YOU’VE decided it’s time to cut a finer figure as a cook and have resolved to collect a range of good knives. They are, after all, the premier kitchen tools, and without them you will never achieve great results in the kitchen, and your culinary labours will be slow and arduous.
Well-made, well-designed knives are expensive and may even rival the cost of a new winter jacket. The good news is, if they are well cared for they will never go out of fashion or date.
The range is vast. So where do you start? Good Living suggests that, initially, you concentrate on these essentials.
The first is a chef’s knife, either 20 centimetres or 26 centimetres in length. Much depends on personal strength but, generally, the bigger the better. You should also have a chopping surface or board at least one and a half times the length of your largest knife.
You also need a paring knife, either seven centimetres to 10 centimetres in length, and a slicing knife in addition, although a filleting knife will double up initially, providing it is at least 20 centimetres long. And, to maintain the blade and store the knives safely, you need a steel and a rack.
When you feel comfortable with this basic collection fill in the gaps as your pocket allows. I suggest a regular slicing knife and a boning knife next. Then build on your set according to your style of cooking.
Chef’s knives are the work horses of the kitchen. Often referred to as cook’s knives, they are used for chopping, dicing, cubing, slicing and even boning, and fine-cutting fruits and vegetables for garnishes. They have a gentle curve from the blade to the tip with a pointed end for fine and decorative work. The tip should be used as a pivot on the chopping board to give an even slicing action and efficient chopping action.
Large, and therefore heavy, cook’s knives can also be used for flattening ingredients with the broad blade.
Paring knives are for peeling and decorating. They are the most inefficient chopping knives, being too small and too light. The length of the blade is your choice.
Slicing/carving knives come in many shapes and here you should select one which feels comfortably weighty in the hand. Four slicing knives are shown. The first is for ham, the second is for ham/smoked salmon, the third, for smoked salmon, has indentations to cut down friction and keep thin slices intact. The fourth is a general slicer.
The filleting knife has a very flexible blade, making it easy to slip under the finest flesh, such as John Dory or sole, and meat and poultry as well. A boning knife has a very sharp, very rigid blade of at least 10 centimetres which has an especially sharp tip.
These range in price, depending on their make, from the smallest (paring)at around $$ to the largest (chef’s) at $$
There are several points to consider when buying knives. Most importantly, each knife should feel comfortable in your hand, and it should be heavy and well balanced.
Knives with full tangs (that is the blade running all the way through the handle) provide the best balance. If the handle is not riveted to the tang, it may come loose.
Stainless steel knives are strong and do not rust or discolour. They are, however, hard to sharpen and they do blunt easily. High carbon stainless steel knives are easier to sharpen and keep their edges longer. Good manufacturers are now using this fibre and call it “stain resistant”. These knives have all the advantages of stainless steel and carbon steel.
Carbon is the chef’s preferred choice. It is easier to maintain an edge on the blades although they need additional care if they are to look presentable. Carbon can also taint highly acidic foods leaving a metallic taste, so a carbon knife must be wiped and dried the moment it is used.
All good knives have a full tang and are riveted. If unriveted, generally they are not full tang but “pin” tang, meaning that a thinner piece of steel runs into the handle. A pin runs the length of the handle to the knife’s bolster. This is subject to corrosion as it rusts and eventually the handle comes loose.
The general consensus among the pros is that F Dick knives from West Germany are the best. They are also the most expensive.
The Sabatier range from France is well known and is slightly cheaper than the Dick range.
Another German knife, the Mundial, is made in Brazil (where manufacturing costs are lower) and is considerably cheaper than both the Sabatier and the Dick range.
In the same price bracket as the Dick knives is the new Der Messermeister(The Knifemaster), also from West Germany. The importer, Bruen Dressler from Damco, says that in the short time they have been available in Australia they have become widely accepted.
He stresses that while good knives should never go in the dishwasher, these do have handles which are dishwasher-proof should one accidentally be machine-washed.
A Der Messermeister knife has no rivets and a handle which is made of poly oxymethelen, and is anti-slip in wet conditions. The very hard steel is a high carbon, no-stain tool steel, replacing stainless steel and carbon steel knives. The alloy is very elastic, making it easy to keep sharp.
I like the Swiss-made Victorinox knife. It is a general utility knife and a cheapie. When it’s blunt you can toss it out and buy another. It’s a great little knife, useful for many mundane kitchen tasks and dishwasher-proof.
While European knives have traditionally reigned supreme in top kitchens, Japanese knives are fast finding favour.
Frankly, once you have found the one that’s right for you, it will be hard to go back to your old knives. They are of top quality and are exceptionally well designed. Prices range from about $$ for the Petty knife (the smallest) to $59.80 for the largest Deba knife.
Always buy knives from a reputable kitchen shop where you can discuss each type and learn about their care. Handle the knives, cradle and balance the pistol grips to determine a pleasing weight. Accoutrement Cook Shops and Inini on the North Shore and The Bay Tree in the eastern suburbs are three of the best known in the foodie fraternity.
Knives must be sharpened on a stone and honed regularly with a steel if they are to do the job they are designed for.
A steel must be as long as your longest knife and of equally good steel. David Furley of the Chefs’ Warehouse in Surry Hills goes one step further, saying it should be made by the same manufacturer as of your knives so its steel is compatible.
When you are no longer able to get an edge on your knives, it is time to use a stone. Use household oil light enough not to clog the pores of the stone. Grind the edge on the stone then fine-hone on the steel.
Ask whoever sells you your steel, or your local butcher, for a quick lesson on how to use it, and a stone too if you buy one.
Remember, too, that your knives will stay sharp longer if they are not left dirty. Foods eat into the edges, dulling them. Double-wheel knife sharpeners and most other devices other than steels are not recommended for good knives. A professional knife-sharpener is essential for the upkeep of knives. Be wary of door-knocking cutlers. Some use a machine which is not cooled, causing the steel to heat which causes it to become irreparably brittle.
The Bay Tree Kitchen Shop in Woollahra has a one-week knife-sharpening service. Prices are according to the length of the knife and range from about $$