an inexpensive multi-purpose utility knife that I took home as a souvenir, but it made me even more appreciative of how a good knife is essential in making almost any meal.
Knife manufacturers want you to believe that you need a special knife for every task. Not true. There's almost nothing you can't do as long as you have the holy trinity: a chef's knife, a paring knife, and one with a serrated edge.
- Chef's knife: Also called a cook's knife, these come in lengths from 4.5" to 12" but the most typical lengths are 8", 9" or 10." Which you choose depends upon the size of your hand and how the knife feels in terms of weight and balance. If you could only have one knife in your kitchen, this would be it. Buy one you love, and use it for everything.
- Paring knife: These are the small knives that are used for trimming and other detail work. The blades range from 2.5" to 4.5 and if you're only going to have one, 3 to 3.5" makes sense. Again, handle it before you buy it.
- Serrated knife: The most common serrated knife is a bread knife but others include small tomato knives and very long blades for slicing hams or smoked salmon fillets. A 7" or 8" serrated knife can serve multiple purposes and is a very useful tool for cutting anything that has a resistant skin or a crust.
A Honing Steel
This is a handled rod of steel that's used to hone the edge of your knives between sharpenings. A knife's blade may still be sharp but with use, it develops tiny burrs, invisible to the eye, that make the knife seem dull when it's not. Instead, those tiny burrs just need to be rubbed back into alignment. By passing a knife's blade along a honing steel several times while alternating the side of the blade, the edge returns to its best sharpness.
Most of the time you only need to hone a knife's blade every three to five times you use it. But by doing so not only will your knife stay sharper, you can also put off sharpening -- which actually wears down the metal on the blade -- to only once a year or so, adding to the life of your knife.
Once you have these three basic knives and a steel, you can add to your collection with other specialty cutting tools that can make almost any kitchen job easier. See our article, "Knives Part II." Buy the best quality you can afford and then take care of them. Good knives are an investment that will last many years and reward you with a far better and more satisfying cooking result.