First, an introduction to the series
In recent years, cooking at home has dramatically increased in popularity. Whether it’s because of the plethora of cooking shows on TV, much higher food prices in restaurants and grocery stores, or simply the desire to eat healthier by preparing meals and eating at home, more and more people are taking seriously and enjoying, cooking at home. The quality of home-cooked food and the ways in which it is prepared are also becoming much more important considerations for many people.
For people equipping their first kitchen, choosing what’s needed can be somewhat overwhelming. There’s a huge assortment of kitchen utensils, gadgets, and contraptions on the market. How is a new cook to know what’s needed – and what’s not? Do you really need a fancy $500 espresso machine, or could a $12 French press get the job done? You may not need nearly as many items as you might think and still end up haveing a well-equipped kitchen. If you’ve been cooking for a few years – or many, chances are good that you have accumulated a few items that just aren’t needed.
In this series of articles we’ll explore the essential tools that any home cook should have. And, just so you know up-front, the budget doesn’t need to be huge to outfit a kitchen appropriately. For a few items in the kitchen, it’s a good idea to buy the best quality that your budget can afford, such as knives and a few pots & pans. For other things like mixing bowls and glassware, the budget doesn’t need to be large, especially for those just starting to equip a kitchen.
And now, the main event – Knives
Of all the equipment in a kitchen, knives are, in my opinion, the most important items. Knives are used more often than any other tool and knives play a role in almost every meal that you’ll prepare. So, not only is a good quality knife important, but it’s also important that the knife feel comfortable in your hand.
Knives, like everything else found in the kitchen, can come in varying levels of quality, design, and of course, price. So, not only are knives the most important tool, they also warrant the most thought and research before making your purchase. For those on a tight budget, I have good news. You can get about 95% of all jobs done with only three knives. If your budget is really tight, it’s fine to start with only one knife and accumulate a fine set over time.
You also don’t need to be wealthy to afford a full set of quality knives. I’ll also tell you about an American company that’s over eighty years old that makes and sells great quality knife sets for around $100.
Generally speaking, most kitchen knives are either forged or stamped and in both cases, are usually made from a single piece of steel. There are some knives, however, that are made with multiple pieces of steel, but these are not common. Several Japanese manufacturers use the multi-piece technique with the emphasis of the production process going to the blade. Because of the rarity of these knives, I won’t be going into further detail about them.
Forged Knives are made from a single bar of metal that is heated and then hammered into shape. Traditionally, this process is repeated numerous times until the basic shape is obtained. The rough knife is then ground to a taper from the spine to the edge. The handle is then riveted to the tang. Finally, the blade is sharpened to a razor edge. The heating, cooling, and hammering process actually tempers the steel, making it strong and able to maintain a sharp edge over long periods of time.
Stamped Knives are made by cutting to shape from a sheet of cold-rolled steel or they are stamped out of the sheet of steel in cookie-cutter fashion. Stamped knives usually don’t have a bolster and are not as strong and durable as their forged counterparts. The process to manufacture a stamped knife is also significantly less expensive than that of forged knives due to much lower manufacturing costs.
The major parts of a kitchen knife vary a bit by type but are mostly common to both forged and stamped knives.
- Spine – The spine is the top part of the blade that is away from the sharp edge. The spine serves several functions: added stability, strength, and balance, to name a few.
- Bolster – Safety and balance are the two primary objectives of the bolster. The bolster serves as a hand guard, keeping your fingers away from the blade. Stamped knives often-times don’t have a bolster but if they do, it will be attached by some mechanical means. Manufactures have gotten much better at attaching bolsters to the knife and now if you find a stamped knife with a bolster it’ll probably be of decent quality. That wasn’t always the case and bolsters would, over time, tend to loosen. I would still probably opt for “no bolster” on a stamped knife, however.
- Tang – There are full tangs and partial or half tangs. Full tangs continue from the bottom of the blade all the way through the handle to the butt of the knife. Most, but not all, forged knives offer full tangs. The tang’s purpose is stability and balance. All things being equal, a full tang is preferred.
- Handle – The “feel” of a knife’s handle along with the knife’s overall balance in one’s hand are the primary factors of comfort. Handles come in many variations and materials. Some are molded around the tang and attached from within; others are attached by the use of rivets and comprise two pieces that sandwich the tang. The two pieces are known as scales.
- Butt – The butt or hilt of a knife is the terminal end. In the case of forged knives, the butt is sometimes made in such a way that it adds to the overall balance of the knife.
- Edge (blade) – Depending on the type of knife, the edge could be serrated, or straight edged. Some knives, as is true with some cheese knives, come with a double pointed end. Others are not sharp at all and used primarily for cutting soft food such as cheese and butter.
Blade material is another major factor in the quality, durability, and usability of a knife. The material from which a knife blade is made is the primary difference between whether a knife will last a few years or a lifetime.
- High Carbon Stainless Steel – This material is the most popular material found in quality knives. It resists stains as the name “stainless” implies. Chromium is added in the manufacturing of the steel to add the “stainless” component. High Carbon Stainless is tough, takes a sharp edge, and maintains that edge over fairly long periods of time. This material is the best choice for most home cooks.
- High Carbon Steel – Not having the added chromium, high carbon tends to stain and rust if not properly cared for. However, high carbon steel actually offers better performance than the previous material. It’s tougher and can be sharpened into an even sharper – longer lasting edge, than can high carbon stainless steel. Unless you’re devoted to the maintenance of your knives, I would recommend the stainless variety.
- Surgical Steel – You’ll sometimes see knives advertised as being made from “surgical steel” and to the casual observer, this may sound like a good thing. Unfortunately, this is mostly marketing and in fact, surgical steel isn’t as good as either of the previous two materials. Sure, surgical steel is very resistant to staining but that’s where the benefits end. This steel, because of even higher chromium content, is actually softer and unable to hold a sharp edge for long periods of time.
- Other materials – Titanium and ceramic are two more materials that you’ll see on the market. Titanium is lighter than steel, holds a sharp edge better and longer than steel but is generally more expensive and somewhat more flexible. Flexibility in a knife, however, isn’t usually a desired trait. Ceramic, which isn’t a metal at all, is a relatively new knife material. Ceramic blades are so hard; the edge can be maintained for very long periods of time with little or no maintenance. In recent years, the prices of ceramic knives have fallen to where now they’re in line with most other retail knife prices.
Comfort in the hand
Chef knives come in many different styles and the handles are as varied as the blades. When buying quality knives, one key consideration is how those knives feel in your hand. If a knife feels awkward, chances are you’ll avoid using it. Even if you’re not buying a more expensive knife, you want the feel to be right. It’s best, before making any purchase, to go to a store that sells a variety of brands. Handle the knives and see how they feel in your hand. Are they balanced well? Actually, the higher the quality, the less work is required for cutting.
Knife handles come in a wide variety of materials. Wood and moulded plastic are the two most commonly used. This is a choice of personal preference. While most plastics are safe to wash in a dishwasher, it's recommended for all quality cooking knives to hand-wash. This will help preserve the edge, reduce staining, and in the case of wooden handles, keep them from drying out, cracking, and looking worn.
The knives we have (pictured left) require almost no effort in cutting. A tomato, for example, can be cut into thin slices simply by laying the blade edge on the tomato and drawing the knife back towards me. I put no downward pressure on the knife. Gravity does the work. That is ideally what you want to look for. So, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring a couple pieces of fruit or tomatoes with you to test some knives. Call ahead of time of course, but if you’ll probably find that most cook’s stores will welcome testing some knives.
The types of knives and their uses
Modern kitchen knives come in an astounding array of shapes, sizes, and uses. Most people, thankfully, only need a few to get almost all cutting jobs done. The knives that follow are the most commonly found and what they’re designed to be used for. Many knives can do double duty, however. So, don’t think that you have to have one of those super-duper fancy knife sets you see everywhere these days. I happen to have one, but I’m love knives. Even with the set I showed above, I still only use 3 or 4 of those knives for about 95% of everything I do. The knives are presented below in the order in which I’d buy them, one-by-one, if I were piecing together a set.
- Chef’s knife – I said earlier that with only three knives you can accomplish 90% of everything you’ll need to do with knives. I also said that it’s okay to start with only one knife and build your set as you can afford to. Well, the chef’s knife is the one that you would want to start with. Chef knives come in a variety of sizes, usually between 6 inches and 10 inches. If you’re planning to build a set over time, start with an 8 inch chef knife. With it you’ll be able to handle the vast majority of cutting jobs in the kitchen. This knife is able to handle everything from cutting a turkey, to cutting a sandwich in two. Slicing cheese and dicing vegetables is a snap with this knife.
- Paring knife – Usually found in 3 inch, 3.5 inch, and 4 inch lengths, paring knives are the second most used knife in the kitchen. These knives are used for a multitude of jobs such as cutting tomatoes, fruit, and small food items. These are great knives to do double duty as a boning knife as well.
- Serrated knife – A large serrated knife is the third most important knife in the kitchen. These are indispensable for cutting loaves of bread and tough skinned tomatoes. With the three knives listed here and above, you could get by with never buying another kitchen knife.
- Carving or slicing knife – Typically, a slicer is anywhere from 8 – 14 inches long and often have evenly spaced hollowed out indentations along the blade – above the edge. These knives are the best choice for carving turkeys, hams, roasts, and any other large type of meat. They’re also great for cutting large pieces of fruit such as watermelon and cantaloupe.
- Utility knife – if a chef knife is too large for the job and a paring knife is too small, a utility knife is usually called into action. These typically range in lengths of 5 inches – 8 inches. Often times, they are made in the same shape as a chef’s knife, only shorter.
- Boning knife – If you are an angler, then you are probably familiar with boning knives. These knives have a narrow blade that can easily get between the bones and flesh of fish and game. If you never plan to clean fish or carve your own mean, then you can probably skip the purchase of a boning knife.
- Cleaver – Most people can enjoy a happy existence without ever even touching a cleaver. Unless you’re planning to carve your own meats, prepare your own stocks. Cleavers can, however, come in handy for the job of cutting through the bones of small fowl. For most home cooks, a cleaver may be merely a luxury.
- Other commonly found knives – The list of knife types is long. There are cheese knives, salmon knives, jam knives, vegetable knives, santoku knives, and puntilla knives, to name but a few. They all have their place but can all also be duplicated with one of the 4 or 5 knives listed at the top of the list. Over time, many people start to accumulate some of these knives but they are seldom required in most home kitchens. Of those that I just listed, I’d probably suggest getting a cheese knife first, especially if you plan to entertain guests from time to time.
Care and sharpening of knives
The second part of this series will cover cutting boards so I won’t go into great detail about them here. Just know that in the proper care of knives, cutting boards are the first consideration. Wooden boards are preferred over any other material – by the knives anyway. By using a plastic or glass cutting board, just a single slice can dull and round the edge of a well sharpened knife. Other than a proper cutting board, there are sharpening steels (honing steels) and knife sharpeners to consider.
The sharpening steel doesn’t actually “sharpen” the blade. The steel removes burrs and small serrations or feathers that develop on the knife edge over time with use. It is good practice to use honing steel before or after each meal preparation. This is because with repeated use, knives will become dull. Once a knife becomes too dull, the honing steel will be of little use and the knives will usually need to be professionally sharpened to return them to their factory new condition. If a honing steel is used frequently – the more frequently the better, then most good quality knives need to be sharpened only every other month or so. It’s common, with diligent maintenance, to never need professional sharpening of kitchen knives.
Gordon Ramsey shows how to
Another consideration for the care of knives is the place that they’re kept when not in use. Typically, a “block” is used and these come in counter top, wall mounted, and drawer models. Wood is almost always used in their manufacture. Keeping knives in their block and preventing them from being bumped or rubbed together in a drawer is very important to maintain a sharp edge.
Another common method of storing knives is by placing them on a magnetic strip that is usually mounted on a wall or in the pantry. Whatever method you choose, I would highly recommend not simply throwing them loosely into a drawer.
Some knife sets to consider
Earlier I mentioned that there was an American knife manufacturer that made quality knife sets for around $100. That company is Chicago Cutlery. I know people that have been using knives from this company for almost 50 years and the knives are still going strong.
For those with a generous budget to spend, and those that want something really special, you can't go wrong with one of the most elite sets of knives available. Wustof Trident is one of the most popular knives in the world and is made with quality in mind from start to finish.
Kitchen or chef knives are the key piece of equipment in every kitchen. Knives are used more than any other item and, if cared for properly, can - and should, last a life time. If you buy a quality set of knives, they really become an investment that'll pay dividends over the years. Find a knife that feels good in your hand and buy the best quality that'll fit into your budget. If you're an avid cook, it may be wise to "buy up" a little bit but piece your set together over time as you have the funds available.