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Know your knives

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published December 12, 2007


Nothing gets made in the kitchen without them. Well, maybe oatmeal. Knives are the most essential tool in the cook's arsenal, but you don't need dozens.

If you invest in quality, keep them sharpened, clean them well and carefully store them, they can be with you for a lifetime, so choosing the right ones is important.

A quality knife should be high-carbon stainless steel and solidly constructed. It should feel heavy and pleasant in your hand. Grip the handle to be sure the knife is well balanced, with the center of gravity near the handle. This is especially important in a large chef's knife, where chopping is accomplished through a rolling motion along the full length of the knife. Good knives should taper from the heel to the tip and from the top of the blade to the cutting edge. If a blade is too thin all over, it will become paper-thin and brittle after a few sharpenings; if it's too thick all over, it may be unwieldy or not stay sharp.

The knife blade should be one piece that goes from the tip of the knife to the butt of the handle. The "tang" is the portion of the metal blade that is inside the handle. A "full tang" may not be visible by looking at the handle, but three rivets in the handle usually indicate a full tang. A knife that claims to have a 3/4 or 1/2 tang is inferior.

Good knives are expensive, easily topping $100 for a single blade. For this reason, shop at a store where you can inspect the knives individually. You may not be able to do this with knife sets (which also may include unnecessary knives). The choice should come down to what feels right in your hand.

Here are the knives the well-stocked kitchen should have.

ESSENTIAL KNIVES

1. A chef's knife is the most frequently used knife in the kitchen. It is used for many techniques - chopping, slicing, dicing, julienne, mincing. The tip and butt end of the blade also have specialized functions. The tip is used for precise cutting since the blade is thinnest at that point and thus most dexterous. The butt end is used as a "cleaver" for chopping small bones and harder veggies. This knife is worth spending the most money on and is available in 8-, 10-, 12- and 14-inch lengths. Blade lengths of 10 or 12 inches are most popular for professional chefs, but the novice may feel more in control with an 8-inch version.

2 & 3. Choose two paring knives, the knife used most often for trimming and peeling fruits and vegetables, as well as for some chopping. These are the second most often used knives in the kitchen, so choose ones that feel good in your hand. On one, the blade should be 23/4 to 4 inches long, and the other may be a bird's beak knife (with a hooked, "beaky" blade), which is better for peeling round things.

4. Buy a serrated slicer long enough to slice across the diameter of a fat loaf of bread, preferably at least 10 inches long. A serrated slicer is a must-have in the kitchen, using its teeth to cut through items such as bread and cake that would be difficult to cut neatly with a chef's knife or a slicer. Be sure to cut with a back-and-forth sawing motion.

USEFUL (BUT NOT ESSENTIAL)

5. A boning knife has a thin, pointed blade about 6 inches long used for boning raw meats and poultry. Stiff blades are used for heavier work, flexible blades are used for lighter work and for filleting fish. Since a sharp boning knife is imperative, you might consider buying it with a carbon steel blade as they sharpen effortlessly. If you don't buy a boning knife, you will have to use a paring knife and chef's knife in tandem to successfully bone out meats or poultry.

6. A slicer is a long (usually at least 10 inches), thin, flexible blade that can be either pointed or rounded at the end, used for slicing cooked meats. The knife must be kept very sharp, and slicing should utilize a gentle back-and-forth sawing motion to keep the meat from tearing. Avoid chopping with this knife because it can damage the thin blade. If you don't buy a slicer, a sharp 10- or 12-inch chef's knife will do.

7. A sharpening steel is only a useful tool if you know how to use it. It's worthwhile to have someone knowledgeable show you the ropes (keep a 25-degree angle between the steel and the knife, draw the knife across on a diagonal, swipe it five or so times across on each side), at a cookware store or even your favorite restaurant. Some cooks also swear by sharpening stones, rectangular whetstones against which you rub a knife to achieve a sharp edge. Again, the angle of movement determines the sharpness of the blade, so a steady hand is important. Be sure to wash the knife after sharpening to remove metal shavings.

Most chefs recommend getting knives professionally sharpened periodically. A professional knife sharpener will grind the edge down, so frequent sharpening may decrease the longevity of your knives.