In our last class session, we discussed the importance of knives and learned how to judge the quality of a knife. In this class we will look at which knives any well-organized kitchen should have, and how to keep them sharp. A trip to a cooking store will reveal a wide array of different knives. They vary in length, thickness and function. While each knife is valuable, I consider the following 5 knives essential tools for any serious cooking:
Chef knife-This is the workhorse knife that chefs reach for the most often, and for that reason it is the most important knife in any chef's collection. It is capable of performing many different cutting techniques. In the hands of an experienced chef, the chef knife can cut items into an assortment of different shapes (dice, julienne, rough chop, etc.) when the whole blade is used in a forward cutting motion with considerable speed. But the tip and butt end of the blade also have specialized functions. The tip is used for very precise cutting since the blade is the thinnest at that point and thus has the greatest amount of "feeling". The butt end of the knife is used as a "cleaver" for chopping small bones (chicken wings, necks, etc.). Even though the blade is thickest and sturdiest at the butt end, the knife should never be used to chop large items as this could easily bend or break the blade. The chef knife is also the perfect knife for mincing. Simply hold the tip of the knife on the cutting board and bring the handle of the knife down on the cutting board repeatedly. This knife is worth spending the most money on and will become a trusted friend through years of use. It is available in 8, 10, 12, and 14-inch lengths. For the beginner, I recommend the 8 or10-inch sizes. I have a 10-inch chef knife that is German-made which I bought when working in France 12 years ago. It has been "used and abused" but still looks great and performs perfectly.
Paring knife-Perhaps the second most often reached for knife. This small knife (3-4 inch blade) is used for small intricate jobs (i.e. peeling onions, carving vegetables, etc.). Choose a knife that feels good in your hand.
Boning knife-This is the knife that professionals grab when working with raw meat or fish. It varies in length (5 1/2-8 inches). It can have a stiff or somewhat flexible blade. There is not a right or wrong boning knife to choose--it is rather a matter of personal choice. Every chef has their favorite boning knife. Incidentally, this is one knife that you might consider buying with a carbon steel blade as they sharpen effortlessly.
Slicer-A must when it comes to slicing cooked meats. Typically, the slicer is a long thin blade that can be either pointed or rounded at the end. My personal preference is a slicer with a rounded end and flat blade (when the blade is placed on the cutting board, the entire blade will touch the board--in other words, the blade does not taper up off the board). This knife must be super sharp to assure proper slicing. When slicing, be sure to use the knife as a saw--not pressing down but gently sawing back and forth, letting the knife edge do the cutting. Avoid chopping with this knife as it can damage the blade.
Serrated knife-Perhaps better known as the bread slicer. This knife uses its teeth to cut through items that would be difficult to cut through with a slicer (i.e. bread, cake). Be sure to cut with a sawing motion just like with the slicer. A serrated knife is available in many different lengths--be sure to buy one that you feel comfortable with and that is long enough to cut the items you will be using it for.
As you use your knives, you will notice that the edge will invariably become duller and duller, making your job harder and harder. As you become more familiar with your knives, you will notice the minute they are not at peak sharpness. (That is why chefs and butchers are always sharpening their knives.) If the knife is slightly dull you will need a steel hone. To use the steel (the process is called "steeling"), place the butt end of the knife against the tip of the steel, keeping a 18° angle between the steel and the knife. Draw the knife on a diagonal, maintaining the same angle, so that the tip of the knife will eventually be at the bottom of the steel. Switch the knife to the other side of the steel and repeat. Continue for 5 or so times on each side of the knife. It is not necessary to press the knife very firmly against the steel. Practice steeling your knives very slowly until you are completely comfortable with the process. If the knife is still not sharp, it may be necessary to sharpen on a knife stone or a ceramic hone. Both of these will actually remove part of the knife and create a whole new edge. (The steel does not replace the edge, but straightens out the existing edge.) The sharpening technique is the same for either the stone or ceramic hone as for the steel. In the case of the stone, which lays flat against the table, maintain an 18° angle and draw the knife from the butt end of the blade to the tip, switching sides after each draw. Be sure to always wash the knife after sharpening. If the knife is still not sharp, it may be necessary to have a professional knife sharpener grind the edge down. As with all knives--BE CAREFUL! Don't try to cut as fast as professional chefs. That is something that is learned with much practice and repetition. And practice is the key to using any knife effectively. So chop, chop, chop!
When class meets again, we will look at the chef's uniform and toque (or hat). Class dismissed!