We recently posted an article related to the importance of equipping your professional kitchen with high-quality cookware and smallwares. The overarching theme of the post – which was more of an overview – was that quality is more important than quantity even if you’re just starting out and money is tight. In this post we’re going to focus on knives, the bedrock of food preparation and the professional chef’s best friend and ally.
Opinions vary as to how many knives a chef really needs; views range from one outstanding chef’s knife to an array of knives that covers every purpose and eventuality. Our feelings are that the truth lies somewhere in the middle with the understanding that if you start small you can always add knives as you go along. Good knives are indispensable for the professional chef – an extension of your hand, as a camera is to a photographer or a paintbrush to an artist. Using a badly constructed knife, or the wrong knife, can be counterproductive at best, or downright dangerous at the worst. Shop with care and your knives will be your greatest asset.
The Chef’s Knife: The Ultimate Kitchen Tool
Some pundits maintain that even a busy chef can get away with having one knife in the kitchen: a top-notch chef’s knife. Another way of looking at this is to say that if you must have only one knife, make it a chef’s knife. We don’t necessarily agree that less is more in this case, but if you know the basics of this essential tool you will better understand why, for some, it is the One and Only.
The chef’s knife has a wide blade that is usually between eight and ten inches long (longer and shorter chef’s knives are also available). Assuming there are other, more-specialized knives in your kitchen, it is used mostly for chopping, dicing, and slicing; if it stands alone, however, it can do anything, if used properly. The classic French-style chef’s knife has a blade that curves to the tip. Some chef’s prefer the Japanese-style Santoku knife over the French-style knife; it is a little shorter and the tip curves down. Many Santoku knives have a “Granton” edge, a row of little pockets or indentations that keep food from sticking to the knife’s blade.
What to Look for in a Chef’s Knife
The chef’s knife has to feel right in your hand – not too heavy or bulky, and not too light or flimsy. The ideal knife should be sturdy and balanced. Knife blades can be made from a variety of materials, such as stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic; each type has plusses and minuses. Stainless steel, for instance, won’t rust on you, but the quality can be iffy; carbon steel is more durable, but it can rust and it has a tendency to interact poorly with acidic ingredients.
Handles vary, as well, though the handles of chef’s knives are usually wood or some type of plastic. Wood is light but a wood-handled knife must be cleaned very well after use to avoid food contamination. Plastic-handles are now the most popular type of knife handle; they are usually less expensive but they can be more slippery. Plastic handles are easy to clean, hold up well over time, and come in a variety of types that include:
- Fibrox is a Swiss-made, patented material that can be found in high-quality knives, such as Victorinox.
- Nylon handled knives are a durable, hygienic, and economical option.
- Polypropylene handles (recognizable by their white color) usually have a textured grip, and they are easy to clean.
- POM (Polyoxymethelene) handles are even more durable than polypropylene and are also very easy to clean.
- Resin handles are lightweight and comfortable to hold.
Stamped or Forged Blades: That is the Question
The knife’s blade can be either stamped or forged: Stamped blades are cut out of flattened steel sheets and one edge is honed to sharpness, while forged knives are made of a single bar of steel, which is heated and then pounded into shape. Forged knives are usually heavier than stamped knives and they are recognizable by the wide lip, called a bolster, at the end of the blade where it joins the handle. In a forged knife, the blade extends into the handle, forming a “tang”; rivets along the handle are another indication of the tang. Forged-steel knives are usually considered the better of the two types of knives, but you can find highly rated stamped knife sets that put many forged knives to shame.
Beyond the Chef’s Knife
Beyond the chef’s knife lies an assortment of tools that for most cooks are useful and necessary. A paring knife, for instance, is considered essential by many – it is handy and versatile, and better for more delicate kitchen jobs, like peeling onions and mushrooms, or slicing tomatoes. The paring knife – also referred to as a utility knife – is great when working with smaller fruits and veggies, like strawberries or shallots, where a chef’s knife may be too cumbersome. The blade of the paring knife – usually smooth but sometimes serrated – is about three to four inches long and the knife works best on softer foods (for slicing carrots and potatoes, for instance, go back to your trusty chef’s knife).
The bread knife, with its serrated long blade, rounds out the top-three essential knives for a professional kitchen. It is perfect for cutting through tough, thick crusts, and doubles as a slicing knife for tricky, slippery vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. I find an offset serrated combination bread/utility knife indispensable when I have to produce thin slices of eggplant for my signature Eggplant Parmesan.
A boning knife is a required piece of kitchenware if your menu requires you to remove skin and bones from poultry and fish. (If that won’t be a job you’ll be doing in your type of restaurant, you can skip this knife for now.) The blade of a boning knife is flexible and thin. Similarly, a carving knife – also known as a slicing knife – is essential if you will be cutting thin slices of cooked meat or slicing a turkey just right. This type of knife should be long and narrow, to reach across even the largest roast and to cut beautiful thin, even slices.
If you have money to spare – and a restaurant that requires more than just the basics – additional key knives include a cleaver, a butcher knife, cheese knives, and steak knives (more as a part of your flatware than kitchen smallwares).
Keeping Your Knives Sharp
Once you’ve assembled a collection of knives worthy of your restaurant you have to make a concerted effort to keep them honed and sharp. Ideally, you should sharpen your non-serrated knives after every use. This can make a huge difference when you’re working; dull blades are a drag on your time, and they are dangerous, as well. To restore the knife’s sharp edge use a sharpening steel or stone frequently for the best results.
Choosing the Best Knives for Your Needs and Your Budget
Like everything else in life, buying knives is a matter of balance: in this case between budget and usefulness. While it is vital for you and your staff to be able to work safely and efficiently, the investment in knives mustn’t break the bank. Unless you’re having a big team of workers preparing the food, one or two knives of each type are enough at first, and you should focus on the most important kind of knives – chef’s, paring, and serrated/bread knives – before branching out. In this way, you will build an efficient and well-organized kitchen to better serve your busy restaurant.