Kitchen Essentials 2: Knives


This is the second installment of my Kitchen Essentials series.  The point of this series is to help equip new cooks with the basic tools they need to produce quality meals, have a working knowledge of basic foodstuff, and feel confident enough in the kitchen to make world-class cuisine.

In my first Kitchen Essentials post I wrote about how to pick out a basic pot and pan set because, honestly, it’s pretty hard to cook without them.  It is equally as hard to cook without knives.  Unless you’re a caveman, most of the meals people cook require cutting something at some point.  While I recommended buying a set of pots and pans yesterday, I don’t believe this is the right tactic when shopping for knives.  The reality is that in a small pot and pan set you will find most of the set useful, but with knife sets, the vast majority of the set is useless for a new cook.

Sure knife sets look great on your countertop.  It is wonderful to have a full block of them shining in the sunlight.  You can take pride in the fact that you won a tomato/bagel knife.  But you wont use most of them ever.  Even some of the more useful knives, like a carving knife will see limited hours of use in your lifetime; say Thanksgiving and when your in-laws are in town so you tackle a pot roast.   I don’t think that justifies owning said instrument, though.

Not that I’m against specialized knives.  After years of cooking, and some free-lance catering and banquet jobs, I have amassed a growing collection of knives that even includes two sizes of Santoku blades.  As you grow in culinary experience, you will find more knives to be helpful.  They can, however, be intimidating to a newbie, though, so it’s better to perfect your skills with two knives at first, and expand your collection as your skills grow.

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Why should you buy just two good knives to begin with, and what are those knives?  Good question.  First let me explain why you should buy only two knives at the start, and then I will explain what two knives you should buy.

Knives are without a doubt the most important tool in your kitchen. That means you should buy the best knives you can afford.  Unlike other kitchen tools where there isn’t a huge difference between the good and the great, great knives are superior in every way to simply good ones and both great and good knives are head and shoulders above cheap knives.  A cheap spatula can get you through a season, but a cheap knife is going to get you hurt, or ruin your food, or worse.  Great knives are also expensive.  Having to buy only two knives will allow you to buy the best products on the market.

If you can only afford good knives, that is ok, but don’t ever buy cheap knives.  They are dangerous, ineffective, and will need replacing so often you will find that you spent more money in the long run on cutlery than if you simply ponied up the funds to begin with.  Cheap knives dull more quickly.  They break.  They are flimsy.  They cause more kitchen injuries than any other utensil.  There is really no good use for a cheap knife.

Good and great steel knives will have a few things in common.  They will be made of one solid piece of metal, this is known as a full tang blade.  If the blade ends at the handle, it is a cheap knife and should be avoided.  Buy only knives with full tang blades.  The handle will feel solid, be made of durable materials, and be firmly attached to the tang.  They will be made of non-stainless steel.  The blade will be balanced.  These are the qualities to look for initially.  Many brands fit these requirements, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding a diverse range of choices.  How do you make your final decision then?  Pick up the competing products and buy the one that is most comfortable in your hands.  We all have different shapes and sizes of hand, so different knives will feel more or less natural for each one of us to hold.  Buy one that fits you well, since you will be using it a lot.

Great, now that you know what to look for in a knife, what two knifes should you initially invest in?  A chef’s knife and a paring knife.  That is all you need.  Seriously.  Maybe if you bake a lot of homemade bread you will also want a great bread knife, but most us don’t, so stick with a chef knife and paring knife.  The chef knife will be your heavy hitter, so spend a lot of money on it.  It is the workhorse of any kitchen.  You will use it to cut just about everything.  It will be what you chop your veggies with, what you butterfly your pork chops with, what you mince garlic with.  It is an extremely versatile tool.  The paring knife is useful when cutting small fruits and veggies, like strawberries or radishes, where the chef’s knife can seem like overkill.  It is also a great fruit and vegetable peeler a in a pinch.

Before ending this post, I would be remise if I didn’t mention investing in a non-electric knife sharpener at the same time.  Dull knives cause more injuries in kitchens than sharp ones.  That may seem counter intuitive, but its true.  When a knife is dull there is a greater chance for it to slip off the food you are cutting and into you.  How do you judge a dull blade?  If I cannot cut effortlessly through a tomato without crushing it, my blade is too dull.  I stop and sharpen it.  You don’t want an electric sharpener because the heat up the metal of the blade and change the chemistry of the steel, literally ruining the knife you just invested a lot of money in.  Hand sharpeners and old-fashioned sharpening stones are more work and require you to learn a new skill, but they are worth it to keep all your fingers and knives in working order.