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Kitchen Tools I: The Chef’s Knife

Our arsenal of kitchen knives

Our arsenal of kitchen knives

Foodies tend to have a strong impulse to acquire more and fancier kitchen tools.  I have found, primarily through the heeding the advice of Alton Brown, that less is more and simple is better.  There are enough useful kitchen tools–wooden spoons, spatulas, whisks–to fill several drawers that everyone who cooks will eventually acquire on their own.  I’m going to take a look at four tools that I wouldn’t cook without but that I don’t think are natural acquisitions.  I use at least one of these everyday that I cook but I’d be willing to wager that no more than one in four or five of all home kitchens have all four.  In my opinion the most important of these is a good chef’s knife.

Chef’s knives work well for almost every kitchen cutting task–chopping, mincing, slicing, or dicing–as well for some unusual applications.  Cloves of garlic can be crushed and freed from their skins by laying the cloves on the counter, placing the flat side of the knife against the garlic and sharply (but carefully) hitting the other flat side of the knife with the heel of your hand or a closed fist.  No other knife works nearly as well at performing the best trick for getting the pit out of an avocado: Hold the half avocado in a folded kitchen towel; sharply sink the heel of the blade into the pit so that it sticks on the knife as you pull the avocado away with a slight twist; and remove the pit by squeezing it from behind the dull side of the knife until it pops off.

Ten inch chef's knife by Victorinox

Ten inch chef's knife by Victorinox

My favourite is a Victorinox–the same company that makes Swiss Army knives–with a Fibrox handle and a ten inch blade (twenty-five centimeters to be exact). It was recommended in Cook’s Illustrated (along with the Wusthof Grand Prix II) and is great value for the money at somewhere between about $38 and $44.  I like the plastic handle because it is easier to clean than rosewood (though no knife sharper than a butter knife should ever go in the dishwasher) and feels a bit “grippier”.  Knife reviews in Cook’s Illustrated can be confusing for Canadian (and I assume European) readers because they often refer to “Forschner by Victorinox” knives.  As far as I can tell this is a subsidiary brand of Victorinox marketed only in the States and the only difference is that they are made in inch-denominated lengths and have “Forschner” printed on the blade.  Here are the relevant sites to compare: Victorinox’s US line and Victorinox’s European line.  In typical Canadian fashion, the main Victorinox site sends Canadian’s to the US version but I have only found the European line of their knives available in Canadian stores (Nikolaou Restaurant Equipment on Queen is my favourite for buying knives).  The only thing I might change is the length of the blade.  I’m used to and comfortable with this version but I can understand why if you’re trading-up from using one of those steak knife meets paring knife meets “utility” knife for most of your cutting tasks you might go with a smaller version.

Once you’ve acquired a chef’s knife it is absolutely essential that you take proper care of it.  My preference for storing knives is on a wall-mounted knife magnet (pictured at the top of this post).  They look cool, will keep your knives dry and clean, and are safer (for your hands and the cutting edges alike) than a drawer. 

With use the blade of a knife will dull.  Mildly dull knives can be repaired by honing them with a steel so that the sharp (and therefore very narrow) edge is pushed back into line with the rest of the blade.  This youtube clip of Alton Brown demonstrates the honing process quite clearly.  Gordon Ramsay looks more impressive during those Hell’s Kitchen cut-scene shots when he is honing his knife off the board in the air but if like me you’re not particularly coordinated and don’t have your own tv show I recommend the more sedate steel-on-the-board method. 

I understand that professional cooks will hone their knives at least once per service and as often as every time they need to perform a very precise cut.  Home cooks should probably aim to hone their knives once every one to two weeks.   This necessary maintenance will only go so far until a knife will need to be sharpened.  Unlike honing, sharpening actually grinds metal from the blade so that a new, sharper edge is formed.  You can do this at home with a whetsone,or a manual or electric knife sharpener.  Cook’s Illustrated has reviewed the latter two devices and state that they work well but I have never tried home sharpening.  Instead I take my knives, once a year, to Nella Cucina at Bathurst and Bloor and for less than five dollars a blade they send them off to be sharpened.

Check back later in the week for my reviews of and guides to using my other essential kitchen tools.

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8 Comments

  1. Kat says:

    My knives are 1, 5 and 6 (going left to right). 1 is a newly acquired Cutco “bagel” knife- great because it has a really sharp serrated edge to cut bagels and and a flexible paddle-like surface to spread cream cheese.

    #5 is a scalloped Henckel knife that my step dad gave me. I love it because it is much smaller than David’s chef knife which to me is scary. I also prefer the weight of this knife to David’s grand-daddy blade.

    #6 is a gift from David and serves the wonderful purpose of cutting fresh bread. Mmmm.

    I really think the trick to loving a knife is keeping it sharp OR moving in with someone who is happy to hone for you :)

    KP

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the comment, Kat.

    Kat’s Henkels chef knife is very good (when mine is dirty I sometimes use it….) but it’s interesting to note how different it is from mine. It is shorter than the Victorinox but because it is forged instead of stamped it is a bit heavier; the handle design is different; and the “snub-nose” Japanese style profile calls for a different cutting motion. All of this variaition is why I would strongly recommend trying a knife out as much as possible before buying so that you can be sure of a comfortable fit.

    Also, Kat’s comment reminds me of an interesting custom when it comes to giving knives as gifts. Apparently, in parts of Europe, it is considered unlucky to receive a knife as a gift so some people, upon receiving a knife will insist on paying the giver a penny (or some small token) to fend off the jinx.

  3. sock says:

    Agreed, Nikolau is great.

    Once, I used my instructor’s utility knife to peel potatoes. It was a high-carbon japanese-blade that he got in New York for about $200. I had no idea what to do with a knife like that. I keep my knives well honed, using a steel every 2 or 3 uses, but this japanese blade was so ridiculously sharp that I could barely use it.

  4. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for mentioning super-pricey Japanese knives, sock. You reminded me that I have read on Chowhound that Nella is not at all the best place to take a Japanese knife for sharpening. I believe that Japanese knives have a different one-sided edge and, apparently, Nella has been known to grind these into two-sided European edges much to the chagrin of their customers.

    I remember an episode of the Food Network show about the Rubino brothers (and their restaurant, Rain) where the chef-brother fired a cook for using his ultra-expensive sushi knife to chop vegetables on a board. Apparently, it was so delicate that it can only be used on a specially-designed cutting board and then only rarely.

  5. sock says:

    Seems kind of pointless to spend that kind of money for a knife that needs to be babied. For that price, I would expect a sword that can cut through body armour, not shatter if dropped off the counter.

  6. [...] my post about my favourite chef’s knife way back in March I posted this link to a youtube clip of [...]

  7. I was thinking about buying that Victorinox knife today but got lazy. Nice to see another endorsement.

  8. foodwithlegs says:

    A great knife. Comes super sharp, is easy to maintain, and by far the best value, imo. I highly recommend.

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