Wednesday, January 10, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Selecting the correct kitchen knife means first deciding on its purpose

Culinary Institute of America
For The Associated Press

Whether a knife is long or short, the proper balance between blade and handle is important, especially in the basic chef’s knife.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

HYDE PARK, N.Y. - In an age when high-tech clubs allow mere mortals to drive golf balls like Tiger Woods, selecting the right knife can give you a big culinary edge.

Looking at a case full of knives of varying shapes, sizes and materials can be intimidating. How do you pick the right one? How many are really necessary?

While the selection may seem overwhelming, choosing the right knives boils down to a few key elements: handles, blades, type of knife, sharpening tools, and, finally, your culinary goals - for example, when a side of beef is in the plan, a boning knife becomes an essential.

Knife handles can be found in a variety of materials, from bone or wood to plastic and metal.

Wood handles, often walnut or rosewood, are handsome and offer the least slippery grip, but water will damage them over time. Even knives with treated wooden handles should never see the inside of a dishwasher.

Bone handles tend to be expensive and can be slippery when wet. Many professionals prefer contoured plastic handles for their comfort and grip. Cleaning these in the dishwasher won’t destroy them but, when rattling around, they can nick and chip glasses, dishes and the interior rack. Hand washing in soapy water is always best.

The real value of a good knife lies in the quality of its blade. The best are high-carbon stainless steel, easy to sharpen and clean.

Ceramic knives are attractive but can be impractical; one slip to the floor can spell the end of an expensive knife and, even with the best of care, they eventually dull and are impossible to sharpen.

A good-quality chef’s knife and paring knife are the basic necessities of every kitchen.

As with all knives, the balance between the blade, the handle and the size of the knife in relation to your hand are key considerations. This is especially true when selecting a chef’s knife, the stalwart kitchen workhorse.

The chef’s knife will be used the most, therefore comfort is key. The handle should feel as if it had been made for your hand.

Holding the knife, assess how comfortable and stable it feels.

Unless you plan to make good use of your food processor, you will tire quickly with a "poorly fitting" knife. Avoid an unnecessarily heavy knife, but take into account that a little weight will be necessary for chopping and crushing.

Length important

Blade lengths for a chef’s knife range from 6 to 12 inches; 8 to 10 inches is adequate for most home cooks. Look for a curved blade, which will allow a fluid rocking motion as you chop vegetables and herbs.

A broad blade (about 2 inches at the heel) permits even slicing through thick vegetables. This wide, flat side is also useful for crushing garlic, pounding cutlets or simply lifting food from the cutting board.

Even the heel of a chef’s knife is useful. The heavy, stable portion of the knife is perfect for jobs that require a lot of force, such as cutting through joints or taking the end off of a butternut squash.

A utility knife is a smaller, lighter version of a chef’s knife; it is helpful for smaller items but is not a kitchen essential.

Second to the chef’s knife, a paring knife is the next vital cutting tool in your kitchen. Its short blade, typically 2 to 4 inches long, provides flexibility in peeling, trimming and shaping fruits and vegetables. Pointed or round blade tips are available, and both will accommodate your paring needs.

Similar in size to the paring knife is the tourne. This knife has a curved blade and is designed for tourneing, a technique that creates rounded surfaces, giving your vegetables a classic decorative twist.

Slicing knives have long, thin blades, which can produce smooth slices with one stroke. The meat slicer has a smooth, rather rigid blade that can cut turkey into the enviably thin slices you see in the holiday issues of cooking magazines.

Flexible blades

With their slightly longer, thinner, and more flexible blades, salmon slicers prevent tearing as paper-thin slices of fish are cut. Slicing a loaf of bread or a tomato without crushing the insides requires a serrated slicing knife.

You will need a boning knife only if you frequently butcher large cuts of meat and whole poultry, or fillet fish. The rigid blade is narrow and shorter than the chef’s knife - about 6 inches long. This makes it easier to work around bones and muscle groups, and allows you to change position efficiently. For smaller items, such as a chicken leg or breast, use your chef’s knife.

Both chef’s knives and boning knives can be used to fillet fish, but with the flexible blade of a filleting knife, you can graze the bones, separating the delicate flesh with the least waste.

With their wide rectangular blades, Japanese and Chinese cleavers can be used interchangeably with the chef’s knife, but require a little more skill. Butcher cleavers have a similar shape but should be heavy enough to cut through bones. The flat edge can be used to pound and shape pieces of meat or poultry.

Regular maintenance of your knife blade will help ensure you are getting the best performance possible. Even the basic knife kit, consisting of the chef’s and paring knife, should include a steel to hone the knife between sharpening.

Periodically running the blade along the long, magnetic steel will help the blade retain proper alignment and will hold metal shavings which gather on the blade and can dull the ability to cut.

A steel will clean and realign the knife, but it will not sharpen the blade. In most cases, having your knives professionally sharpened a couple of times per year is best.

Whether your culinary ventures are modest or extravagant, the proper tools will help enhance your success. Just as you wouldn’t hit the links with a bag full of putters, you should never venture into the kitchen with only a paring knife at your disposal.

The Culinary Institute of America’s recipe for Tomato Salsa highlights almost all of the uses of a chef’s knife: trimming, slicing, dicing and chopping, and, prior to mincing, using the flat side of the knife to crush the garlic.

This salsa is the perfect topping for fajitas, burritos and enchiladas, or for grilled meats, fish and poultry. Adjust the heat to your taste by adding additional jalapenos, Tabasco sauce or cayenne.

Tomato Salsa

  • 1 pound ripe tomatoes, cored and diced
  • 1 small red onion, diced
  • 1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed black pepper

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients, gently stirring to combine. Cover and refrigerate for several hours, allowing the flavors to develop. Adjust the seasoning before serving if necessary.

Makes 10 servings of 1/4-cup each.

Nutrition information per serving: 15 cal., 0 g pro., 0 g fat, 4 g carbo., 220 mg sodium, 0 mg chol., 1 g dietary fiber.

Recipe adapted from "The Professional Chef’s Techniques of Healthy Cooking," Second Edition (Wiley, $59.95), by the Culinary Institute of America

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