KNIVES: The Absolute Basics

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So you’ve just been over to your friends house, as your walking through the kitchen a beautiful set of 8-9 knives sits in the knife block or along some magnetic strip on the wall. Chances are that they’ve forked out ($400 + AUD) for a bunch of ‘display knives’, never to really be used or kept sharp- which is all well and good if you are wealthy and don’t do a lot of chopping.

Sets of matching knives in a professional kitchen are few and far between and often indicate that their owner is a green, naive chef, fresh out of culinary school or that there is some sought of sponsorship deal between the offending knife brand and the chef.

“Here’s all you will ever need in the knife department: ONE good chefs knife, as large as is comfortable for your hand.”- Anthony Bourdain

In reality, a home cook only needs one knife! This knife has to be sharp, reliable, easy to sharpen and comfortable in the hand of whoever using it. I completely agree with Anthony Bourdain in this respect, apart from his emphasis on a larger knives. A chefs knife typically has a blade length of 200-210mm which I would consider perfect for the average home cook, anything longer and you sacrifice an element of control, and manoeuvrability.

Some of the Options For Chefs Knives:

Cheap:

Victrinox Chefs Fibrox Knife price ($60 AUD): Light weight, high carbon stainless steel blade is super easy to sharpen and cheap. I’m a strong advocate for these knives, despite their price point they get the job done. The slightly flexible blade means that you can even do a rough job of filleting with it. In a professional environment I will use these knives to do tasks that may damage the blades of my more expensive knives. They take next to no time to clean, sharpen, maintain and are an awesome choice if you’re knife skills are basic and you’re looking to improve your skills, they will also be quite forgiving if you’re looking to learn to sharpen on a whetstone for the first time.

Medium:

Global Chefs Knife($100AUD): I don’t own this knife but I’ve used it plenty of times and know plenty of people who own and enjoy them. Yet again they are made from high carbon stainless steel, are super light and easy to sharpen. The handle is a also made out of stainless steel in a western shape and is integrated into the blade which is unusual but gives it a sleek appearance that many people really rate. These knives tend to hold their edges reasonably well and some chef’s swear by them. I find that their thin, lightness paired with their lack of flexibility( which is not a bad thing in a knife) makes me constantly worry about them snapping when cutting large heavy items like pumpkin. That said they are a knife which both look cool in your house and are highly functional, easy to sharpen and easy to clean and look after.

Expensive:

Okay so you’re looking at spending a little bit more on a knife, before you continue, ask yourself these questions, do you know how to sharpen or maintain said knife? are you reasonably proficient with knives ( i.e.. have you practiced with something cheaper and are looking for an upgrade?), are you in/going into the industry?, or are you filthy rich and just want a display piece? If you don’t answer yes to any of these questions then it may be in your best interests to consider a cheaper option ( at least until you gain some confidence). Okay so when you’re looking at expensive knives you are looking to spend ($150+AUD), there are a lot of different options and you have to make a decision as to what you like in a knife; how much you are willing to spend, the type of handle, the weight, and the length.

If you have bias toward heavy Western Knives then Wusthof or Mesmmeiter will be the way to go, both of these brands (especially Wusthof) make knives that are built to last and are perfectly suited to heavy chopping.

Most chefs these days however are drawn to Japanese knives, there is a lot of variation out there, and a lot of different brands making really beautiful and effective knives. Some of my favourite Japanese knife brands that are worth checking out are (*when buying a Japanese chefs knife look for the word Gyuto);

  • Mcusta
  • Kaiden
  • Saji
  • Kanetsune
  • Yoshihiro
  • Shun
  • Masahiro
  • Korin
  • Kasumi
Kaiden AX 210mm Gyuto

What else you need?

Okay so you’ve found the perfect chefs knife, you’re getting more involved in the kitchen or have started working professionally, what else do you need?

A Honing Steel!This is an absolute requirement, basically a steel is a way of honing your knife, before each task. You may sharpen your knife (or get it professionally sharpened) once every month or so but the blades edge needs regular ‘realignment’. A steel will re-centre the edge of the blade without shaving off too much metal and is an essential component of maintaining your knives and getting good slicing results.

There are 3 main types of honing steels; steel, ceramic and diamond. There is a lot of information out there on the differences but for the sake of simplicity; use steel (softer) on western knives and a ceramic (fine grit and a little harder than a steel hone) on Japanese knives, a diamond steel is very aggressive and although it can be used on both I tend to reserve it for use on cheaper stainless blades.

Pairing Knife, straight blade 8cm-10cm: In a professional kitchen you often get as much use out of your pairing knife as your main chefs knife. They are what you reach for when performing small, intricate, fiddley jobs, whether it involves, removing seeds from something or top and tailing beans, to trimming and peeling. I would recommend a cheap turning knife like a victrinox ( only $5-10) that you can replace easily if it gets lost or damaged. Note lot of chefs will also carry around a cheap turning knife( with a curved blade) for shaping fruits and vegetables and some of the same small jobs.

Filleting Knife or Boning Knife, 15-25cm blade length, flexible, narrow, a slight curve and emphasised point: These are great knifes for breaking down fish, poultry and some basic butchery. The flexibility allows you to push the blade right up against bones (which is a Western approach to filleting) and the thinness of the blade is ideal for slicing. Yet again I reach for a victrinox branded filleting knife as they are cheap and flexible, and can be bashed around but there are plenty of options if you have a bigger budget or are looking for something with more finesse.

Serrated Knife, serated blade 20-25cm: These knives are vital for when you’re slicing through loaves of bread, pastries, some people even swear by them for cutting veg (ex. tomatoes). I use a slightly curved Opinel, bread knife with a wooden handle ($50-75) which is excellent and quite pleasing aesthetically. Mac, Wusthof and Victrinox all make simple, quality bread knives.

Knife Bag: This is a must in the kitchen because you need a safe way of transporting all of your knives and gear from home to work.

Saya or Knife Cover: This is an essential if you want to look after expensive knives, a saya is basically a sheath for your knife which will prevent the blade from knocking against anything and getting damaged.

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