Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Basics: Knives

Knives have a special place in the hearts of cooks (no pun intended). Other cookware has its adherents and die-hard fans, to be sure, but nothing has the power to energize (or offend) like a discussion of knives.

I think it has to do with their symbolism. More than a skillet, or spatula, or a jar of spices, a good knife symbolizes Cooking. Nothing else in the kitchen (no, not even the cutting board) gets as much use or can do as many things as your knives. Whether you're sauteing, deep frying, baking, roasting (slow or otherwise) or grilling, you're probably going to have a knife involved early on to prepare your ingredients. There's nothing else in the kitchen that covers as much ground, and thus is used as often, as your knives.

Which is why, of course, it's so important to get yours right.

I know I talk about being positive rather than negative, but this is important: don't look at someone who has accumulated all the signs and accouterments of success and think that you need all of that to be successful. You might be tempted to do so if you take a look at what's on my kitchen wall:

Pay no attention to the unused phone jack. 

Quite a collection, no? From left to right (links go to the Amazon store):

 - Wusthof 7" Santoku
 - Victorinox 12" Granton Edge Slicing Knife
 - Wusthof 9" Serrated Bread Knife
 - Wusthof 8" Carving Knife
 - Wusthof 6" Boning Knife
 - Wusthof Ikon 6" Chef's Knife
 - Wusthof Classic 8" Chef's Knife
 - Wusthof Classic 10" Chef's Knife
 - Wusthof Classic 3 1/2" Paring Knife
 - Wusthof 3" Drop Point and 2 1/4" Bird's Beak Paring Knives (third knife in set has gone missing, believed thrown away)
 - Shun 4" Paring Knife

In short, a lot of knives. Also quite an investment--rather than buying all of these, you could treat yourself to a new PS4 and an XBox One as well as a game or two. Given their expense, a lot of people will wonder if they could be worth that much, or if you could get them as a set to save money. To answer both questions, I'd recommend you start off with what I did, the Wusthof 8" Chef's Knife and 3 1/2" Paring Knife set.

Granted, your wall won't look quite as grand...

Say it with me: I'm going for function, not form. 

Got it ten Christmases ago, if I recall correctly. Brought it with me to college, back home, then to Korea, back home, and now to Virginia. I keep them in good shape and they have yet to let me down. Both are still very sharp. How sharp?

This sharp. Standard stock printer paper, if you're wondering. 

The year after I got these knives, I got an XBox 360 for Christmas (at the time, around 2 1/2 times the price of the knives). It... has not handled the past decade as well.

Yep. This. More than once, in fact. 

So as we can see, "cost" and "value" are not the same thing.

"But wait!" you say, "I'll get my knives in one of those sets with a big wooden block--they're the same knives that you have, but by getting them all together, I'll save money." Though technically true, I'd still recommend that you start with the 8" Chef's knife and the 3 1/2" paring (though if you're still raising your eyes at the price tag, I'd recommend these from Victorinox).

The reason you shouldn't start with a "full" set of knives is very simple: you don't know what you're going to need yet. There's a great story in Kevin Williamson's "The End is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome" about Dwight Eisenhower:
There is a lovely apocryphal story, generally told about Dwight D. Eisenhower during his time as president of Columbia University: The school was growing, necessitating an expansion of the campus, which produced a very hot dispute between two groups of planners and architects about where the sidewalks should go. One camp insisted that it was obvious -- self-evident! -- that the sidewalks had to be arranged thus, as any rational person could see, while the other camp argued for something very different, with the same appeals to obviously, self-evident, rational evidence. Legend has it that Eisenhower solved the problem by ordering that the sidewalks not be laid down at all for a year: The students would trample paths in the grass, and the builders would then pave over where the students were actually walking. Neither of the plans that had been advocated matched what the students actually did when left to their own devices. 

We all make plans and we all have ideas about what we're going to want, or need, or do (in the kitchen, and elsewhere). The best advice I can give you is to start with a few of the basics, and see where you go from there. With the Chef's knife, you have what I like to call a Big Knife. With the Paring knife, you have what I like to call a Small Knife (these are pretentious industry terms, but it's important to know your stuff). Every knife is either a Big or Small Knife, though more specialized for a specific task. The important thing to remember is that you can use your Chef's or Paring knife to do the same task as these others (though it might not be quite as good).

Let's look at the wall again.

Still gorgeous. 

See the Santoku on the far left? Brought that with me to Korea, too--it's a great knife for chopping vegetables. It's got a very thin blade with little grantons (those little scoops on either side of the blade), which means it quickly slices through an onion or carrot with less chance of them sticking to the blade. The thinness of the blade also lets you mince garlic and shallots as well as a paring knife. Of course, your Chef's knife will also do a great job chopping vegetables. It's a little heavier, and so won't be as fast, but you want that added heft if you're going to cut through chicken bones or cut up heavy root vegetables. It's also better (in part, because it's larger) for slicing through a roast at the table.

That's the basic story of all these knives: the specialized knives are great at one thing, good at a few others, and lousy at still others. The greatness of the Chef's and Paring knives is that they are good at everything.

So what should your next knife be? Well, just like Ike let the students pick the paths of the sidewalks, I'd say let your needs in the kitchen dictate what you get next. Do you find yourself chopping up tons of vegetables? Well maybe your wall should look like this.

You may notice that these three knives are the only Wusthof Classics that have had the red logo sticker worn off from repeated washing. Just saying. 

Do a lot of baking? Find yourself often needing something that can clearly cut through soft cake or breads with tough crusts?

Serrated bread knife, it is!

Find yourself buying a lot of whole chickens and carving them up?

It's really more of a "Medium" knife--which makes sense, since you can de-bone a chicken with either a Chef's or Paring knife. 

The advice I have for knives is the same I have for anything else in the kitchen--start with a few workhorse items that can handle a lot of different duties, and then go practice using them again and again and again. The first thing that will happen is that you'll get really good at using these workhorse items--that's what happens when you use the same knife to cut slices of roast pork and cube potatoes for boiling. Build your skills with the basics, and then buy a new tool to help take you to the next level. Don't buy a boning knife because you want to learn how to de-bone a chicken--buy the boning knife because you already know how, and you do it so often that you want a better knife for the job. Or, better yet, get so good at de-boning a chicken with your existing knives that you realize you don't need a special tool (at least, until you start filleting fish). Save the money and get yourself something else you need. You'll be happier for it.

P.S. Oh, also--would definitely recommend a magnetic wall strip if you have the wall space. Keeps the knifes ready to go, frees up space on your countertop, and is more hygenic (when was the last time you cleaned inside that wooden block? Yeah, I thought so).