What a cook wants: Cutlery
By JANET K. KEELER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000
A finely honed knife makes easy work of chopping herbs or cutting a whole chicken into parts. A dull knife not only makes prep work difficult, it is dangerous. You are more likely to be hurt forcing a lousy knife through a tomato than by gliding through the juicy meat with a sharp blade.
Most people can agree on the importance of knives in the kitchen. They can can also agree to disagree on brands and prices, because opinions vary tremendously.
Before you cavalierly write "knives" on the holiday wish list you toss your significant other or before you pick out a set for someone else, it's important to understand these crucial tools. It is also a good idea to set a budget. You can buy a butcher block set of 15 knives for as little as $50 at most department and discount stores, and you can spend almost $100 on a small ceramic paring knife. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
Burt Wolf, TV food journalist and editor of the recently published The New Cook's Catalogue (Knopf, $35), advocates buying the best knives you can afford.
"If I could only buy a good chef's knife, I would get that and wait until I had enough money to buy a paring knife," he says.
Current wisdom on knife buying is that a chef's knife, 8 to 10 inches, is a wise addition to a home cook's collection and an absolute must in a professional kitchen.
"Chefs love their knives," Wolf says. "They care for them, roll them up in little blankets. They are devoted to their knives; without them they are out of business."
Those of us simply trying to get dinner on the table may not be so enamored of a sharp piece of metal. Love affair notwithstanding, you still need a knife to get the job done. What's in your drawers? Wusthof, Henckels, Chicago Cutlery or grocery store specials?
The following tips will help guide you through the store aisles.
Most commercial knives today are made of stainless steel. There are many formulas for stainless steel, so you might notice a list of alloys stamped on the knife by the manufacturers. For instance, Cook's Choice knives include vanadium, chromium, molybdenum and carbon. The carbon in the formula is what makes the knife easy to sharpen, and the stainless alloys are what keep it shiny.
Inexpensive knives have a lower carbon content and thus lose their edge more quickly and never become super sharp again. Knives that manufacturers say "never need to be sharpened" probably can't be because of the low carbon steel content and should be avoided, according to most knife experts.
Recently ceramic knives have received a lot of attention. Ming Tsai of the TV Food Network uses them on his shows and has lent his name to a line. These knives, which are pricey, are beautiful and delicate.
"Don't drop them, though," Wolf says, "or that's the end of your knife."
The thin-blade ceramic knives are good for slicing, not chopping, says Elise Free of Beans About Cooking in Clearwater. She has sold several $96 4-inch utility knives but emphasizes that ceramic is not an all-purpose material. An 8-inch ceramic chef's knife costs about $300.
Knives are either forged or stamped. Forged knives are made of one piece of steel that runs from the tip of the blade to the handle. The steel is pounded into shape with a mechanical hammer exerting tons of force. (The steel that goes through the handle is called the tang, and the bolster is where the tang meets the blade.) A knife that is made of stamped steel, cut cookie-cutter style, is welded together at the bolster and the steel may or may not run the length of the handle. Stamped knives have a thinner, lighter blade than forged knives. The tang helps provide balance to the knife, and the longer it is, the more balanced the knife.
Forged knives are generally considered stronger than stamped. When selecting knives for you or someone else, hold them first. Make sure the fit is comfortable and that the knife is neither too heavy nor too light. If you are ordering from a catalog or a TV shopping channel, find out if the knives can be returned easily if you are not satisfied.
The most durable and sanitary handles are made of plastic, rubber or stainless steel. Hard wood handles are common in lower priced knives but can be compromised by exposure to water. Rosewood is often used in knife handles because it resists cracking and splitting. When a handle cracks or splits, bacteria can invade the material.
Knives should be stored in wooden holders or sheaths to protect the blades and prevent injuries. Loose, sharp knives in drawers can easily cut hands reaching in for other untensils. The best countertop butcher blocks are those with horizontal slots for the knife blades. If you buy a knife set with vertical slots, store your knives upside down. Otherwise, you'll scrape the blade on the wood, dulling it, every time you take out a knife.
Knives you need
There are oyster shucking knives, tomato knives and knives intended to bone a chicken. Chances are you'll live your whole life without ever needing one of these. A basic set of four or five knives will perform most of these chores. (Eat oysters out and you'll never have to shuck.)
Wolf said he is partial to knife sets over individual pieces because they generally include the knives home cooks need at a better price. His must-have list includes a chef's knife, a paring knife, a flexible slicing knife (good for carving meat) and a serrated knife. Many sets include those plus a 4-inch utility knife, a steel to maintain the blade and kitchen shears.
A serrated knife cuts food that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside such as crusty French bread or tomatoes. The flexible slicing knife, also called a carving knife, has enough bend so it can cut around bones (remember that turkey!).
The chef's knife, also called a cook's knife, is the star of the knife set. You can't watch a cooking show on TV without one of the uberchefs talking about the necessity of this all-around utility knife. This is the knife most often used for chopping, dicing and crushing in professional kitchens. An 8-inch chef's knife is great for home use, but it is available in other sizes.
How much and what brand
Okay, now for the hard part. Great knives cost money, though good knives can be found in the midprice range. Occasionally, you can find expensive knives for less money at discount stores such as TJ Maxx and Marshall's.
The brand that most often tops "best lists" is the German-made Wusthof. These knives are made in Solingen, Germany, where the lower-priced, sturdy Henckels are also manufactured. Wusthofs are often spied in the hands of the TV chefs. An 8-inch chef's knife is about $100, and a seven-piece set, which includes the storage block and a honing steel, is about $275. Consumer Reports rates these knives highly, and they can be purchased in upscale kitchen shops and through catalogs.
The high carbon content of the steel and the solid construction of Wusthof knives are what makes them so good. They come with a lifetime guarantee.
According to Wolf, most top-quality knives are made in Germany or England. He sited Massachusetts' LamsonSharp as one of the few good American manufacturers. A forged chef's knife runs about $75. The Straw Goat in St. Petersburg carries the line. Call (800) 872-6564 for other stores or log on to http://www.lamsonsharp.com.
"We just don't have a tradition of steelmaking here," Wolf says. "For years all our steel came from Sheffield, England, so we've tended to import these complicated things. After the Revolutionary War, we started making steel. We made lovely cannons and bayonets, no knives."
Despite Wolf's lament about American knifemaking, Chicago Cutlery is a popular brand. Free doesn't carry Chicago Cutlery knives in her Clearwater shop but has sharpened many and can vouch for the quality. An 8-inch chef's knife is $27.99, and a 6-piece set is $89.99 at Lechter's Housewares in Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg.
"For a midrange knife, it's very nice," Free says.
In 1998, Consumer Reports rated Brazil's Tramontina Professional knives a best buy. A three-piece set of forged knives is about $69.99, and an 8-inch chef's knife is $49.99. "Great for blade grip and has a 25-year warranty," Consumer Reports noted. The knives are often sold through TV's QVC. Call Tramontina customer service at (800) 221-7809 for a catalog or to find a store near you that stocks them.
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With the power of knowledge behind you, it's time to strike out and shop for those knives. If a less expensive set is what you can afford for yourself or as a present, just make sure they provide a comfortable fit and that you understand how to care for them. It might not be the worst thing in the world to have to buy another set in five to 10 years.
Is the sky the limit? Buy that ceramic knife and pray you don't drop it.
Use sharpening steel, stone to maintain knives
Even the best-quality knives do not stay sharp forever. Contact with food and work surfaces will dull the finest stainless or carbon and steel blades. However, you can keep your knives in prime working condition with a minimal amount of fuss and maintenance.
Every time you use your knife, a minuscule part of the blade is bent, dulling it. Honing your knife on a sharpening steel will realign the blade.
Resembling a skewer, these rods are long and pointed, and are typically made out of hard carbon steel (less often, ceramic and diamond steel).
The name "sharpening steel" can be a little misleading. While it does sharpen the knife slightly, the magnetic rod's primary role is to pull the metal back to center. This should be done with almost every use; a couple of strokes is all it takes.
Typically, every 6 months, depending on the frequency of use, steeling your knife will not make it feel sharper. Now it is time to sharpen it on a stone or take it to a professional sharpener.
Sharpening your own blades is quick and easy; rectangular sharpening stones are available in a variety of sizes and materials. The most common are made from carborundum and extremely hard man-made material. Larger stones are less portable but can easily accommodate both long and short knifes.
A single stone will offer two different grits, or degrees of coarseness. Medium-coarse and medium-fine grit are most common. The more coarse side should always be used first, as it shaves off more metal. The knife can then be "buffed" by the finer side of the stone. Lubricate your stone with oil or water. Follow the instructions that come with the stone.
Automatic home sharpening machines are another option in maintaining your knives. They operate at high speeds, and they require considerable attention and skill. Even the most experienced cooks can turn smooth blades to serrated ones in seconds.
If you use one, follow the instructions carefully. Most professional chefs opt to use stones or have their knives professionally sharpened.
-- Associated Press
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