A Handy Guide for Kitchen Knives and Sharpeners
One of my pet peeves (I promise I don't have many!) is buy swords and knives from the block and then having to patiently saw away at whatever I'm preparing to cook. I imagine this is a common feat for most home cooks. The knife block or rack is crowded with jostling knives - cumbersome, petite, a roasting fork in there too, slender, like an oddball mix of beauty queens (maybe excluding the roasting fork). For years, I never considered which knives were the most suitable for different ingredients, or that sharpening a knife is a blessing, transforming a cook's tasks from a chore to a joy. Instead, chopping an onion was rather tiresome and time-consuming resulting in irregular sized chunks dotted with crude indentations from when my knife tried and failed to hack them apart.
When I worked in a cookware shop, however, the light dawned on me. The correct knife for a method of preparation improves the cooking process to become a pleasure. Add the bonuses of sharpening and maybe, if you're feeling roguish, a fully forged knife and your onion will be minced into even dice. So here is a list of knives that have assisted my culinary education and might be useful to anyone who is bored with the dead-beat go-to knife that urgently needs replacing.
A fully forged knife (also known as full tang) is more expensive than the knives hanging in sachets in the showroom. These are encased in a glass-fronted cabinet and a lit by overhead spotlights; the celebrity of the kitchen department. Forged knives are expensive because the blade runs the full length, right down to the base of the handle. There is no risk for the blade and handle separating and the balance is evenly weighted to ensure an easier and smoother chopping action. Some clearly indicate the fully forged blade by rivets embedded in the handle.
There are many different manufacturers and designs, some of which are famous such as the Japanese specialist range, Global - identified by their unique hollow handle - Henckels, Robert Welch and Victorinox. There is no right or wrong. Your choice depends on personal preference; each knife has a unique balance and different weight - to some a Sabatier knife may seem unnaturally light and therefore off-putting for heavy-duty tasks. Your chosen design needs to feel comfortable in your hand, the handle suiting your hand shape and providing ergonomic grip. This also applies to the type of knife you select. An extra wide 26cm chef's knife won't be suitable for a petite person unless you're adept with a cleaver.
The Chef's Knife
The reliable knife, useful for everyday chopping. It comes in multiple sizes ranging from 26cm to 12cm, however the most common is 20cm. The curved tip allows for cutting with a rolling action for speed and, with practice, accuracy.
The Utility Knife
An in-between size, it is a smaller version of a chef's dagger knife and handy if you're daunted by wielding a heavier blade. Deft at chopping batches of food for one or two.
The Pairing/Vegetable Knife
A mini knife for delicate tasks such as deveining prawns, scraping meat off cutlet bones or deseeding chillies.
The Santoku Knife
Recognisable from the oval hollows embedded in the blade, the Santoku knife originates from Japan and translates as 'three benefits': slicing, dicing and mincing. Versatile like the chef's knife it is used for chopping and slicing. Unlike the chef's knife, however, the downwards pointing tip requires you to cut downwards instead of the rolling chopping action. The hollows are called a 'granton edge' and work as air pockets preventing food from sticking to the blade.
The Boning Knife
The boning knife and the filleting knife look uncannily similar due to the arched, narrow blade. To tell them apart gently press down on the tip and the boning knife will appear sturdy and rigid. The sharp point and narrow width allows you to remove bones, fat or gristle, or joint a chicken with precision, giving you access to small spaces.
The Filleting Knife
Thin and flexible, this knife is ideal for fish. Frequently used on its side it neatly hooks around a fillet with enough bend to keep the shape of the fish intact and easily slides under the flesh to remove the skin. Best kept razor sharp so it can slip between the fillets effortlessly without a sawing action.
Using a steel for the first time is daunting. A lot can go wrong! (I say that to encourage you). You need to hold your steel downwards, the tip resting on the surface and your knife at an approximate 20° angle. Too wide an angle you will blunt the knife. To find 20°, I hold my knife with the base of the blade touching the steel at 90°. Cut that angle in half by moving your knife to 45°, then in half again. From here you can slowly swipe you knife in a smooth arc down and towards you so the tip of the blade comes to rest on the lower third of the steel. And then repeat on the other side! I tend to do it six times each side.
The Pull Through Sharpener
On the other hand, there's the pull through sharpener. The steel is the trusted Land Rover, this is the flashy sports car. Pull through sharpeners have one or two grinding wheels which are set to the precise angle of the blade whether it's unique to the brand or the typical 20° so no guesswork is involved - hurrah! The grinding wheels are coarse, to put an edge on a blunt knife, and fine, for daily sharpening and to smooth out after the coarse wheel. Hold the knife vertically with the base in the slot and gently pull the knife towards you, then back again, usually six times each way. Pull through sharpeners are not suitable for thin Japanese knives as they might take chips out of the blade. It is mainly for convenience.
It is recommended you sharpen your knives before every use, just a quick couple of swipes keeps the edge and prevents gradual blunting which can only be corrected by a professional. A sharp blade is allegedly safer because less pressure is required when chopping and slicing, and dangerous slips occur less often.