Like a painter without a brush or a surgeon without a scalpel, a chef is nothing without their knives. A knife is the most effective tool to express a chef’s vision on a plate. Until going to culinary school I never understood the importance and detail that goes into making, using and cleaning a chef’s knife.
It’s true, a sharp knife is more than a sharp knife. There are two basic styles of knives that differ in their shape and blade angle, a French Knife and a Japanese Knife. Don’t worry I won’t quiz you on the angle degrees, but what you need to know is that a French knife is the most commonly used in the West because it allows for the most versatile cuts for everyday cooking needs. (Also, chef’s have to work their way up to using a Japanese knife. One day!)
NOW you’re in the knife aisle and … SURPRISE there are way more than just two options! How are you supposed to choose?! Here’s the breakdown. Chef knives can be made of carbon, stainless steel or high carbon stainless steel. There are pros and cons to each material but for cooking, carbon and high carbon stainless steel are the way to go. To choose between the two carbon knives can be more affordable option upfront, but requires more maintenance over time. The cutting edge is sharp but loses its edge quickly requiring you to sharpen more frequently. The metal is also prone to discoloration, so proper cleaning after each use is extremely important.
High carbon stainless steel is a hybrid material that was designed to hold a sharp edge and reduce any discoloration. These knives can be more expensive, however, will require slightly less maintenance. High carbon stainless steel maintains a sharp edge for a long time and will not rust easily. Personally, I am a fan of high carbon stainless steel… mostly because I am a low maintenance kind of girl and the thought of sharpening my knife every other week or so is terrifying. [Make sure you knife has a “full tang,” that ensures it was made properly and the blade will not separate from the handle over time.]
Dropping over a hundred dollars on a few knives seems like an unnecessary expense. Trust me if I was writing this pre-culinary school I’d probably being smiling down the Ikea aisles high five-ing the cashier because I got a knife set for $15. BUT I would be fooled!
A proper chef's knife is necessary for safety and product quality. It may be counter intuitive but a sharp knife is a safe knife. With a sharp knife you are able to cut through awkward shaped items or tough vegetables with ease. No more wiggling and shifting your blade to cut through a squash and accidentally slipping the blade across your fingers. With that being said, it is EXTREMELY important to use proper technique when cutting anything...
“Chef’s claw”: Curl your fingers on the surface of the food like a bear claw. The blade of the knife should rest against your middle finger as a guide. Looking down at the top of the knife slice downwards in a slight rocking motion (tip down first, then follow through to the back of the knife).
So now that your fingers are safe we can explore different cuts that are crucial to the culinary world. Mastering knife skills may not be essential for home cooking, but if you’re wondering why some of your sweet potato fries take twice as long to bake as others it may help to focus on how you are slicin’ and dicin’. The diagram below depicts the dimensions and names of the cuts necessary for basic knife skills. My advice, don’t worry if you can’t get the correct dimensions for each cut (it takes time!), focus on making all of your cuts about the same size, to ensure even cooking.
Your chef knives are an investment, treat them that way. Proper cleaning and maintenance of your knife will make sure you can continue cook your best. To wash, NEVER put your knives in the dishwasher. The high heat and rattling against other equipment will dull the knife quickly. It is best to go old school with a soft sponge, soap and water. Then dry the knife immediately with a dry towel. If water droplets are left on the surface (especially a carbon knife) it will begin to erode the material and cause discoloration.
Long story short, don’t over think it. A knife is like a long-term relationship... chose one that is right for you, treat it well, if things need to be sharpened work it out with a stone “massage” and trust each slice will be better than the one before.