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Staying Sharp About Your Knives

Story by Wanda Adams

Home cooks and professional chefs have a distinctly different view of knives.

Home cooks are more likely to view a knife as just another tool in a jumbled utensil drawer. Something, perhaps, to be a bit nervous about. They readily fall prey to the glamour of big names with prices to match, or shrug and buy a Ginsu set on QVC, or worse, a full set of serrated knives. “Bad! Wrong! Should be stopped!” chefs implore.

Chefs are taught to think of them as an extension of the body. Through the chopping and slicing of hundreds of pounds of every kind of food imaginable in the early days of their training, they learn to adopt a certain grip, a certain motion and to favor particular knives for particular purposes. They develop strong emotional ties to their knives, carrying them everywhere in black roll-up kits and spending hours lovingly sharpening them on a honing stone. “Sharpening is ‘Zen-like,‘” said chef Kyle Kawakami, owner of Maui Fresh Streatery and a former chef-instructor at the Maui Culinary Academy.

What, then, can home cooks learn from the pros about learning to love their knives?
Knife, garlic,hand

Gripping Topic

The goal is to find knives that you’re comfortable enough with to actually use, says chef-instructor Grant Sato of Kapi‘olani Community College, who teaches a popular knife skills course in the school’s continuing education program.

“It’s not the name, it’s not the price, it’s not the quality of the metal, it’s how it feels in your hand,” says Sato. “If it doesn’t feel comfortable, you’re not going to enjoy cutting and you’re not going to enjoy cooking.”

Chef Carol Nardello, whose work testing recipes for cookbooks and role as in-house chef in a Wolf Sub-Zero demonstration kitchen bridges the gap between professional and home kitchens, continues this theme: “Everybody has a favorite knife, that’s the one you go to and you feel confident with,” she says. As one of eight children, she shares that her mother did some “pretty big cookin’,” mostly with a paring knife.

The only true test of whether a knife is right for you is using it. Short of toting along your own cutting board and an onion when visiting a store, never buy a knife without holding it and at least pretending to slice or chop, Nardello insists.

Think carefully about weight, length and heft. A burly European chef with hands like bear paws may be delighted with a German-made 12-inch chef’s knife, while a petite home cook would feel completely overmatched, her hand unable to properly grasp the handle, the length frightening and the weight too weighty.
Start with the Basics         

Kawakami is a self-described knife fanatic, owning costly custom knives, sushi knives, the works. But, he said, it does you no good to spend the money and collect the blades only to have them become “drawer queens,” knives that spend their lives in a drawer.

So what knives ought you consider to outfit a basic home kitchen? The chefs were unanimous:

  • An 8- to 10-inch European-style chef’s knife, a classic triangular shape with a sharp point.
  • A 4-inch paring knife, same shape.
  • A boning or utility knife, thin-bladed and pointed.
  • And a serrated knife for breads and some meats.

“That’s all you need. From there, you can do anything,” said Kawakami.

Well, not quite. The chefs are assuming one other must-have: a steel — a tool rather like a round, ridged, short-sword. Stroking the blade rapidly on one side and then the other, chefs can make the steel “sing.” The steel realigns microscopic “teeth” in the blade, removes burrs and minute chips and returns the cutting tool almost to just-honed sharpness.
Personal Indulgences

Beyond these, however, everyone has their oddball favorite. Sato’s is a good pair of kitchen shears, with which you can delicately snip herbs or brashly cut through bone. Kawakami is also partial to a sushi knife (these are long, single-beveled and devilishly sharp). Nardello’s favorite knife, before she went to culinary school in mid-life and learned to love the graceful curving motion with a chef’s knife, was a cleaver. Mine, if I may interject as one who has tested dozens of recipes, is an inexpensive, square-bladed, all-metal 8-inch Chinese vegetable cleaver.

To a degree, which knife you choose depends on what you cook: Western or Asian. If you cook a lot of Chinese food or local-style dishes with meats cut across the bone (such as chicken hekka), you should have a heavy cleaver — also great for smashing aromatics such as ginger and garlic.

Knives go in and out of fashion. Kawakami said a few years ago, the santoku, a Japanese hybrid knife (the name means “three uses”) was all the rage. Said Sato, a bit cynically, “knife manufacturers are in the business of selling knives so they have to keep coming up with something new.” On the contrary, Sato said, “one set of knives will last you a generation, about 20 years.”

Dinner prep, paring knife

Tips for kitchen knife care:

  • Preferred storage: an open, slotted knife block. These blocks are slotted all the way through, with small feet to lift them off the counter, so moisture can drip away and air can circulate, discouraging rust and mold.
  • Magnetic strip knife racks can scratch knives and be a safety hazard. Likewise, keeping knives in a kitchen drawer with other tools.
  • Never store knives close to the sink; moisture encourages rust. Rusty knives are not ruined but need a good going-over with old-fashioned steel wool.
  • Never soak knives in dishwater; unsafe and bad for the handles. Wash knives by hand with soap, water and an abrasive pad; wipe with clean towel or air-dry.
    Dishwashers can scratch or chip knives and the heat and chemicals are hard on handles.
  • Use a steel to “re-sharpen” your knives every time you use them.
  • Sharpen knives using a honing stone, never those metal-encased tools that look like a pair of sewing machine bobbins; those scratch the blade and don’t give it sufficient access to the stone. Learn how to sharpen a knife from a professional, or take an online tutorial; an improperly sharpened knife is a dull knife. A tip from chef Grant Sato: Look for a professional knife sharpener who also sharpens scissors for salon stylists; they know what they’re doing.
  • The kindest cutting board material is wood. Soft plastic boards are used in professional kitchens. Never use glass, hard acrylic or marble. Sanitize boards frequently with a solution of one gallon water to 1 cup bleach.