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Culinary Lesson #1 - Cutlery Selection and Upkeep

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

No matter who you ask in the culinary world, it can be agreed that both owning a quality set of kitchen knives along with understanding how to maintain them are crucial to succeeding as both a home and professional chef.  Although entire books have been dedicated to the subject, the following Q&A highlights some of the basics to get you started.

Q1:  I'd like to get into cooking, but how do I pick out a good beginner's set?

A1:  Step one: ignore those tempting 20-piece sets that can be yours for less than $100.  They sound too good to be true, right?  Yup.  Give them a few weeks in the kitchen and you'll easily see that you get what you pay for.  It's hard to believe (and hear) for some, but decent knife sets will easily cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands of dollars for high end products), but they're well worth it in the end.  If money is an issue, I'd recommend holding off on buying a complete set, and rather, buying a knife block and filling it one by one.  Cost will vary depending on what type of knife you buy, but expect to pay between $40 and $100 for a quality beginner's knife.  Once cost is considered, check out the handle of the knife.  An obvious sign of a cheap knife is that the blade only extends to the start of the handle (or the bolster) rather than running all the way to or through the end of the handle (aka full tang).  Lastly, how comfortable is the knife to use?  If you're going to make a decent investment on a set of knives, it only makes sense to give them a "test-run" before you make the purchase.

Q2:  I've decided that it's best that I buy individual knives rather than a set, but which ones should I get?

A2:  Everyone has a slightly different opinion on this issue, but I'd personally recommend the following, in order of importance:

  1. 8" or 10" Chef's knife.  This is an all-purpose knife that is usually the largest knife in a set.  Due to the curved edge, this is perfect for any type of cut requiring a rocking motion, such as mincing garlic or cutting through herbs, but it can easily tackle thicker cuts of vegetables, fruits, and meats.
  2. 7" Santoku knife.  Similar to a chef's knife, a santoku is a Japanese variation that has a less of a curve to the blade and has a granton edge.  Granton edges have large air pockets along both sides of the blade that allow for an easier release when cutting foods such as meats, onions, and potatoes.
  3. 3-1/2" Paring knife.  A paring knife is used for peeling the skin off of fruits and vegetables, slicing small foods, and creating decorative garnishes.
  4. 8" Bread knife.  Bread knives have serrated edges that are commonly used to slice through breads or tomatoes with little effort.

Q3:  Now that I've made the initial investment, what can I do to extend the life of my knives?

A3:  There are three easy tips, that when followed, will make your knives last a lifetime.
  1. Use a wooden (or soft plastic) cutting board for any type of cut.  There are many types of boards out there made from a hard plastic, glass, or even stone, that will immediately dull your knife with each chop or slice.
  2. Have your knives sharpened by a professional once a year.  There are sharpeners available for personal use, but unless you know exactly what you're doing, visiting a professional is an affordable and safe option.  [Side note:  If you're from the Madison area as well, I strongly recommend visiting Bill at Wisconsin Cutlery to get your knife sharpened].
  3. Hone your knives before and/or after each use.  Contrary to popular belief, honing your knife does not sharpen your blade, but rather, straightens and cleans the blade.

As stated earlier, there are countless topics to be covered when talking about cutlery, so if you have any further questions, feel free to comment below.

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