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A Knife For Christmas

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    Posted: 23 December 2018 at 14:22


So, a friend of mine, whose husband has just gotten into cooking in a big way, sought my advice. She wanted to get him a fancy knife set---you know, one of those standing blocks with eight or a dozen various knives---and wanted a recommendation.

As usual, I said, “don’t do it!  If there’s anything more useless than one of those kits I don’t know what it is.  Most people who buy---or are gifted with---them wind up never touching at least half of what they contain.  In short: expensive dust collectors.

The fact is, as I told her, you never need more than three, or, in specialized cases, four knives to perform any cutting chore.  My choices:

     1. A chef’s knife.  What comes into play, here, is the length, handle material, and taper of the blade. It’s important that the knife is comfortable use, that it fits the hand, and has the amount of rounder preferred.

     Sure, those ten and 12 inch blades are impressive. Very macho, in fact.  But keep in mind the chef’s knife will be used for about 90% of cutting, and, for most people, those long blades can get tiring very quickly. The most dangerous thing in the kitchen, I’ve said more than once, is a dull knife. Running it second: a fatigued hand holding it. 

     Day in and day out, most folks, particularly newcomers, will find an 8-inch blade more than sufficient.

     Taper is difficult to determine. Essentially, there are two models; the German and the French. The difference lies in how much rocker the blade has.  “Rocker?” I hear you ask. That’s a semi-technical term that refers to how far back the roundness of the tip continues down the blade. French models flatten out relatively quickly, whereas German models continue the curve pretty well back. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

     Unfortunately, until you’ve used both, you really can’t develop a preference. So, for a first knife, the French model makes more sense.  And boy, oh boy, did I hate saying that!Ermm

   One other aspect to consider is weight. You’ll be using this knife a lot, and the heavier it is the more tiring it can be. To show you the difference, I have two 8” chef’s knives on my rack. One, a Henkels, comes in at 317 grams. The other, Friend Wife’s Wustoff, weighs a mere 168 grams---near enough half as much as the Henkels as to make no never mind.  Friend Wife loves 8 inchers. But there’s no way that slip of a girl could use the Henkels for any length of time. Not and still stay in control. Truth to tell, I don’t use it much myself, because my day-in, day-out is a 10-inch chef’s, also a Henkels, comes in at only 270 grams itself.

2. A petty or utility knife. This is an all-around jack of all trades used whenever the chef’s knife won’t---or shouldn’t—do. Utility knives run roughly 5 ½ to 7 inches, and have various tapers. They are narrow in width as well.

     Heavy duty utility knives are often called “boning” knives. And it’s hard to find anything better for, say, breaking down a chicken. And, in a pinch, they do a more than fair to middling job of breaking down a fish.  But hold that thought.

3. A paring knife.  Until you’ve used one, it’s hard to believe how useful a short knife can be. Paring knives range from about 3 ½ inches upwards, in various blade shapes and tapers.  Here, again, it’s only by using one that you can determine a preference.  For a first one, I’d go for a 3 ½-4 inch blade. For what it’s worth, my favorite has a lot of rocker, and curves backwards towards the handle in what, on a larger knife, would be called a bone-breaker.

With these three knives you can perform, literally, any cutting chore your kitchen throws at you. Providing you keep them sharp. But that’s another discussion.

The optional fourth one is a filet knife. Filet knives are long, thin, narrow, very flexible blades that serve one function. They are the best thing there is for fileting a fish. If you break down a lot of finned fishes, a filet knife as part of your cutlery kit makes sense. If you only occasionally perform that task, make do with other knives. There’s no sense spending good money on something you’ll rarely use. Instead, put that cash in better quality first-three blades.

Once you’ve used these knives for a while you may find others that you “need.” Top of the heap, here, is what the advertisements call a “carving” knife, but which is, technically, a slicer. These are long and narrow, as compared to a chef’s knife, have little or no rocker, take and hold an edge readily, and are great for their intended function, which is, as the name implies, slicing meat and fowl.

If you bake a lot, a bread knife makes sense. Here, again, we’re talking about a knife with a specific function. They are long---typically 10 to a dozen inches, have no rocker, and are serrated. My bread knife, in fact, is the only serrated knife I own. 

Better quality bread knives, btw, only cut in one direction. There’s none of that sawing back and forth, as if you were cutting fire wood. Long, smooth movements are the way to go.

I probably shouldn’t say this, being as we’re talking about a specialty blade, but there’s probably nothing better for turning a tomato into slices. But, frankly, a truly sharp chef’s knife will do the job just as well.

As an aside, and just to put a point on it, none of these three specialty knives will be found in those wood blocks with a dozen knives kits. So, if you need one, you’ll have to buy it separately anyway.


But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thanket
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 December 2018 at 12:29
Excellent post, Brook - thank you.

I'll hopefully be ding a little shopping soon (next trip to Great Falls, Helena or Billings) and will use your advice as a guide.

Ron
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pitrow Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 December 2018 at 09:56
I tend to agree with you Brook. Those huge knife sets are pretty much a waste. The first thing I did when I moved out of my parents house, and I'm glad I did, was buy a decent but small set of kitchen knives. It had an 8" and 6" chef's knives, a small serrated knife, a paring knife and a sharpening steel. Most of the time I find myself using the 8" or the paring knife and the other two very rarely. I'm glad I didn't go with a bigger set. My only regret is that there was no boning or fillet knives. I would gladly trade the 6" and the serrated for those two.

After my MIL passed we inherited her knives which includes a 12" chef's knife. I've tried using it a couple times but I find it so unwieldy that I don't like using it.

I think you pretty much nailed my "perfect" set of knives in your post Brook, I would be perfectly happy with just the following knives as long as they were decent quality and kept sharp:
8" Chef
boning
fillet
paring
bread

as to quality, we picked up a set of cheap knives at Costco a while back to use in our camper and the dang things are so thin that you can't cut anything with any precision, they just bend and deflect with any kind of pressure. I hate the damn things and wish we'd never bought them.
Mike
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 December 2018 at 19:12
With knives, more than anything else I can think of, you generally get what you pay for.  The question often is, to you really need what you are getting.  For the average home cook, the question is, does the quality and comfort of a $130 knife make up for the pricetag?

And there are always surprises. I have a Chicago Cutlery paring knife I bought shortly after we were married. It's been one of my favorites through the years. Don't remember the price, but I know it was less than two bucks.

More recently, when Friend Wife and I worked at Fort Boonesboro, I wanted some inexpensive knives for our cooking demos. Bought a pair of Faberware 8" chefs knives for $10 each. Incredible how well they held an edge, and how durable they proved to be. They're both still going strong, and I use them in my cooking classes. 

Serendipitous in both cases! You can't depend on a cheap knife to perform, long term.  So you have to find that happy compromise between cost, quality, and comfort.  
But we hae meat and we can eat
And sae the Lord be thanket
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