Saturday, March 9, 2013

All the Knife You'll Ever Need...

I want to show you the gigantic waste of cutlery I've accumulated in my kitchen... horrendous, I know.

Do cut me some slack because I built this collection up gradually - I didn't go balls to the wall right out of the gate. Some of those knives were freebies and hand-me-downs when I first got my own place, then I bought a few "nicer" ones for myself (hence the highly-unnecessary santoku knives on the magnetic strip), and then when I got married I got that beautiful Henckels knife block about which I was SO EXCITED.

I've mentioned in a few blog posts how I attended a knife skills class last year which really changed my life and how I prepare food. After learning what tools you really need to get the job done and coming back to that kitchen full of knives, boy did I feel silly.

So here it is, folks. The only cutting tools you ever need to have in your kitchen. With proper care, you'll never have to replace them, either. Pictured below from top to bottom:

1) honing steel
2) cook's knife (aka 'chef's knife)
3) serrated knife (aka 'bread knife')
4) boning knife
5) paring knife
there are also a pair of 6) kitchen shears
and they are all sitting on a bamboo 7) cutting board

Let's talk about each of them and their importance in your kitchen arsenal.

Honing Steel

Basically, you use this to keep your knives sharp. There is a difference between sharpening and honing. At the microscopic level, the edge of a knife has all these little metal fibers all standing at attention. As you cut, those fibers bend down and out of shape which makes your blade duller. By simply honing each time before you start cooking, you will straighten those little metal soldiers right back out, preserving your knife edge.
microscopic knife edge photo courtesy of
Eventually, though, those little fibers may start to break off (especially if you cut on an improper surface) at which time a proper sharpening may be in order. I recommend you bring your knife to a professional when it finally needs sharpening. They will use various expensive tools (diamond bevels, ceramic thingies, etc etc) and actually regrind the edge of your knife back to sharpness creating some nice new little microscopic fibers. Here is a great video on how to hone, because doing it wrong can cause more harm than good.


Cook's Knife

This is the knife you will use over 90% of the time you prepare food. It is your rock, your food prep partner in crime. Forget the santoku. Forget the carving knife. Forget utility knives, vegetable knives, tomato knives and any other knife you've been convinced you need. If you could only ever have one knife in your kitchen, THIS WOULD BE THAT KNIFE. And don't puss out about the size - bigger really is better.
This should help put my knife in perspective for you...
it runs the length from the tip of my fingers back to my elbow.
That's some Crocodile Dundee shit right there!
When I first got my fancy knife block, it had an 8" chef's knife that I was afraid of using. It just seemed like overkill to me. I preferred my crappy little "vegetable knife" which is really just a way of selling me a small 6" chef's knife. An 8" chef's knife is appropriate; a 10" is better; and a 10" wide in my book is the bee's knees.

Why are smaller knives a complete waste? A few reasons. First, you have to lift them higher in the air at a more severe angle to cut larger food items. That's dangerous. Second, it requires more elbow grease to go through food items. With a larger, heavier knife, the knife really does all the work with its own weight. And third, there isn't much room between the blade of the knife and your knuckles which makes cutting awkward and difficult if you can't get the blade flat on the cutting board. See below...
Nice and roomy with the 10" wide knife
(even an 8" blade will leave enough room)

Squished knuckles with the 6" blade
And I'm finding it difficult to cut all the way through
because I can't get the blade flat against the cutting board

Serrated Knife
Serrated knives are usually referred to as bread knives. This one in particular is called a "panini knife". Seriously. Why on earth would someone spend $100 on a knife just to cut paninis?!? What a waste of money. But every cook should have one good serrated knife. It's great for powering through Paleo breads and cakes without ripping them to shreds, but also for cutting skinned vegetables like squashes or fruits like the pineapple. The serrated edge promotes the knife's ability to slice through, rather than squish the food.

I selected this particular style over other bread knives for the same reason discussed above - squished knuckles preventing the knife edge from meeting the cutting board. Most bread knives are shaped in a straight line from handle through to blade, but this one has a nice wide blade at the base.

Again, nice and roomy

Squished and awkward

 Boning Knife

Boning knives slice through meats like a boss but can be used on delicate fish as well. I got courageous enough to start cutting up my own whole chickens into parts (takes a little time, but is a huge money saver). This thin-bladed, incredibly-sharp knife goes through muscle, fat, sinew, tendon - everything but bone. You should never try cutting directly through bone. It's not meant for traditional cutting techniques like we use with vegetables, but rather for maneuvering through meat at tough angles as you separate it from the bone - hence the name "boning knife". I selected this model as the blade is somewhat hardier making it more appropriate for chicken, beef or pork. If fish is more your game, try a filleting knife which is very similar only the blade is thinner and more flexible to handle the more delicate flesh of fish.

 Paring Knife
Paring knives are used for small and delicate jobs. You may use them for making small garnishes or de-seeding a jalapeno. Some use it for quick peeling of an apple, hulling strawberries, or de-veining shrimp. It generally isn't used on a cutting board with traditional cutting techniques. Because it is small and meant to be held aloft, you have much more control over this knife and freedom of movement.

Kitchen Shears
I love my kitchen shears. They're not just for cutting open bags of almond flour or packages of bacon. They can snip delicate herbs or chomp through tough meats to make slices for stir fry or cubes for stew. Sure, you could do the job of kitchen shears with a cook's knife or a boning knife, but sometimes a good pair of shears are quicker and more maneuverable. They can also save you from getting your cutting board dirty if you can hold and snip.
Look for a pair of shears that separate for more thorough cleaning. This pair also has a serrated edge on the inner edges above the handles and below the fulcrum which can be used for opening stuck bottle tops. (There may be a better use for that part, but that's the best I've figured out so far.)

Cutting Board
If you are going to make all this investment into cutting tools, you best pair them with the right cutting surface, otherwise you could cause damage to your knives and dull them out - thus rendering everything we've talked about useless. What kind of cutting board is best - well that's debatable. Wood and bamboo are great materials for not ruining your knives and could come from sustainable sources; they're also biodegradable. Everyone agrees that glass boards will murder that delicate knife edge, so stay away. As for plastic/acrylic - the critics are split. Some say plastic is great, others say it will dull your knives. I'm not a scientist so I'm not sure.

In comparing wood or bamboo to acrylic/plastic, you'll need to decide what works best for you and your lifestyle. I have chosen a bamboo cutting board. Wood or bamboo must be washed by hand in very hot soapy water and dried right away. You must periodically oil it with food safe mineral oil. You can't put wood or bamboo in a dishwasher or leave it soaking like you could with acrylic or plastic. You must especially take care when dealing with raw meat, fish, and dairy as the bacteria can soak into the porous wood fibers if not cleaned properly. You should never put raw meat on the same surface you use for other food prep.

My board is double-sided. I have a "raw meat side" (the side with the groove) and the flat side which is used for fruits, vegetables or cooked food which would be free of bacteria. Some people choose to keep a separate acrylic or plastic board just for raw meats which can be then tossed in the dishwasher so you are assured it is clean.

Whatever board you choose, ensure it is large enough so your largest knife blade won't hang over the edge. When using, it should be placed on a flat counter or table with a wet paper towel underneath to prevent it from slipping and sliding around your counter. You may also periodically disinfect the board (or remove icky smells) with a bleach/water or vinegar/water solution.

Ditch Everything Else and Get the Basics (but BETTER!)
Since I now have my staple cutting tools, I can simplify my knife block. And now I see what a huge waste of money this set really was.
Go from this...

To this - just 4 knives, a honing steel and kitchen shears
(just ignore those steak knives along the bottom - they don't count)
My four knives can do the same job as all those other knives on the left
NEVER buy a knife set. As you get the money, invest in really good quality knives in this order - cook's knife, paring knife, kitchen shears, boning knife, serrated knife. There are so many great brands out there - I just happen to like Henckels and Wusthof.

Building Your Knife Collection
So where can you find all these fine stainless steel specimens? Well, I added a new section to Stock My Paleo Kitchen titled Kitchen Cutlery and listed them all there for purchase through Amazon You can also try stores like Bed Bath and Beyond, Sur la Table, Williams Sonoma, or their respective websites as well. I do think everyone should take a class on knife skills. At the very least, though, go to the store and handle the knives. Get whatever feels most comfortable to you in a brand/material that's built to last. If kept properly, you should have these knives the rest of your life. (And this should go without saying, but NEVER put your knives in the dishwasher. Hand wash with hot, soapy water.)

Now go forth and do great things!


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