A Chef’s Guide to Buying Kitchen Knives

Produced in Partnership With The Culinary Institute of America

Kitchen knives are like fountain pens—you want one that feels good in your hand. But at what point should you feel OK spending good money on a quality kitchen knife? Chef Instructor Bill Briwa gives us expert advice to help answer that very question…

Chopping vegetables with the right kitchen knives

For More About Kitchen Knives, Check Out The CIA Culinary Blog

Contrary to what you might think, your cutting board and kitchen knives can be your friends. Cutting vegetables does not have to be tedious and messy. In fact, if you focus on the job at hand and tune everything else out, then cutting vegetables can even be therapeutic. Every recipe that you use will call for vegetables to be prepared slightly differently, so it is important to be familiar with the various types of knives and what they are used for. Knives are quite possibly the most important piece of equipment that you will use in the kitchen.

Kitchen knives are like fountain pens; you want one that feels good in your hand. Don’t spend a lot of money on kitchen knives until you have had the chance to work with some and figure out which types you like.

A forged knife is made by taking a hot piece of steel and forging the shape of the blade and handle. Then, wood is attached. A stamped knife starts as a sheet of steel that is stamped into the shape of the blade. Then, the handle is affixed and an edge is put on it. Stamped knives cost much less than what a forged knife costs. In addition, a forged knife is a little bit heavier, and the steel is harder.

Make sure you are committed to wiping the moisture and any corrosives off the blade every time you use it.

Many older knives are made from carbon steel, and the downside to carbon steel is that it is reactive, so it will rust and discolor unless you are very careful to wipe it clean and make sure there are no corrosives on it.  Today, most knives are made from high-carbon stainless steel. If you invest in a good high-carbon knife, make sure you are committed to wiping the moisture and any corrosives off the blade every time you use it. Otherwise, the knife will tarnish or rust.

Basic Knives

In the kitchen, you need the right tool for the job.

  • The chef’s knife, or the French knife, is used for all the tasks that take place on the cutting board. The knife has a wonderful curve in it that makes it smooth when you work with it. If that curve has been ground out of it, then the knife won’t work smoothly.
  • A paring knife is another good knife to have on hand. Paring knives can be relatively inexpensive, but you can also buy a paring knife that is made by forging the blade, and the price of that knife can often be 40 or 50 dollars. Too often, paring knives get swept up and end up in the garbage, so don’t spend a tremendous amount of money on them. More important than the quality of the blade—or even whether it is forged or stamped—is the fact that the blade is sharp.
  • A utility knife typically has a shorter blade than a chef’s knife. Some people call utility knives tomato knives or sandwich knives.
  • A boning knife is great for butchery, taking apart a chicken, or cleaning a beef fillet. It is often on the thinner side, and it is handy if the blade is flexible. A flexible blade allows you to push the knife against something solid, such as a bone, without losing any meat in the process.
  • A fillet knife is used for filleting fish, and it also has a flexible blade so that you can press it against a bone without leaving any meat behind. A fillet knife is handy if you do a lot of fishing.
  • A slicing knife has a very long, thin blade that tends to be very sharp. Because it has such a thin blade, it doesn’t stick to food very well. When you are carving a roast beef, for example, you might want to use a slicing knife with a sharp edge.
  • A serrated knife has little teeth on it that allow for the cutting of tomatoes, for example, which sometimes resist the edge of your knife if it is not sharp. It’s very difficult for a knife with a smooth blade to cut through the crusty loaf of bread, so you would use a serrated knife in that case as well.
  • A vegetable peeler is a very handy thing to have in the kitchen; it is nothing more than a knife and a steel.
  • A cleaver is a nonessential knife for the home kitchen that you would only need if you have to cut through bones. However, while it can cut through bones, it can also destroy your chopping blocks.

Sharpening Your Knives

With a nice selection of kitchen knives, it doesn’t matter whether they are forged
 or stamped—what really matters is that they are sharp. Therefore, it is best to have your knives professionally sharpened.

Carving Knife and Sharpening Steel

Once they have been sharpened, you need to commit to keeping them sharp. A knife block offers a nice way to protect the edges of your knives, or if you want to keep your knives loose in a kitchen drawer, use a little plastic sleeve that can protect the edge of a knife when it is not in use.

Being Safe with Knives

When using knives in your kitchen, remember that knives are sharp tools, and they can be dangerous When you rest a knife on your cutting board, make sure that it is in plain sight; be careful not to cover it accidentally and then forget where it is hiding because you could hurt yourself when you find it. In addition, don’t let the edge of the blade hang off the edge of your cutting board because someone walking by might run into it.

If you have to move through the kitchen with a knife, hold it down by your side rather than gesturing with it. If a kitchen knife on your cutting board gets knocked off, don’t reach out and try to catch it; instead, just step back and let it clatter to the floor. Breaking the tip off of a kitchen knife is far preferable to cutting the tip off of a finger.

Choosing a Cutting Board

A cutting board is an essential piece of equipment that you will use in the kitchen every day. A large wooden cutting board is best because it is solid, so it won’t move around when you are cutting, and because the surface area is large enough so that you don’t feel crowded. If you use a smaller cutting board that is made from a man-made material, as your knife passes over the board, it will feel like the board is dulling the knife.

From The Lecture Series The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking
Taught by Professor Bill Briwa
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