By Lisa Golden Schroeder
My answer is always quick and sure when asked what my most essential kitchen tools are: good knives. There’s a reason why the first tools a budding chef covets are a set of sharp knives—and why most chefs never leave it to chance that any kitchen they work in will have good knives. They always carry their own, carefully packed and always sharpened. “Absolutely the knife is the most important tool in a chef’s kit,” say most culinary experts. They all agree that buying good knives is an investment that’s worth its weight in gold.
Of course, it’s easy to just tell you to buy good knives, but the choices are endless. From that great deal at the State Fair (knives that demonstrate they can slice even rocks in half) to high-end German or Japanese knives that cost a month’s rent for just one or two…you don’t have to go broke to have a few nice sharp knives that will make cooking a pleasure. I don’t own a matching set, either. I pick out what I need based on what feels good in my hands and how I cook. So here are my top tips for acquiring a collection of knives that will serve you well for years.
Basic blades: pure carbon steel blades keep the sharpest edge, but are high maintenance (they discolor and rust without special handling). So most good blades today are high-carbon stainless steel alloys that are easier to care for. Best advice: never put your knives in the dishwasher. They will hold their edge much longer and won’t get damaged by being knocked around. Look for blades that run the length of their handles.
The Fabulous Five: you will be able to do most of what you want to do in the kitchen with these five blades. A long serrated bread knife, a good chef’s knife for chopping (8 to 10-inches long, depending on what feels comfortable to you), a few paring knives (3 to 4-inches long), a utility knife (a longer version of a paring knife, sort of your all-purpose knife to slice smaller food or cut a sandwich in half), and heavy kitchen shears. A note about your all-important chopping blade: a traditional French chef’s knife is great, but look at the current fave among many cooks (including me)—the Santoku blade, that’s like a modified Japanese cleaver. The slightly shorter, blockier blade is easy to handle, especially for smaller hands. Over time you may want to add a thin boning or filleting knife, a heavier cleaver, or a long slicer for carving a roast chicken or your Thanksgiving turkey.
Savvy Storage: please, please, please don’t jumble your knives in a drawer. You run the risk of dulled blades, but even worse, nicked fingers. I really like my wooden knife block that has a prominent place on my counter. Everything is at my fingertips, safely stored and protected. But magnetic wall-mounted holders can be handy, or a shallow in-drawer knife organizer works well. I like to use knife guards for loose knives—sturdy plastic sleeves that slip over the blade to protect the edge.
Keeping Sharp: it’s true that you’re more likely to seriously cut yourself with a dull blade if you must force it through the food you’re cutting. So keeping your blades sharp, with a sharpening steel between visits to a professional sharpener, will ensure your safety and the efficient use of your knives. There’s an art to using a sharpening steel, so it’s worth having a knife expert show you the best technique. Then try to take your knives to a professional sharpener once a year (wrap them up in newspaper)—see if you can find out where local restaurants have their knives maintained.
Best Advice: test drive knives. Shop at places where you can handle or even try out different blades, so you can feel the balance and weight for yourself. And knife handles vary immensely; find ones that just feel good in your hands.