Kitchen knives are used in nearly every meal you will make, whether it is soup you are making or not. I have a firm policy about which items are kept on the kitchen counter and which are not, and the standard is that anything on the counter must be something that is used daily. Kitchen knives certainly qualify in that respect.
So how many knives, and what kinds do you need? Most home cooks will only ever need 3 knives: a chef’s knife (most important), a paring knife for small jobs like peeling, and a serrated knife for slicing bread. If all you had was these 3, and they were quality knives, you would be able to do any job in the kitchen requiring a knife.
Since the chef’s knife is the most important knife of the three, I will be concentrating on this type, but the tips I mention for chef’s kitchen knives apply for the most part to the other two as well, especially with respect to the construction and metal.
A chef’s knife is a multi-purpose tool, and must be constructed to handle a large number of different tasks. True, most of these involve cutting of some sort – chopping, slicing, mincing – but a knife can be used to scoop up chopped or minced items, squish or flatten food on the side of the knife (excellent tip for peeling garlic cloves), even scrape shavings of chocolate off a solid block.
The first thing to consider when buying a knife is how it feels. The grip on the handle must feel comfortable, and the weight distribution should feel natural to you. If you feel awkward with your knife, you will not use it properly, and this can lead to injury.
Next consideration is size. The length of the blade should be from 8 to 12 inches. Anything longer than this just gets in the way, and anything shorter will have trouble slicing through many foods in one slice. Within this range, personal comfort should dictate the length of the knife you choose.
The shape of the blade should be looked at closely, too. The knife should taper to a point that can easily pierce large squash or watermelon, and the edge of the knife should not be serrated since that actually rips food rather than slicing it. From the tip to the handle the edge should gently curve until it finally flattens out at the handle for the last few inches. This flat area is used for chopping, while the curved area toward the end of the knife is used for slicing.
The width of the blade should be enough that the flat edge of the blade, and not your hand, hits the cutting surface. 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm) is usually enough for this, unless you are particularly large-fisted. Also, the metal of the blade should continue through the handle as one solid piece of forged metal. This type of construction makes for a long-lasting kitchenknives, and they feel much more natural than ones where the blade is attached to the handle at the hasp.
Of the many types of metal that knives can be made of, the best choice for home use is high-carbon steel. The carbon content makes the metal a bit softer than plain stainless steel, but this softness is what actually allows the edge to stay sharp longer. Metal that can give a bit when it encounters resistance is less likely to get dents and dings in it.
There are two basic shapes of chef’s kitchen knives: French and Japanese. There is not much of a difference, and they both cut well, so you should simply choose which ever shape pleases you more. I have used both, and I found the difference between them to be less than the difference between a good knife and a cheaply-built one.
Another thing to check in kitchen knives is the side of the blade, and whether they are dimpled or not. There are various types of dimpling, but they all serve the same purpose: to reduce the amount of friction between the knife and the food through which it is cutting, and to help prevent the food from sticking to the side of the knife after it has been sliced off. The size of the dimpling can range from almost microscopic to nearly the size of a dime, and the depth and the shape can vary as well.
Caring For Your Knives
While some kitchen knives are advertised as dishwasher-safe, I like to play it safe and wash mine by hand. There are two things that you should never do with your good knives, and that is allow them to soak in water, or let them bang around with other hardobjects. For this reason you should never put your knife in the sink, especially when it is full of water and other dishes and cutlery. Also, it is really easy to cut yourself while reaching in to soapy water to find a knife.
The safest way to clean a knife is to use a brush with a handle so your fingers never have to go near the sharp edge.
A bit of soapy water on the brush, a few scrubs on each side, a quick rinse, the drag the knife dry on a folded towel on the counter. Super easy, super safe.
So why spend the extra money on a good knife? 3 reasons: Longer lasting; quicker prep time; safer. It seems odd that a sharper knife would be safer, but the truth is that a dull knife is dangerous because you have to force the knife through the food. The extra force needed leads to much more serious accidents, where a good knife is less likely to slip in the first place, and is practically gliding through the food with little effort.
With proper knife skills and good care, your kitchen knife should give you many years of good service, if not a lifetime.