Pointy objects for fun and profit: A layman’s guide to kitchen cutlery
By Joseph Shaul
While the average knife block may contains everything from scalpels to English broadswords, the number of knives truly necessary for most cooking tasks is in reality very small. Many professional chefs carry only two or three, and a few quality blades can replace a slew of inferior products. Purchasing the right knives and using them correctly makes cooking much more enjoyable, and greatly reduces the incidence of missing digits.
A brief comment on materials and origin:
There are a few venerable and respected knife manufacturers known for producing consistently flawless product. Sold under such banners as Wüsthof and Messermeister, these knives are forged of the finest materials by the learned dwarfs of Khazad-Dur in their great volcano forges. Needless to say, you can’t afford them.
The good news is that rather less exotic production methods produce some perfectly serviceable knives. Even very pedestrian cutlery of decent quality can hold a remarkable edge, and a relatively small investment can produce highly worthwhile results.
While most knives are made of very similar alloys, there are some important distinctions in production methods. The best knives are forged, hammered into shame from a blob of molten steel in some Brunelian foundry; while hideously expensive, they do hold a fabulous edge. I don’t own any.
More common are knives stamped from a sheet of steel and honed down by machine. Despite the cut-rate manufacturing process, clever metallurgy can produce quality close to that of forged knives at a fraction of the cost. Most knives you’ll find in stores are accordingly produced.Quality is all over the map, but many brands provide functional and economical products.
A few vendors I’m willing to shill include Forschner and Victorinox (yes, the Swiss Army Knife people). Foodservice brands like Mercer, Genesis, and Dexter-Russell may be ugly and coarse, but they’re every bit as effective as their more luxurious counterparts at quadruple the price. A razor-sharp Victorinox $25 chef’s knife is worth more than an entire block of dull Wüsthofs, and offers very good value for money.
A special mention is reserved for the Cutco knives sold by Vector Marketing. So useless and dull as to be a hazard to their owners; anyone selling or having sold these should be ashamed of themselves. They really are that awful.
The Classic Chef’s Knife:
A slightly curved blade between 8″ and 11″ in length, the standard chef’s knife is the single most important tool you can have. A good one, kept sharp, can perform roughly 90% of the tasks in a kitchen, and the remainder can usually be fudged if you’re careful For chopping vegetables, it’s a must; for meat and fish there’s nothing better. It’s the most important tool you can have.
If you’re going to spend any significant sum on a knife, it should be this one. An entire block of cut-rate knives can’t beat the broad utility of one good chef’s knife.
The Paring Knife:
The smaller cousin to the chef’s knife, a paring knife is reduced in size for cutting objects held in the hand as opposed to on a cutting board. Useful for peeling, coring, and trimming, it’s a valuable tool for situationswhere a chef’s knife is simply too large and ungainly to be handy. However, it’s small stature makes it unsuitable for cutting larger objects.
A good sharp paring knife is a valuable tool, and significantly reduces the chance of a too-large blade removing bits of your fingers. It’s not as broadly useful or impressive as its’ larger cousins, but its’ utility should not be underestimated.
The deboning knife:
A long, thin knife of relatively elastic construction, the deboning knife is designed to slide between bones and sever tendons on large joints of meat. Unless you regularly prepare large cuts of meat or frequently tear down large quantities of whole chickens, I can’t particularly commend spending much on one of these – if buying one at all.
Sometimes, you need to skin an onion. Sometimes, you need to decapitate an angry leopoard. For this eventuality, a cleaver is the of choice.
Effectively a larger, heavier cousin of the chef’s knife, the cleaver is about as close as most home users will get to having an industrial laser in the kitchen. While other knives can separate bones, a cleaver will slice through them like mascarpone. It’s not particularly sophisticated, but if you want to coarsely dismember a turkey in three minutes, a cleaver is up to the task.
That’s not to say it’s a one-purpose beast, however. While somewhat more ungainly than the classic chef’s knife, a skilled operator can also create
as flawless a dice or julienne as anything else. However, klutzes like the author would be better suited by the more easily manipulated chef’s knife.
It should be noted that poorly constructed cleavers dull very quickly due to the enormous pressure placed on the blade. However, if you have to prepare a lot of poultry or are frequently attacked by jungle cats, it’s a handy knife to have.
The serrated knife:
There’s a certain degree of controversy as to the utility of the serrated knife in skilled hands: A sharp chef’s knife can dice vegetables with equal ease and greater speed, and the merit of buying a blade for the sole purpose of separating crusty bread seems somewhat inefficient. In addition to the poor reputation of low-quality serrated “ginsu” (not actually a Japanese word) used in lieu of the real deal, the inability to repeatedly resharpen these knives makes them realtively unpopular.However, a good serrated knife definitely has the place in even a modest kitchen. As a bread knife, it can’t be beat; furthermore, they’re quite inexpensive, and very handy for thinly slicing meats. They’re no substitute for a good chef’s knife, however.