Hardware & Software: Knives Part II -- Beyond the Basics
Tools for a City Cook's Kitchen
When I went to cooking school we were given knife sets of about 8 different blades and I fully expected to use them all at some point in my training. Not so. Our teacher encouraged us to become fused to one of them in particular -- our chef's knife, not just for big cutting but also smaller tasks that I previously thought had to be done with a smaller blade.
Although that was good advice, and you can do very well with what I call the essential three -- chef's, paring and serrated -- there are some others you may find very useful. As with any kitchen tool, what's right for you will depend upon how and what you cook, but here are some specialty knives that may suit you:
- Santoku knife: Similar to a chef's knife, the blade has a hollow ground that gives it a thinner blade that is intended to keep an edge longer and help food from sticking to the knife. Some prefer this style to a chef's knife and they are usually about 7" long.
- Slicing knife: A long blade with some flexibility that's used to slice meat and poultry without shredding them.
- Scissors : This should probably be a basic. Choose a robust pair that can cut through chicken bones, butcher's twine, and the thick rinds of some produce.
- Cleaver: A large and heavy knife mostly used to chop up bones so if you do a lot of that, a cleaver can be very useful. But if you like working with a larger knife but you want it to be more versatile and lighter to handle than a clever, Milk Street makes a beautiful one they call their Kitchin-To™ which is a cross between a Chinese cleaver and a Japanese vegetable knife. It has a thinner blade than a clever and will rival your chef's knife for its utility. I love mine and use it often. (While Milk Street generously sent me one of these knives a couple of years ago, this is not an ad and I get no compensation for mentioning it; I just love the knife.)
Tip: keep your kitchen scissors exclusive to food because cutting paper can accelerate the dulling of the blades.
- Tomato knife: This is a small, serrated knife, slightly larger than a paring knife. It's mostly single purpose but if you often cook with tomatoes this will become a basic for you. I also sometimes use mine to cut rolls or other smaller baked foods.
- Extra paring knives: It can be handy to have more than one paring knife. Paring knives can also vary in style; for instance, some are shaped to help trim and turn vegetables.
- Boning knife: These knives have a long, thin blade that has a little give and flexibility so that it easily can cut along the bones in meat and poultry.
- Chef's fork: These are sometimes sold with a slicing knife in a set. If you plan to be slicing table-side you may want to have the slicing fork match the knife if only for aesthetics. In any case, a long-handled fork with long, sharp prongs can be very useful if you cook roasts and chops.
- Cheese knives: If you serve and cook with cheese, these are great to have. One style cuts soft cheeses, like Brie, without damaging the shape or rind; another is like a plane that can peel off thin slices from a hard cheese like Gouda. My favorite cheese knife is short and pointed for chipping into Parmesan.
- Fillet knife: For skinning and boning fish with a long, flexible blade.
- Utility knife: These are, if you'll excuse the food metaphor, neither fish nor fowl. They are a simple shape that resembles a scaled-down chef's knife, usually 5 to 6 inches in length, with a blade that has limited versatility. I don't know what this knife would be used for that wouldn't be better and more easily done with a chef's or paring knife.
- Mezzaluna: As the name suggests, this is a crescent-shaped blade, usually with two handles, that's used to cut in a rocking motion in a wooden bowl or on a knife-friendly surface. Especially useful for chopping and mincing but they're large and awkward to store and I don't think they really do any better a job than a chef's knife or clever.
- Ceramic knives: I mention these only because they've become very popular, but I'm not a fan. Yes, these are extremely sharp, but beyond that, they are a great example of a winning technology in the wrong application. These knifes are so lightweight that they have no balance and in my view, this makes them dangerous -- a ceramic knife has an acutely sharp blade that's easy to slip out of your hand. They are also fragile, can chip, the blade has no flexibility, and they only come in smaller sizes.