2.21.2010

The Cutting Edge in Knives

It’s never a good sign when an amateur cook grabs their favorite knife to begin slicing into some vegetables, and instead spends several seconds staring at the blade in their hand. “A knife should feel comfortable in your grip, it should act as an extension of your fingers, hand, and arm—much like a painter’s brush,” says the senior kitchen director at Sur La Table in Naperville, Illinois. She adds, “it’s a very subjective feeling, but you know when you have the right one.”

Chiffonade, brunoise, julienne, batonnet…they all sounded like the names of exotic dancers before I started reading about the different ways of slicing and cutting foods. What prompted this latest research frenzy? Like many other American foodies, I was taken by the onion-cutting scene from Julie and Julia. Although movies count on prepping staff, you can be sure Meryl Street studied some knife basics to feel more comfortable in the role of Julia Child. So what is the first step in learning pro knife skills? Purchasing the right set of tools.

It’s not uncommon for someone looking to purchase a new knife or set of knives to be very confused about where to start. I myself stared as wide-eyed as a deer in the headlights confronted with a vitrine replete with glistening blades of all origins and for all purposes at my local gourmet cooking store.  Luckily,I happened to also notice a sign announcing a knife skills workshop scheduled for later that week.  I had to sign up right away.

Attending a class led by a professional is a great way to familiarize oneself with the basics: selecting the appropriate knife, identifying what each knife is meant for, and practicing basic cutting techniques.  As I walked into my store’s knife skills class, I was immediately put at ease by the instructor, introducing herself as a chef with 25 years of cooking experience and,  pointing a knife at her assistant instructor at the opposite end of the cooking island, mentioning he had been with some of the better restaurants in Chicago.

The first step in understanding knives and their value proposition to the beginning or experienced chef, is to understand how they’re made. Knives come in either European or Asian style, and in machine made or hand forged blades. European knives are typically either German or French and have a thicker spine and a sturdy bolster. On the other hand, Asian knives are thinner, have a unique curvature of the spine from handle to tip, and are typically hand forged—making them expensive and versatile.

The second step is to better understand the types of knives that are available. There are two knives any chef really needs: a chef’s knife and a paring knife. No need to acquire an expensive butcher block full of knives then! Chef’s knives can help you tackle a stack of chops or a pile of lettuce, and paring knives help you peel and decorate fruits and vegetables. For cooks who enjoy breaking down their own meats and fish there’s the very flexible fillet knife, which is very pointy and has a unique blade curvature.

The flexibility of the fillet knife brings to mind another important factor: blade flexibility. Only fillet knives should have some give in the steel’s side-to-side movement. In other knives, this is a sign of poor craftsmanship…and the opportunity to harm oneself.

The third step, is to understand a proper knife grip: pinching the blade spine where the bolster meets the handle, assuring a tight grip at all times. This pinch, however, is also how many professionals develop a little trademark callus on their index finger where the spine rubs during the cutting and slicing motion. This is why it’s important to test out knives before buying them. Not chopping actual food, but holding and gripping to determine whether the weight and balance match one’s grip, and whether the bolster and spine are comfortably pinched together or cause some strain.

But finding the knife that best suits your needs and grip preferences aren’t the end of the story. As you may have realized, all proper tools need some TLC to assure longevity and safe use. Honing the knife’s steel just before each use helps keep the blade true. Mind you, there is a difference between an European and Asian honing tool, so make sure you purchase one from the same manufacturer to complement your choice of chef and paring knives.

Sharpening should be done periodically, and can be done at home or by a professional. However, since the careful use of a water or oil sharpening stone and an eye for degrees of blade incline (20 to 25 degrees usually) are something that turns an inexperienced cook off, there’s manual and electric sharpener tools with foolproof systems that won’t wear down the steel ahead of time. But the recommendation is to trust a professional. In Chicago, many professionals entrust their tools of the trade to the Chicago Cutlery company.

Whatever your choice, make sure you only grab for a sharp and honed blade: there’s few things as dangerous as a dull knife. So what are you waiting for? Pick your new favorite knife and get slicing!