Monday, 4 April 2011

The First Cut is the Deepest

Anatomy of a knife taken from 'Cooking for Engineers'.

     'It is a poor craftsman that blames his tools'.  How often have you heard this old adage?  Usually muttered by grandfathers tossing in some well worn words, whilst watching one of their kin struggle with a task at hand under a jaundiced eye.  The fact is, if your knife is blunt, you won't get far in the professional or the home kitchen.  I have been a chef for sixteen years and I can honestly say that the majority of cooks wield neglected blades, incorrectly clashed together in a builder's toolbox. The very object that defines us, that moulds and shapes the ingredients for our creations, that with which we simply could not do without...we treat like a second class citizen.  I wish to spread the gospel and break some bad habits.

Keep safe and sharpen wisely

  If you spend any more than £20 on a knife, treat it right.  Store it in the box it came in, a knife block, wrap or wall magnet.  You must keep those edges safe.  The analogy I like to paint is that your cook's knife is like a child sitting on a tank.  The blade and handle of your knife are the tank; a robust piece of fine tuned machinery that will last forever, needing little maintenance but for some gentle cleaning.  The edge however, is the child; a delicate creature in need of constant care and attention for it to last a long and healthy life.  A steel rod, (in particular a diamond steel) is not the best tool for keeping the edge in good shape.  There, I've said it.  Every chef I know constantly use steels.  Think about it.  Metal on metal is a big reaction.  This routine is eating your knife, most probably not in a straight line.  If in doubt, give that rod a good wipe on a white cloth, now blackened from metal filings off your blade's edge.  If you have an uber expensive Japanese knife, a classic German chunk or our own sublime Robert Welch, do you really want to be bashing it against another piece of metal?  Even if you are cruising at the right angle, (between 12-20 degrees, depending on the knife) there is a lot of room for human error, especially when you are busy.  And we all know chefs are never busy.  The best tool is a ceramic wheel sharpener that corresponds to the knives you use.  Use this little but often to maintain a perfect edge.  The acid test is the ripe tomato.  The second you find your knife doesn't glide through a ripe tomato, 8 or 10 strokes on the ceramic will bring you back to box sharp.  The key is to not let your knife get dull and, for the love of God, do not use a chantry or electric sharpener.

Choosing a Knife

  When searching for a good knife, the average consumer can easily be lost by misleading advertising, massive price differences, untrained shop staff and celebrity chef endorsements.  (Jamie...please go away for awhile.)  There are a few key points I look for in a good knife:

1)  Fully-forged.  Not 'forged'.  Fully-forged.  Made from one piece of metal.  This is paramount for strength and a sign of top quality.  Do not be fooled by the look of Global knives for instance, they are not one piece of metal, there is a weld between the handle and blade creating a weak spot and they easily break in half.
2)  Out of box sharpness.  If it won't glide through paper or trim my beard, it isn't sharp enough.
3)  Edge retention.  Ok, super sharp out of the box.  Is it a healthy mix of carbon and stainless steel that I can keep sharp easily enough?  This is where you can get into trouble with some Japanese knives.  Due to the extreme hardness of the steel they can be quite difficult to bring back when dulled.
4)  Handle/Balance.  How does the knife feel in your hand?  Does it feel well balanced between the blade and the handle?  Is the handle ergonomic and conducive to lots of chopping?  Do your knuckles have clearance with the heel of the blade?  You can get a nasty callous from that silly perforated Global handle or some too-squared German blades.  Look for any cracks or crevasses in the finish to the handle, this is a sign of poor quality and food can get permanently stuck in these hairline fissures. 

     For years one had to turn to Japan or Germany for a quality, professional chef's knife.  Simply put; Japan for a super fine sharp edge and appealing to our Samurai sensibilities, Germany for big sturdy work horses and a strong tradition.  This is still largely the truth but for one local hero taking on all challengers.  The Robert Welch Signature Series are winning awards by the fist full and beating the big competitors at CATRA, the industry's independent tester of all things sharp.  I am a huge fan of RW and pretty much use them exclusively bar a couple specific blades they don't yet have in their range.  I have become a bit of a collector of knives in general over the years, but the main reason I gravitate to Robert Welch is the handle and the edge retention.  There are lots of snazzy, sparkly and sharp as anything knives out there but, speaking as a chef, nothing compares to the RW handle.  I also love that they are English, the packaging is unsurpassed and the price a complete no-brainer.   My second favourite knife is a Mighty Mac.  An overpriced thing of beauty, it is as if the Japanese took a good long look at a traditional European chef's knife and then made it so much better.  The bronze metal goes to the Wustof Grand Prix range.  For years I used these knives and I still haul them out once in awhile when I am feeling nostalgic.  Believe it or not, Victorinox has a couple blades chefs simply cannot do without.  These plastic handled student kit knives are really not that bad and the serrated pastry knife and tomato knife are industry standard due to cooks' loving the design of the former and the near throw away price of the latter.
  At the end of the day, choosing a good knife is a very personal decision.  Do a little research, get a chance to feel and use the blade first if possible, and only spend what you can afford.  A £38 Robert Welch is just as good if not better than my £120 Mighty Mac.  Don't believe the hype when it comes to price, it costs very little to replicate production knives in factories.  Companies prey upon the publics' perception of all things sharp and shiny, so shop around.  When it comes to size, bigger is not always better.  I can't really understand chefs that use 25-30cm knives.  If you watch them at work, very little of the surface area of the edge is utilized.  Maybe they drive sports cars as well.  17-20cm is all that is needed for a good cooks knife.

Top Tips

Even if the manufacturer deems it safe to do so, don't put good knives in a dishwasher.
Would you put a Lamborghini in a car wash?

Crushing garlic cloves with the flat side and slicing through hard cheese can be potentially damaging to your knife.
The back and forth action of blade bending can cause micro-chipping.

If you need to chop through bones, buy a cheap cleaver from an Asian market or China town.  Hack away with no fear, simply replace when ruined. 

When chopping, always incorporate a bit of a roll on the action.
A straight forward up and down chop is very tough on the blade.

Always use a wooden or plastic chopping board.
Glass is a serious no-no.

A santoku is a Japanese all purpose knife.  Santoku literally meaning, 'three virtues'; slicing, dicing and mincing.
Very popular with many chefs today and my personal favourite.

The word is stain-less steel, not stain-never.  Ensure you dry your knives thoroughly after cleaning to prevent water spots.

To get even more technical about all things sharp, check out-

Dexter...a man that knows his blades.
Parting Shot
'I don't look at a knife the way I used to. I'm more aware of what it is. I think twice. 
This is my key finger. It's in every chord.' 
 -Neil Young

An edited version of this article can be seen in the April 2011 edition of Devon Life. 

1 comment: