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.
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.
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.