It’s difficult to imagine that sharp little number that’s slicing away to the rhythm of your favourite cooking music (or to the beating of child-size fists hungry for dinner) was more often used for combat, not chopping carrots.
Despite King Louis XIV’s decree that the tips of knives be ground down to reduce violence in the mid-1600s, kitchen knives still (for quite pointed reasons) make popular murder weapons.
But we won’t get into grisly stories of guts and gore here. Whether you’re a chef extraordinaire or the person whose knife knowledge goes as far as cutting vegetables with a steak knife, there are some things everyone should know about knives.
The first major thing we must insist upon is putting down that expensive 14-piece knife set. As most knife experts can attest to, three main knives can cover almost all the work that a layman cook needs to do in the kitchen.
Your standard knife for mincing and slicing vegetables and meat, a chef’s knife is typically 20-25 cm long, but can range all the way up to 36 cm.
Luke Pickett from Knifewear is a sight to see wielding some wickedly sharp handcrafted Japanese models, but despite their carnivorous look, Pickett said there’s really nothing to fear.
“There are a lot of people who are scared of really large knives,” Pickett said. “But having good quality kitchen equipment will make your life easier.”
For beginners, a standard 20 cm chef’s knife (although Pickett said blade length is purely based on personal preference) is best to start with, but a Japanese Santoku knife — an elegant, slightly smaller version of a chef’s knife — will certainly get the job, er, meal done.
On the other side of the knife spectrum is the pocket-sized paring knife (note: carrying knives in pockets not recommended!).
Regan Johnson, assistant manager at The Cookbook Co., said besides what the individual using a steak knife to cut everything might think, the small, intricate work required of a paring knife (such as peeling and trimming) should not be done on a cutting board.
“Paring is anything you can be doing in the air — you’re not ever supposed to use a paring knife on a board,” she explained.
Johnson added that for someone like herself who does almost as much blade-wielding as a samurai, she also recommends a utility knife, which is a hybrid of a chef’s knife and a paring knife.
“I reach for my utility knife a lot,” she said. “It’s got that shape of a paring knife, but is longer. It’s just for those things in between that you don’t need your giant chef’s knife for.”
The last of the big three is, of course, a bread knife. Have you ever tried to cut a loaf of bread with a straight blade? Not so easy (or safe) a task.
It’s sometimes difficult to do, but no matter the type of knife you’re using, it’s important to try and slice as opposed to chopping or sawing. It is quite tempting (and often seems easier) to saw away at the crispy crust of a floured loaf of sourdough, but Knifewear’s Pickett said sawing can be a slippery slope to your bread knife’s grave.
“If you slice, you can use the entire blade and it’s a lot sharper along the edge,” he explained. “It’s important to get a good bread knife because you can’t sharpen them like you can any other sort of knife.”
Of course you can adorn your kitchen with the countless others belonging to the knife family — cleavers, carvers, boning knives, cheese knives, etc. — but if you’re not planning on hacking through solid bone anytime soon, you probably don’t need to spend $200 on a meat cleaver.
But there are some other knife-related implements that are important to have in your kitchen.
First off: a proper cutting board. While plastic cutting boards are versatile and can be chucked in the dishwasher, wood is really the best way to go. Cutting boards are the quickest way to ruin a knife, so steer clear of fancy-looking glass or granite boards — they are the antagonists of our story.
It’s also not a bad idea to have a knife honer on hand. As a reminder (or for those who had no idea what that random rod in the kitchen was used for), honers are for honing, not sharpening.
“With use, the metal fibres in a knife edge can get bent to one side or another. All you’re doing with honing is straightening those fibres back out,” Johnson from The Cookbook Co. explained. “Sharpening means you’re actually removing material and grinding the metal down to a finer edge.”
Johnson added that while you can sharpen at home, she always recommends getting your knives sharpened professionally at least once a year, depending on how much they are used.
Before you go back to making your lazy-day grilled cheese sandwich, or that complex stew you’ve spent hours on, we just want to remind you of what’s called “the pinch grip.”
Not to sound snobbish, but grabbing a knife by the handle and hacking away is poor form. Use your thumb and index finger to grasp the blade, and then wrap your remaining fingers under the bolster of the knife. Shape your other hand into a claw to protect your fingertips from accidentally getting lopped off, firmly grasp the object to be cut and slice away!
If this knowledge was present in the 17th century, perhaps old King Louis XIV would be tipping his crown to more cooks, not kitchen knife combatants.