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Three Essential Knives

Understanding knives, especially the chef knife, could be the most crucial factor in becoming comfortable with food preparation. It is just as important as the novice musician choosing their first real instrument or the Little Leaguer choosing their own first personal bat. When I watch someone use the wrong knife for their food preparation, I can see why they’ve become frustrated in the kitchen.

With these three essential knives on hand, you will be able to chop veggies, cut fruit, slice bread, and complete basic prep like butterflying a chicken breast or  pork chop (a future topic).

  1. A serrated knife, with its blade that is jagged with serrations, is often called a bread knife because that has become its principal use. It is also useful for cutting hard foods such as hard cheeses, such as Parmesan or aged cheeses or for slicing soft whole tomatoes.  A good serrated knife is long and is serrated on both sides of the cutting edge.
  2. A paring knife is a short utility knife that will become the second most useful tool to prepare food.  You will use it when you are holding the item you need to cut, in your hand, instead of cutting on the cutting board such as carving the core out of a fresh tomato, or carving around the skin of a whole orange.
  3. A chef knife or French knife is your versatile, virtually all purpose knife. It is worth investing in a decent chef knife. They can vary widely in price so you decide where to start. This is a time when a well-stocked kitchen store or housewares section of a department store will be useful.

A chef knife with a blade of 8-9 inches long is a good starting point. It becomes such a versatile knife because the blade is both long and wide. A long blade helps reduce the amount of awkward wrist bending. The wide blade makes it easier to produce straight parallel cuts. A wide blade allows for clearance between the fingers holding the knife and the cutting board because your knuckles don’t knock onto the cutting board.

It is important to test drive a chef knife before buying it. You won’t be able to take an onion or a carrot to the store but you will be able to make sure it fits properly into your hand and not feel too heavy.  Hold it loosely in your hand, like you are shaking someone’s hand. It should tilt just slightly forward. Your knife needs will evolve as your cooking skills improve and will depend on the routes you take with ingredients.  The better your skills become, the more you may find a need for a longer, thinner blade to provide more precision.

 A word about knife sharpening: leave it to the experts, for now. When I have taught cooking classes, students often ask me how often to sharpen knives. It certainly depends on how often the knife is being used. For those of us who have used a knife for eight hours or more a day in a professional kitchen, the answer is every day or several times a day. But when we are preparing food for one, it could be once a month or less or more.

Keep in mind that you are more likely to injure yourself with a dull knife than a sharp knife because you will be forcing the knife. If can feel the muscles in your forearm tighten, you are putting too much pressure on your knife and time for a sharpening. When you shop at a grocery store that has a full service meat and seafood counter or are fortunate enough to live close to a specialty meat or fish market, they will most often sharpen knives for customers. If they don’t have a sign posted that says they sharpen knives, ask them.  They want customers who have good knives at home who will purchase the delicious items in their displays.

I will refer to these three basic knives often in future posts and will explain technique. Having the right tool for the job is a crucial, confidence building start for enjoyable food preparation. Your chef knife will be your prime ally in the craft side of the craft and finesse of eating solo.