Ask a chef or a cook about their most prized kitchen possession, and chances are, it’ll be a knife. Not just any knife, mind you – it needs to be sharp, of course, and good quality. We use knives almost every time we’re in the kitchen, whether it’s chopping, slicing, dicing, carving or boning. So how do you know what makes a good knife? And more specifically, what’s the right knife for you and your kitchen?
The sharpest cut
Put simply, a good knife will help you cook better and be way more satisfying than working with sub-standard equipment.
“A good knife is the single biggest difference between enjoying cooking and not enjoying cooking, I reckon,” says Tammi Jonas, meatsmith and farmer at Jonai Farms in Eganstown, near Daylesford, in western Victoria. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruit; slicing, chopping and – in Jonas’s case – butchering, are just some of the necessities well provided by a good knife. The sharpness, the shape and the weight of her knives are all vital to her butchery and salumi production.
For chef Hajime Horiguchi from Coast restaurant in Queensland’s Hervey Bay, the reasons for a good knife are simple. “With Japanese cooking there is nowhere to hide. All our jobs start from the knife.” Hajime says that when he’s slicing or filleting fish for sashimi, “if I don't have a super-sharp knife, I will break the cell structure of the fish, meaning [the fish] will lose a lot of flavour and texture.” Hajime adds that it’s the same for meat and vegetables, “even when we chop garlic, we are trying not to break its cell structure.”
And there’s a sense of confidence attached to using shmick equipment in the kitchen. Delwyn Anderson, national product manager at The Essential Ingredient, says, “It’s the joy and the satisfaction that comes from knowing you have the perfect piece of equipment to achieve what you want to achieve – whether it’s the perfect non-stick pan, the perfect board or the perfect knife. There’s something satisfying about how these simple things can make you feel like a hero in the kitchen.”
“Stainless steel gives strength and durability, while carbon steel – a softer metal – allows the knife to be sharpened into a finely-honed cutting edge,” says Delwyn Anderson. The higher the carbon content, the sharper the knife’s edge can be. Japanese-made knives will generally have a higher carbon steel content than their European counterparts, although, she adds, “there are exceptions, of course – French Sabatier knives have a high percentage of carbon.”
Trends often drive the choice of material used in knives, but Leigh Hudson from The Chef’s Armoury in Sydney and Melbourne says that the current trend in kitchen knives is towards old-school carbon steel, due to its superior edge-holding abilities. But they do require maintenance. “Compared to a stainless steel kitchen knife, you do need to take extra care to prevent rust [of the carbon steel knife], but the trade-off is worth it,” he says.
Don’t forget, though, that often the best material to use depends on the job-at-hand. For chef Alejandro Saravia of Peruvian restaurant Pastuso in Melbourne’s CBD, Japanese light steel knives are preferable, as they are “easy to maintain and keep sharp”.
Hajime Horiguchi is committed to Japanese knives made from a material known as hagane 鋼, which translates to ‘steel’ in English. The knives are made according to tradition, making them more resilient, he says, adding, “Japanese knife craftsmen are still making knives with hagane using the same techniques as they used to use with Japanese samurai swords.”
“Japan produces the best kitchen knives in the world, without a doubt. Anyone who disagrees is either French or German,” says Leigh Hudson.
Craftsmanship is often the key here, and again, the knife you choose will depend on how often you’ll use it, and what you’ll use it for (if you’re filleting whole fish every week, you’ll need a different knife to someone who simply wants to chop fruit and veg). “Japan and Germany have a long history of high-quality knife making,” says Delwyn Anderson. “In a way, it doesn’t really matter whether you prefer the European-style knife that’s based on forged steel, or the Japanese-style knife that’s built from layers and layers of folded steel. It’s the care and craftsmanship that’s gone into them that guarantees it’s going to be a good knife.”
Tammi Jonas has a mix of Japanese and German knives. “Japan and Germany have the best reputation as far as I’m aware for making quality knives,” she says, adding that Shun (a Japanese knife producer, pronounced ‘shoon’) is her personal favourite for a chef’s knife, “but I still love my Henkel and my F Dick knives.” For butchery work, she’s not a fan of German brand Victorinox (“cheap handles, too lightweight, steel’s too soft,” she tells me) and prefers F Dick and Giesser brands. For his part, Hajime Horiguchi has never used anything but Japanese knives. “I can't compare knives but I love using my Japanese knives. They’re made in Kyoto, my home town.”
The best way to decide who makes the best knife for you is to go into cookware shops, hold different knives, check the weight, the shape to hand, the feel and your sense of control while holding the knife.
We have knifemakers in Australia, too - many of them will be on show at The Sydney Knife Show in August.
Just as you’ll know when you’ve found the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe for you, when you’re buying a knife, there’ll come a moment when you know you’ve found ‘the one’. Don’t be hasty: buying a good knife is a long-term purchase. It will hold well in your hand and feel like a comfortable extension of yourself.
“A thin sharp blade made from hard steel will cut better and hold its edge longer. Beyond this, the knife should feel comfortable and have some sort of appeal to you,” says Leigh Hudson.
Tammi Jonas also highlights the need for personal preference. “The main thing, once you’ve sorted out the quality of the steel and suitability to your care factor, is that it feels good in your hand. Knives are very personal, and one person’s curved 8-inch Shun is another’s 10-inch Geisser.” Tammi’s “care factor” refers to how much of a priority a good knife is for you – what do you need it for, how much are you willing to spend, and how committed are you to maintaining the knife and using it properly.
Alejandro Saravia has three characteristics that he looks for when buying a knife for work or home – weight, balance and size. “A chef who specialises in fish and seafood would prefer a lighter and more flexible knife than a chef who works with big pieces of red meat,” he says.
After this, he says, look at the anatomy of the knife. Look at the handle first. “A good handle,” he says, “is one that feels comfortable and not slippery, with enough space so your knuckles don’t touch the chopping board.” Then, look at the heel. This is the part of the blade closer to the handle. Saravia says that for a basic chef knife he would recommend a strong heel, “as this part of the knife is meant to be used for tasks that require force or more strength”.
The spine is the top part of the blade. It’s best to avoid thin spines as “this could affect or injure your hand while using the knife,” he says.
Good news: less is more when committing to quality knives in your kitchen. Build your collection slowly if budget restricts and always have a chef’s steel (for sharpening) from the day you buy your first knife. “Remember, a small knife for small tasks, a big knife for big tasks,” says Saravia. Easy.
The basic knife menu goes something like this – a chef’s knife, for rough cuts (vegetables or protein); a filleting knife, for filleting fish and meat with more precision; a boning knife, to clean red meat sinew and debone poultry; and a paring knife, for cutting smaller vegetables and fruit.
For chefs, the list is different. Hajime Horiguchi, for example, likes to have seven knives: a Yanagi (柳) to slice sashimi; a Deba (出刃) to fillet fish; a Kodeba (小出刃) to fillet small fish; a larger Deba (出刃), which is double the size of normal Deba to fillet whole tuna; Usuba (薄刃) for vegetables; Gyutou (牛刀), used for a variety of jobs; and Mioroshi (身卸), which can sub in for the Deba and Yanagi.
This might sound overwhelming, so start slowly. “We always recommend quality over quantity,” says Delwyn Anderson. “Invest in one, two, maybe three, good-quality knives. There’s no need to get a whole set straightaway.” Start with a chef’s knife as your absolute base point, and build your knife library from there.
Learning how to sharpen your own knife is a timeless skill that will help you cook better.
“The process is simple,” says Delwyn Anderson. “A maintenance steel should be used regularly – just give your knife a quick run over after you finish using it. If you do this regularly, a diamond steel is easy to use when you need to bring back the edge. It’s important to know the materials in the blade of your knife (the percentage of carbon steel) as this will have an effect on how quickly the knife edge can be brought back. That is to say, a carbon steel knife will regain a sharp edge faster, as it is a softer metal.”
Make sure you always use the right knife for the right task (don’t use a paring knife to French lamb shanks), use a good chopping board and never cut on top of a hard surface as this will destroy the blade and the edge of your knife.
Cleaning your knives properly (by hand, not in the dishwasher!) and not leaving them in the sink are both important for maintenance and safety, as is using the proper storage. Popping your knives away in a knife block or knife holders will avoid the blade being damaged. Don’t leave knives in drawers – they can be pretty dangerous, especially if you have little ones at home.
According to Leigh Hudson, whetstones (aka waterstones or sharpening stones) are the only true way of looking after your knives and should be used regularly. The stones can be made from either natural or man-made materials and are used to grind and hone the blade of the knife. He also encourages seeking out a professional sharpener for your knives every few months.
Tammi Jonas uses her whetstone “periodically – not enough” but adds that she uses the steel on her Shun before most meal prep times. She and her team have an electric sharpener in the boning room. Knives are sharpened at the beginning of the work day, and from time to time throughout it.
To maintain his Japanese knives, Hajime Horiguchi says constant maintenance is vital. “Hagane is steel so if you don’t take care of it every day, it will rust easily. A lot of Australian chefs buy Japanese knives made with hagane steel but many of them don’t take care of them well and so they rust.”
He says the only way to keep knives sharp is to sharpen them every night after service. “Training in Japan, we were all taught to sharpen our knives after service, every night before we went home.” By doing this at the end of service, the steel smell (from sharpening) will disappear before the knives are needed again the next day. “If you use the knife just after is has been sharpened the steel smell will transfer to the food.”
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