In the world of cooking there are an infinite number of topics. Aislinn and I got together and decided to run a series of articles based on kitchen utensils, appliances and other paraphernalia. We hope you enjoy our insights and subject matter. For our grand opening we have chosen the base of basics: Knives and Cutting Boards. It is our desire to point you in the right direction and enlighten you when it comes to everyday items you otherwise might not consider important.
Who here uses knives handed down from the Dark Ages? Don’t be shy….a show of hands please…
Over the years I’ve talked to many a person about purchasing knives and it seems to me that the levels of insanity at the knife shop can seem, at times, to be directly correlated to testosterone levels and the amount of food television watched.
It makes me giggle.
I’ve learned over the years that just because you have the newest, coolest knife on the block Alton Brown you won’t automatically become. Some of the best chefs in the world have the most basic knives. The problem with the world of knives is that some would have you believe that you actually need 15 different knives in your arsenal. I’m more of the opinion that most people can’t afford that many knives and the truth is they don’t need that many knives.
So many of the problems that home cooks face result from a propensity to confuse what is suitable and/or essential in a professional kitchen with what is appropriate and/or necessary in a home kitchen. That confusion is actually just a horrible tale being told to us by the people who want to sell us more crap and make us think that we can't cook well without every single doohickey they're trying to get us to buy.
For most home cooks three, maybe four knives are plenty. When I'm too lazy to unpack my knife roll at home (which is very often) I often get away with just a chef's knife and a bread knife. The other two knives you ask? We’ll get to that…
Let’s also get a few things out of the way right now. Knife blocks are a waste of space, and sort of silly if you ask me. Not only can knife blocks harbor and spread bacteria, they also are used as an incentive to buy more expensive knife sets, which leads us to the next thing. Knife sets are just a way to get you to spend way more money than you need to.
What follows is a simple guide to helping you find the knife or knives that suit your own needs. It is important before you shop for knives that you do a quick assessment of the types of foods you eat and what your needs actually are!
We will start with how knives are made. Basically there are two methods for constructing knife blades: stamping and forging. Generally stamped blades are considered to be of lesser quality and forged blades of higher quality.
A stamped blade is cut, or stamped, out of a roll of steel and then handles are attached. Since there is no bolster and since stamped blades tend to be on the thinner side, a stamped knife is typically lighter and less expensive than its forged counterpart. Though stamped knives are often considered and often are inferior to their forged brethren, there are some great knives with stamped blades out there suitable for both professional and home cooks.
Forging a blade is a more intricate process which requires a more skilled hand, resulting in a better-crafted, more expensive knife. In the process of forging a thick, hot piece of steel is shaped by pounding it with a forging hammer and die. Forged knives are also given bolsters, or thick pieces of metal where the blade meets the handle that can serve to protect straying fingers (Not always, as my fingers will attest) and offer balance between the blade and handle. Because of the bolster and the thicker steel, forged knives are often considerably heavier than stamped knives, which can be useful for chopping but which can also lead to fatigue more quickly. Forged knives often, but not always, have a full tang which means that the knife is made from a single piece of steel from the tip of the blade all the way to the end of the handle. Besides being sturdier than a partial tang, a full tang will make a knife better balanced, which in turn can make it easier to use.
A lot of people, myself included at times, are really into Japanese forged knives which can offer the best of both worlds-an extremely well-crafted yet light, thin bladed knife with superior design. Some of my favorite Japanese knives combine carbon steel, which can get really sharp, with stainless steel, which does not rust, for blades that sort of do it all. The thing is Japanese knives can get really expensive really quickly. Does the average home cook need a fancy Japanese knife? No. Will it make you a better cook? No. Will having one make certain tasks much more enjoyable? Definitely. Will they last longer then less expensive knives? Generally.
The most important thing to consider when buying a knife is how it feels in your hand and that's why I highly recommend going to a cutlery shop in person to try out knives before purchasing them. We all have different body types, hand shapes and likes and dislikes, so different knives of equal quality will be preferable to each of us. In general I find men like the heavier German-style knives while women like the lightness and hand-feel of the Japanese inspired blades. My main chef’s knife is a 10-inch Shun Chef’s Knife. You don’t want to know how much it cost. I do also own several German Wusthof knives for different purposes, but that’s the point. As a chef I have different needs than a home cook has.
So let’s get down to it! What do you really need?
An 8-inch or 10-inch chef's knife. This is your workhorse knife. This knife should be able to handle 80% of what you would need a knife to do. There is such as thing as a 12-inch chef’s knife but lets leave that in the hands of the professionals, shall we? In truth the longer the knife the more production a knife if expected to produce and let’s face it, you don’t need to feed 100 people in your home. I generally recommend the 8-inch for most homes.
A paring knife. You can find these in beak’s nose or straight varieties. I prefer straight but it’s really about personal preference.
A serrated knife. This knife is for cutting bread and tomatoes. You can try to cut them with non-serrated knives but I don’t recommend it. In my kitchens, professional and home, my Wusthof offset serrated knife is number two behind my chef’s knife in use. The offset handle makes sure that your knuckles don’t slam into the counter and if you are prone to kitchen injuries like me, every little bit helps.
A boning knife. This knife has a thin, flexible blade and is extremely useful for butchering and slicing raw and cooked meat. Anyone who plans to cook fish, chicken or other meat at home should invest in one of these. The slender blade allows it to get places your chef’s knife is too wide for.
I think we covered the basics for now. If you only take a few things away from this the following are the most important things to remember:
- Always, always, always buy a knife in person. You need to feel a knife in your hand to ascertain its comfort level.
- Always keep your culinary needs in mind. Only buy the knives you need, not sets that offer knives you will never use at additional cost.
Before writing this article I never stopped to consider why I have so many cutting boards. They were just there, each serving its purpose. Upon reflection I came to have a bit more respect for each and every one. The number one reason is of course never cut on your counter-top unless you are intending to increase your RDA of polyester acrylics.
I'd like to begin with a bit about a health comparison between the controversial plastic versus wooden cutting boards. The results were surprising to say the least. Most folks think that the plastic surface is easier to clean and keep bacteria free. What experimentation found was quite the opposite. They discovered that disease bacteria were not recoverable from wooden surfaces a short time after they were applied whereas plastic surfaces allowed the bacteria to persist unless they were immediately cleaned and disinfected.
The same held true for both new cutting boards and those with many knife cuts where bacteria could hide. While the bacteria in wooden boards did live for a while in the cuts they did not multiply, but eventually died out on their own. More live bacteria was found in the deep cuts on plastic boards than their wooden counterparts.
The research team of Dean O. Cliver, Ph.D. had no commercial relationship or monetary interest in any company for this project. It is their conclusion that wooden surfaces have a superior advantage to a plastic cutting surface in respect to disease control and bacterial infection.
That said I have a multitude of boards consisting of plastic, wood and marble. For organization sake I am going to list them in order of expense rather than ease of use, though the cheaper ones do seem to be the easiest to care for. Go figure and let the showcase begin.Norpro Cut-N-Slice Flexible Cutting Boards. A set of three costs about $7.
These thin little wonders are not only flexible, but come in colored sets of three so you don't end up with cross contamination. Once you get used to handling the thin plastic they are great for chopping food, folding the edges and funneling your fruit, meat or veggies straight into your bowl or pan. Each board is 14" x 9 1/2" to provide ample cutting space. They clean up easily in the sink with a bit of soapy water. I use these more than any of the other cutting boards in my kitchen.Bamboo Cutting Boards. A set of three costs around $20.
While I don't have a set of these they seemed quite popular so I did a little research. From what I was able to glean they are great if the proper care is taken with them. When you get them rub them down with mineral oil before you wash them. This is a MUST or they will begin to shed slivers of wood! The best method I located for cleaning them is to add a half teaspoon of bleach to a quart size spray bottle. Squirt down the board, then scrub with salt, followed by a quick rinse with warm water. Dry well with a towel.
For the first month rub them down with the above mentioned mineral oil once a week. After that they should only need treatment about once a month.SuperBoard Pure Poly Cutting Board - Midnight Granite. A single board costs about $15.
This is probably my most used board for simple tasks like cutting bread, making sandwiches and the like. The vanity in me likes them because of the different colors available. >_> It looks great in my black, stainless and copper kitchen. It is easy to take to the sink and clean with hot soapy water. Especially since I finally trained my hubby to do his sandwich and burrito making on the board as well. Marble Pastry and Cutting Board. Prices vary from around $20 - $40.
I love my marble slab. If you make pasta, bread, biscuits, pie or cookies on a regular basis you should really consider buying one. The naturally cool temperature makes working with any kind of dough easy as pie. Simply dust with a bit of flour and you're ready to go. While many people use the marble board for cutting, I recommend against this as they are easily damaged and knife cuts make it not as useful for working with dough.
Marble is beautiful and durable, but being a natural stone it is porous and can easily absorb stains. These boards are sensitive to acidic cleaning products, so be careful about the types of cleanser you use. Or better yet, I do my best to keep anything that might stain the stone out of staining distance. Before using any kind of wet cleanser or water on your marble pastry board scrape off any solid pieces of dough with a rubber spatula. Don't use metal or hard plastic spatulas because they can scratch the polished surface of the marble.
When the time has come for cleansing wash the surface with a solution of warm water and mild detergent. Rinse the surface of the pastry board well with clear water. Do not allow soaps or detergents to sit for long on the marble because smells can linger in the porous stone, making future pie crusts smell like soap. I prefer to do as my mother taught me and simply wipe the marble with a moist towel, then dry the board immediately.
If you do happen to get a stain or two on your board and want to freshen it up try applying a poultice of 1/4 cup baking soda with just enough water to form a thick paste. Prepare the stained area with a bit of distilled water to saturate the pores before applying the paste. Cover the poultice with a layer of plastic wrap, taping down the edges just around the stained area. Leave the poultice on the stain until the baking soda dries. This should lift the stain out of the marble. Repeat the process if the stain is stubborn.John Boos Butcher Blocks. Yup, $80 - $1,800.
I chose to mention Boos Boards specifically since they are well worth the money. They have been around making quality butcher blocks since 1887. Go the extra distance and make sure you are getting an "End Grain" cutting board. If you care about your chopping arm, your knives and the longevity of both, end grain is paramount. Your knife will sink into the wood easier, rather than jar against the slightly less expensive 'edge grain' variety.
For a butcher block I would recommend one that is at least 20" x 15". The depth is a personal preference for me, unless you have the means to raise or lower your counter-top. I am particularly short and prefer a thinner board rather than standing on a step-stool to use the butcher block. Even better if your kitchen is large enough to accommodate a butcher block table that you can order to a specific height.
Of all the materials that have been mentioned wood by far needs the most upkeep. John Boos has a Mystery Oil
consisting of mineral, linseed and tung oil. However, you can also use plain FDA approved mineral oil. Don't use just any oil for several reasons. One it needs to be safe to eat in case any oil transfers to your food. Two you don't want an oil that can go rancid. Three you don't want to use an oil that many people are highly allergic to. Though most of those also fall into the category of oils that can go rancid. Oil the wood every four to six weeks.
Do not soak your board in water or place in the dishwasher unless you have decided your love affair is over and cruel humor has you wanting to drown the board rather than set it afire. A quick scrub and rinse followed by a thorough drying should suffice.
One last comment about wood boards. Maple is the best material because of its small pore size compared to the hardness of the wood.
Happy shopping and chopping.