Knives - the sharpest tools in the kitchen, they allow us to make big things small, without having to tear or rip them apart. For millions of years knives have played a role in our gastronomical lives, and are the key tool used to prepare meals in most homes around the world. The humble knife allows us to chop, slice, dice, julienne, peel, spread, score, and crush (garlic!).
What's in your drawer?
Look in your kitchen drawer, how many knives do you have? 5? 10? Now, how many do you use at least 5 times a week? 1? 2? I find many households have a plethora of knives, yet the house cooks only use 1-3 knives of that lot. Later I will cover which knives to keep, and which to put in a shoe box (don't throw them out yet! You might find you still need one or two down the track).
When it comes to knives in the kitchen, I like to use this analogy - imagine you are a carpenter building a house. You have the timber and the screws, but the only tools you have are a hand saw and a screwdriver. Building that house would take a long time, become frustrating, and likely result in you throwing your tools down and buying a ready built home!!! This is like a building a meal in the kitchen with the wrong knife or a blunt knife, you've got something that will get you there, but the process will be slow, frustrating and disappointing. Inevitably you will throw the knife down and speed dial the pizza shop!
Now imagine the same carpenter as before, but this time with a power drill and power saw, things just got a whole lot easier and efficient for them didn't it? I liken this to a kitchen experience with the right knife and a sharp blade, foods slice faster and the speed increases, making your time a whole lot easier and efficient! So what type of knives and sharpness should our kitchen gurus seek out?
Types of knives
I love simple in the kitchen, simple not only has a beauty to it, it also means you don't have clutter! There are 3 knife types you need on hand as a budding kitchen guru, a paring knife, a chef's knife and a small serrated knife (there are plenty more, but these you WILL use every day).
A paring knife is the knife for the little tasks, peeling fruits, cutting garlic cloves, cutting eyes out of potatoes, and finer cutting. This little soldier is versatile, and provides precision and control. A sharp point is crucial as it allows you to dig the knife into skins to assist the cut (leading with the length of the blade is harder as the surface area spreads the pressure!)
A chef's knife, the 90% knife, 90% of tasks in the kitchen can be achieved with this knife. It's ability to do most of the key tasks and it's ease of holding will have you grabbing this knife first in the kitchen. Usually these knives are around 20cm long, giving the length to allow it cut through a pumpkin as well as cutting through a bunch of shallots. There is a depth to the blade that allows space for your finger grip and a curve that allows for dicing and rock chopping.
A serrated knife, for hard skinned and soft fruits like tomatoes and for cutting tasks that require cutting grip, I sometimes use these knives in a way similar to the paring knife. These knives can also be compact like the paring knife, depending on your preference. The key is the fine serration on the blade, allowing a sawing action while cutting, like having multiple knives cutting at once to have easy action.
There are many other knives that can be useful in the kitchen, but these are less than 1% of times, most leading chefs generally rely on the three noted above day to day - so be like them and de-clutter your knife block!
Quality of knives
When it comes to knives, you can access a range of quality levels. There are the "cheap" knives that look like knives, these are generally made of low quality laminated steel that blunt easily and deteriorate in a few years, leading you back to the store to buy another! AVOID THESE! Through to the mid-range knives, which offer better build and steel quality (usually an alloy), these don't hold a sharp blade as long as other steels and can require regular sharpening. The high range knife, whilst more of an investment, offer builds that have a lifetime guarantee and use Japanese style stainless steel (which are hand forged and shaped) - I use and recommend Shun knives for their quality. Japanese steel blades hold their edge longer, and also respond better to sharpening.
The better the quality of the blade material, the more efficient your cutting and slicing will be, and your hand and wrist will thank you for that! I recommend looking at kitchen equipment as an investment, if you were to buy 10 cheap knives across your lifetime, you would have been able to invest in a higher quality one that will likely become an heirloom.
How sharp are your knives? Grab one from the drawer and a tomato or capsicum from your fridge. Lightly press the knife into the vegetable, if the blade is truly sharp, it will literally glide through the fruit without any resistance. If you have to push down to complete the cut, the blade is blunt, and making your kitchen life HARD WORK! A sharp knife not only saves you time in food preparation, it also reduces the risk of you pushing to hard, losing control of the knife and causing an injury!
Knives are meant to be tools to help, not a workout! If you find yourself struggling to cut and chop, it could be the blade or your technique (which I cover during Workshop A in the Kitchen School). For the low to medium quality knives, you can use an automatic blade sharpener to sharpen the blades, for the high quality knives, hand sharpening is recommended using a whetstone and honing steel.
The key takeaways here - have a look at your knives, find the ones that you use the most, invest in better knives if you need to upgrade, keep them sharp by investing in quality sharpening systems that enhance your kitchen experience.