The Importance of Kitchen Knives

If you’ve ever been into a professional kitchen, and tried to borrow one of the chef’s knives, you’ll know what I mean when I say that to a professional cook, their knife is like an extension of their hands. On my very first day as a chef I was asked to chop something, grabbed the nearest knife and was drowned in a torrent of abuse and threats, before realising I had in fact picked up the sous’ best knife. The knife his father had bought him. The knife he’d had with him since his apprenticeship. The knife he’d carefully honed every day. He was something of a drama queen.

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Easy peasy

Or was he? Admittedly, there was no need to threaten fiery retribution, but he did have a point. Because anyone who is in the least bit inclined to cook should have a good, sharp knife, and should be able to do a vague rolling chop. I’m pretty sure that a lot of people reading this will never have learned how to use a proper chef’s knife, and if you choose to (and I really recommend you do), you’ll discover that what used to be a chore has suddenly become a pleasure.

You know who you are, you who stand for hours in the kitchen, painfully trying to chop a turnip with a 2” paring knife. It doesn’t have to be that way! And I promise it’s relatively simple to learn how to chop properly. There are a few rules – some part of the blade should always be on the chopping board while you’re moving – think of the motion of a rocking chair. Grip the handle with your last three fingers, and straddle your thumb and forefinger firmly over the join of the handle and the blade so those two fingers are tucked into the end of the blade – it will make your grip more steady than just holding the handle. You might find this knife skills video helpful. And practice. Practice unfortunately does make perfect, as my father was always telling me about the piano.

So now I’ve converted you, which knife to buy…

Well, if you’re feeling flash, and you want to look like Michel Roux Jr. I would suggest a Global. Their blades are second to none, they stay sharp for AGES, and you can chop everything from a ripe tomato to a swede with perfect ease. But they’re very pricey, and I’m not a huge fan of the handles – I find them too hard for my delicate petal-like skin. Plus the corner of the blade is a razor sharp point that looks very smart, but I guarantee you will stab your hand with it within 10 minutes. But men love them and if you have a budding Jamie in the kitchen they make fantastic gifts.

For something more restrained but still a serious chef’s knife, try a Wusthof. They also have lovely blades, not as effortless as the Globals, but their handles are comfier and they’re not quite as pricey (around £80 for an 8” chef’s knife, as opposed to Global’s £115)

And if you really don’t want to break the bank (and I honestly wouldn’t bother until you’ve mastered the chopping), try Salter. They’ve got very comfortable, rubber grip handles and slice with ease – we use them a lot in the test kitchen and I’ve never had a problem with them. And at £20 for an 8” chef’s knife they’re a fraction of the cost of a designer one, so they’re great to get you started.

For a more middle of the road option I really like the new Lakeland Select knives. Again with an ergonomic soft-grip handle, their blades are made from ice-hardened Japanese steel – a process which strengthens the blade and keeps it sharper for longer. I’d happily have paid more for this knife – but the lack of designer name means a lower price. Fine by me.

The size is up to you, but I like an 8” blade. They’re big enough for bulky food but not so big you feel dwarfed.

Once you’ve bought your knife, you need something to keep it sharp. I hate those motorised sharpeners, they gradually wear the blades into serrations. Stay away. Much better, if you’re not confident with a knife steel is this little contraption that I bought after hearing great reports from various chefs. It’s called an Ozitech, and it works just by dragging the blade across its ‘diamond fingers’. It hones them evenly, and doesn’t leave you with ridges in your knife.Image

And so on to a few final points. If you are using a steel, drag the knife across it at the angle you chop at  – it will sharpen the blade evenly for your particular chopping style. Always do an even number of strokes or you’ll end up with a ridge on one side. Try not to let anyone else use your favourite knife – different chopping styles result in an uneven blade that won’t sharpen properly. Don’t scrape food off chopping boards with the sharp end of the blade – turn the knife over so you don’t blunt it. Never, ever put knives in the dishwasher – the heat and the salt ruins the blade. And remember – you’re much more likely to cut yourself with a blunt blade sliding off food than with a sharp one.

So get down to your kitchen shop sharpish.

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12 Comments

Filed under Kitchen kit, Musings

12 responses to “The Importance of Kitchen Knives

  1. fabulous fabulous fabulous post! my life changed after I did a knife skills course and bought a ‘proper’ knife! this has been great reading! thanks!

  2. Pingback: Hand Grips Soft Handles

  3. Nice post- I hadn’t heard of the Lakeland Select knives, thanks! Watching some Gordon Ramsay thing, I noticed he’s always got a Wusthof to hand- the cooks knife and also one of the more Japanese-style blades. I’ve just got a Sabatier that I’m really comfortable with, but I’m in desperate need of know-how with a steel if I’m gonna keep it honed!

    • If you have any other knives that you don’t value as much I would practice with the steel on those first – I ruined two blades trying to learn how to sharpen. Keep the angle of the knife at the angle you chop at, apply firm but not excessive pressure and start slowly – you can build up speed once you know that you’re doing it right!

  4. Mmmmm? Now do I get one I like or one Mr MT likes? That is the question. I think as he does the cooking he should have one. That way he can do the man thing and do the sharpening like a pro too!
    I have used a professional knife before at a cooking event with Michel Roux Jr and it was amazing the difference. It really was a pleasure to chop, but I still think I’ll get him indoors to do it!

  5. Maureen

    I invested in a decent knife about 3 years ago and you’re right that it’s worth it – it makes the boring bits of cooking both a pleasure and an art-form. My issue is that haven’t sharpened it for about 2 years, will my neglect have ruined it forever or is it likely I could save it with a little tlc now…?

    • Take it to your local butcher, buy some meat and smile sweetly while you ask, and he’ll probably re-edge and hone it for you. Most butchers have professional honing equipment and your knife should come back good as new.

  6. Pierre

    What about ceramic blades, TF? Do you rate them?

    • I’m not a fan of ceramic blades, and to be honest, I’ve never met a professional cook who is. I hate the noise they make and they just don’t feel right – I think steel is still the way forward.

  7. Lyndsay

    You are so right. The first time I used a Global knife I nearly cut the top of my thumb off, which would really have ruined dinner. I’m now scared of the whole knife block and try to only use the smallest one, which I still think is actually a lethal weapon masquerading as a kitchen tool.

  8. Kate

    Thanks TrueFoodie, plenty of tips to take away here – especially the Ozitech sharpener, that’ll be a new kitchen purchase for me. You haven’t mentioned Sabatier – do you rate them?

    • I had to use Sabatiers for Leiths and I do like them, but I prefer the wider, rounder blades of different makes. Sabatiers are a bit long and pointy for me. Plus, the handles really rub if you use them for a long time…when you’re making dinner for 50 for example!

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