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The Best Tool in the Kitchen!

The Best Tool in the Kitchen!

This week, I want to talk about the single most important piece of cooking equipment and how to pick out one that's perfect for you; Your Chef Knife! I say your chef knife, because the more you cook with it, the more muscle memory you will build and the more it will become an extension of your hand and less something you are holding. So for that reason, a good chef knife that you are comfortable and familiar with, is the absolutely most important thing you can do to improve your cooking! All people's hands are different, therefore as with all things in cooking you must take what works for you and leave the rest. YOU are the Chef of your own kitchen/life and ultimately what works well for you is all that matters!

Comfort > Price

Being comfortable with the knife (size, ergonomics, and practice) is definitely the most important thing when selecting a knife. Price will not denote quality and the prices are all over the place for knives these days. Don't really worry too much about price and get a knife that feels good to you in your hand. If you are able, spending some solid money on a knife you love and will use every meal/every day is one of the best investments you can make. That being said, I absolutely believe that holding a knife is the best way to test them out and see what feels good to you.

With covid, this can be a challenge but if you feel comfortable going out, Williams Sonoma or Whisk (in Cary) will typically let you hold knives to test out different brands. Obviously things may be different these days, but I would call and ask what they are doing currently before going as you may need to wear gloves. But don't wear thick gloves that could hinder you from actually feeling the knife; thin (not dishwashing style) latex/vinyl are what I'd recommend. And maybe try non-busy times (Tues/Wed mornings) or see if you can make an appointment to avoid as many people as possible and not feel rushed to make a decision. If you are not comfortable with that, then maybe check out ones on Amazon because of their easy return policy. Or another company (as Jeff Bezos certainly has enough money and it's always great to buy small and direct) but definitely check on the return policies and procedures so you don't feel "stuck" with something you don't love.

Test, test, test

Test it out (without actually cutting things so you don't dirty/dull it until you are sure it's "your knife" ) doing the things you normally do with a knife, slicing, chopping, etc. to get a feel for how it will be working with it rather than just holding it. The handle might be too long and hit your wrist when at the top of your stroke (when bending your wrist) or something like that where you wouldn't notice by just holding it. Pretend you are actually using it and pretty soon, you'll get a feel if it begins to feel natural or seems bulky or out of place. I call this letting the knife pick you, instead of the other way around...;)

Stay on Balance

A good chef knife should be balanced between the blade and handle so when you are holding it properly it doesn't feel heavy in either direction, blade or handle. And by proper holding, I mean with your thumb and forefinger actually gripping the top/back of the blade and not just on the handle as I see most home cooks do. Proper knife holding is one of the first things I talk about in my knife skills classes because it drastically impacts every knife stroke and move. Good balancing just makes it easier for everything you do, whether or not you realize it. Most knives, especially the pricier ones, are balanced these days but it's always a good idea to check as you never know.

Size only matters to you...

For size, again go with what feels comfortable to you but I'd be careful getting too small or too large of a knife just to make it as useful as possible. Using 2-3 different knives everytime you cook makes it more of a pain and will hinder your desire to cook if you have to use/clean more knives each time. There's always a trade-off; more specialized = less generally useful by definition. An 8 inch chef knife is what I use almost everyday. For most things, it's big enough to handle any vegetable and small enough (for me) to do delicate, fine work. They do make 6-16" inch chef knives, but I think the 6" ones may be too small for some larger vegetables and anything over 10" is just way too big for most home cooks. But don’t be afraid to check out different sizes, as a smaller or larger knife may be perfect for you! Again, you feeling comfortable with it is the most important part. But don't forget that any new knife will have some degree of different feel because your muscle memory is used to whatever you have been working with. It's usually the handle feel, not the length that makes the most difference and the human body is amazing at adapting to what you give it. I started with a 9 inch in culinary school then used to use a 10 inch for a few years but switched to an 8 inch when I started getting better/finer with my knife skills. And that's "my baby" knife that I keep pristine these days. But try different sizes and find what feels good to you!

What's in a name?

As for brands, again go with what feels good to you (and not a name) as hand feel is the main difference and pretty much any company will make a quality knife or they wouldn't be in business.


Using a diamond steel will do just that

Dull is trash...

The absolute most important part is to KEEP IT SHARP! Dull is dangerous as it requires more effort to cut. Also it mashes (instead of slices) food more with each stroke which leaves more flavor on the cutting board and not in your food. Learning how to use a steel is the most important skill to learn as under normal home use, actually needing to sharpen a knife only really needs to happen once every year or two. But steeling a knife should happen every few days/2 weeks depending on how much you cook and what you are cutting (harder veggies take more of a toll on your edge because physics). Check out my video on how to keep your knives sharp on our social media!

A Cook's best Friend

I swear by 10-12 inch diamond steels. You can just buy a cheap one as they are pretty much the same. The traditional steels are really just for finish honing and won't do much if your knife isn't already pretty darn sharp. Diamond steels, on the other hand, actually do a little bit of sharpening as well as honing and I've exclusively used these for 15+ years. When cooking professionally and daily, I would just steel my knife at the end of each day and only need to actually use my stones once a year or so.

It is important to make sure you are not going at too hard of an angle on the steel or you are just killing your edge, not helping it. 15-20 degrees is what most manufacturers sharpen their knives to. If you lay your knife edge flat on a cutting board, stack 2 pennies and put them under the top of the blade (not sharp side) and that is about 20 degrees. Any higher and you are just making your knife dull, not sharp. And don't worry about speed with a steel like you see butchers/chefs/old fishermen do. Correct angle, smooth and even strokes on both sides, and for the entire length of the knife are what's important. Build correct muscle memory and then speed will come. But keeping it sharp is so important! You wouldn't drive a car with flat tires, right?

And always, always, always handwash your good knives. Dishwashers beat them up terribly and will kill an edge in a single cycle. And never leave it dirty as food left for extended periods will kill your edge. Very sharp knives' edges are actually very delicate, but if you take care of your knife, it'll stay sharp for quite a while. If you beat it up, it'll get dull super quick and you'll be ticked that you spent so much on a "dull knife"...

What's good for me... So far...

Currently, I use Kershaw Shun Series knives for my good knives. But they are right handed knives so make sure you check when you are looking if you happen to be left-handed. A right/left handed knife means the handle is a little off-center for the desired hand. Some companies do make left handed knives but you will be absolutely fine with a centered knife and don't need to sacrifice anything just to have a lefty/righty knife. Just a thing to look out for when shopping. I also am not a "knife junkie" that has spent a ton of time searching for "the perfect'' knife. There is a whole world, including reality tv shows, of knife people. I'm more utilitarian when it comes to knives, because it's a tool that is meant to be used. I'd rather spend my time thinking about food instead of finding the temple of "the perfect knife", IMHO.

Local Sharpening

Learning to sharpen your knives is a great investment in your cooking but not a journey everyone is looking to start. Getting someone to sharpen your knives is pretty easy and if you take care of them, will last quite a long time. Hand sharpening (as opposed to machine sharpening) is always the best and I have recently found a chef in Chapel Hill that does hand sharpening of anyone's knives. His name is Andrew and his business is An Edge in the Kitchen. I sent him one of my older knives and he put a really great edge on it for me. And I always like supporting local Chefs. Other than that, Whisk in Cary also says they offer sharpening services, but I don't know much about it and I would guess it's machine sharpening which is certainly better than a dull knife, but certainly hand sharpened is the way to go as it lasts longer, especially if steeled consistently.

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