When buying a knife, there are various elements to consider. Blades are most often made of a blend of carbon, which holds sharp edges longer, and chromium, a stainless steel alloy...
Before Edgar Martinez steps up to the plate, he carefully selects which precision-made bat to take with him. He’ll consider, among other things, its weight, the hitting situation and the type of pitcher he’s facing. Choosing the most important tool in the kitchen the knife requires the same care and attention. A cook must consider a knife’s weight and comfort in the hand, as well as the task at hand.
When buying a knife, there are various elements to consider. Blades are most often made of a blend of carbon, which holds sharp edges longer, and chromium, a stainless steel alloy that retards rust and corrosion. The blade should have a finely ground, satiny surface and should taper evenly from the handle to the tip, and from the back of the blade to the cutting edge.
Ceramic knives, which are lighter but harder than steel, are another option. ( Two of the producers are Kyocera of Japan and Boker of Germany.) The knives may hold an edge for years, but because there’s not a reliable method for at-home sharpening, the knife may need to be sent back to the manufacturer for that purpose. Have a professional knife-sharpening company check out the knife first; they may have the equipment and knowledge to do the job.
The heavier angled shape between blade and handle consists of the bolster, which tapers to the heel. This adds weight to the knife and protection for fingers.
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The end of the blade that extends into the handle is called the tang. It should run the entire length of the handle for better balance and strength. Molded handles do not have a full tang but rather form a seamless, permanent bond around the tang.
Wood is the traditional material used for handles, but newer materials such as molded polypropylene are gaining favor with manufacturers and consumers alike. They’re lighter, more comfortable and easier to hold. Global knives, also from Japan, have smaller, slip-resistant stainless steel handles that are filled with sand for weight and balance. (These knives, formed completely of stainless steel, created a buzz a few years ago with their seamless construction. More traditional European companies such as J.A. Henckels are now using the lighter, innovative design in some of their own lines.)
When shopping, try out a variety of knives for balance and weight. Grip the knife so that the back of the blade is held firmly between thumb and forefinger, and the other fingers are wrapped around the handle. It should fit your hand comfortably, and the length of the blade is one you should feel secure with. Both blade and handle should feel smooth to the touch with no visible gaps around the tang.
Keeping a knife sharp will make cooking and kitchen tasks easier. There are two types of sharpeners: those that create a new edge, such as stones and electric sharpeners; and those that hone and straighten the edge, such as straightening steels.
A Carborundum stone usually has two sides: a rougher, medium grit for shaping the edge, and a finer grit that finishes the sharpening by lightly removing the burr that’s built up during shaping.
An oil is generally used to moisten the stone before sharpening. There are mineral oils specifically formulated for sharpening stones, but any food-safe mineral oil can be used.
A whetstone typically uses water to lubricate its surface. But if you’ve already begun to use oil on it, continue to do so to keep the surface from clogging.
To sharpen the knife, place at a slight angle with the blade flat on the rough side of the prepared stone. The sharp edge should be facing in. Then raise the opposite edge about 20 degrees, or about &frac12; inch. Beginning with the thickest part of the blade, continue to hold the knife at that angle as you draw it toward you in a smooth arc, finishing at the tip. Give it a few more strokes to raise a burr, then switch to the other side of the blade. Once you feel a sharper edge, finish the sharpening on the finer side of the stone, lightening the stroke each time.
Steels can be formed of either high-carbon stainless steel coated with industrial diamond dust or of ceramic. Buy one that’s at least 10 inches long so there’s plenty of surface to draw the knife from one end to the other. Use the steel every few times you use the knife, drawing the blade at the same angle that’s used with a stone.
If you’re uncomfortable with sharpening knives yourself, many supermarkets offer sharpening services for customers at a small cost. Or consider purchasing an electric knife sharpener, a terrific option for the home cook because the grinding angles are preset. Look for a sharpener with several slots, each shaping the blade’s edge at a different angle, much like the sharpening stone does. (When Cook’s Magazine tested six sharpeners, Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone 110 received the highest rating. It retails for about $85.)
After each use, clean the knife with mild soap and water, and dry immediately. Never put a good knife in the dishwasher, where friction can damage its edge. High heat and detergent can also damage wood or polypropylene handles.
Acidic foods such as lemon, wine, mustard or ketchup should be rinsed off the knife right after using. If the blade shows signs of staining, use a nonabrasive metal polish.
Never cut through bones with a utility or chef’s knife, which can damage the blade’s edge. (Use a meat cleaver specifically designed for this purpose.) Using a knife for any purpose other than cutting may bend or even break the blade.
Knives will stay sharper longer when used on a cutting surface that’s easy on the blade. Wood cutting boards or blocks should be oiled once a month with food-grade mineral oil to protect against drying and cracking. Vegetable oil, which can become rancid quickly, should not be used on wood.
To clean a wood board, wash with liquid soap and warm water, but never soak it or put in the dishwasher. Rinse and towel-dry immediately. To prevent mold from forming on the bottom, place the cutting block on a baker’s cooling rack to keep air circulating until completely dry.
High-density thermoplastic cutting boards come in many sizes, and most are dishwasher safe. The newest boards on the market have small grippers on one side that keep the board in place. A kitchen towel or damp paper towel placed under a cutting surface will also prevent slipping. Thin, flexible plastic cutting mats are inexpensive. Buy several in different colors for fish, meat and poultry, or vegetables.
Storing your knives properly will add to their life, and there are several possibilities to choose from. A wooden knife block should have a large, flat base and slots that are well-distanced for safe removal. If counter space is limited, try a wooden in-drawer knife tray. (The blades will face up when sitting in the tray, which is something to consider if you have small children. Plastic sheaths are a safe alternative.) With any wood storage, it’s important to wash and dry knives thoroughly before storing to prevent mildew.
If there’s wall space available in the kitchen, consider a magnetic knife holder which holds blades firmly in place.
Sources: “The New Cooks’ Catalogue: The Definitive Guide to Cooking Equipment” (Knopf); Wusthof Cutlery; J.A. Henckels; Global Knives; Kyocera; www.knifecenter.com.