Chuck Mansfield, one of the most avid readers of the Lake Oswego Review and West Linn Tidings wants new kitchen knives and asked for information on selecting them. It's easy to get distracted with those shiny, sharp things. I am happy to share a few pointed comments about knives.
Purchasing knives is not a casual purchase. Knives are expensive tools, and with proper care, they can last a lifetime. There is more to a knife than a sharp edge, and to make an informed selection you need some basic knowledge of the various parts of a knife.
Most notable, of course, is the blade. Knife blades are made of a number of materials including ceramic, high-carbon steel, stainless steel, and high-carbon stainless steel. The most desirable type of blade for general use is taper-ground, meaning that the blade has been forged out of a single sheet of metal and has been ground so that it tapers smoothly from the spine to the cutting edge, with no apparent beveling. Frequently used knives should have taper-ground blades.
Hollow-ground blades are made by combining two sheets of metal. The edges are then beveled or fluted. These blades often have very sharp edges, but the blade itself lacks the balance and longevity of a taper-group blade. You will find hollow-ground blades bread knives or meat slicers.
The tang of a knife is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. Knives used for heavy work, such as chef's knives or cleavers, should have a full tang, meaning that the tang is as long as the whole handle. A partial tang doesn't have the strength of a full tang, and will not hold up under heavy use.
The preferred 'old school' material for knife handles is rosewood, because it is extremely hard and has a tight grain, which helps prevent the handle from splitting or cracking. However, manufacturers produce handles made from various materials and in varying shapes. Spend some time holding the knife. A comfortable fit will improve the ease and speed with which you can work. A poor fit will tire and cramp your hand. If your hands are very small or very large be sure you are not straining to hold the handle. And of course, if you are left handed, buy left-handed knives instead of trying to become ambidextrous.
Metal rivets are used to hold the tang in the handle. Rivets should lie completely flush with the surface of the handle, to prevent irritation to the hand and places for debris and microorganisms to collect.
On some knives there is a collar or shank, known as the bolster, at the place where the handle meets the blade. This is a sign of a well-made knife, one that will hold up for a long time. Avoid knives that have a collar that looks like a bolster, but is actually a separate piece attached to the handle. These knives tend to come apart.
The basic knives you will need to have in your kitchen are:
n A chef's or French knife - an all-purpose knife used for a variety of chopping, slicing, and mincing chores. The blade is normally eight to 14 inches long.
n A utility knife - a smaller, lighter version of a chef's knife, used for lighter cutting chores. The blade is generally five to seven inches long.
n A boning knife - used to separate raw meat from the bone. The blade, which is thinner and shorter than a chef's knife is about six inches long and usually rigid.
n A paring knife - a short knife used for paring and trimming vegetables and fruits. The blade is about two to four inches long.
n A slicer - used for slicing meat. This knife has a long blade with a round or pointed tip. The blade may be flexible or rigid and may be taper-ground or have a fluted edge that consists of a series of ovals ground along the edge.
Keep your knives sharp; learn how to sharpen and hone your knives properly. I like to have my knives professionally sharpened at least once a year. Sharp knives not only perform better; they are safer to use, as less effort is required to cut through the food.
Keep your knives clean. Wash them thoroughly after each use. Don't leave them lying on or near the sink. Sanitize the entire knife, including the handle, bolster and blade to avoid cross contaminating foods.
Never drop a knife in the sink. Not only can you cut yourself fishing out it of the water, you can nick or damage the blade against dishes in the sink. Handwash your knives - they should never be put through in the dishwasher. The heat will warp and split the handle and the blade can be damaged as well.
Store knives safely. Store them in a knife block, slotted drawer, with covers over the blades or hang them on a magnetic strip. Never toss them into a drawer full of other knives, as you risk cutting yourself while extracting a knife and you are sure to nick a blade.
Use an appropriate cutting board such as wood or composition boards. Don't cut on metal, glass or marble surfaces.
Knives are intended for specific purposes; don't use them to open bottles, cans or jar lids.
Chuck, before you purchase knives, I suggest you enroll in a knife skills class at your favorite culinary school/retail shop. Not only will you learn how to get the most out of your new tools, you will get to test several different brands. Often, stores will offer you a discounted price on your knife purchase if you attend a class.
One of my basic rules in my cooking classes is that if you came with ten fingers, you must go home with all ten still attached. All kidding aside, concentrate on cutting when using a knife.
I chose this recipe for Minestrone because it will give you a workout in knife skills. Practice cutting precise large dice (3/4 x 3/4 x 3/4 inch) and work up to paysanne (1/2 x 1/2 x 1/8 inch) cuts, using the onions, celery, carrots, green peppers and cabbage called for in the recipe.
Bon Appetite and Eat Locally!
Makes one gallon - so make a batch and freeze some for later. The paysanne cut referred to are pieces measuring ½ x ½ x 1/8 inch
2 ounces salt pork
2 fluid ounces olive oil
1 pound paysanne-cut onions
8 ounces paysanne-cut celery
8 ounces paysanne-cut carrots
8 ounces paysanne-cut green peppers
8 ounces paysanne-cut green cabbage
½ ounce minced garlic
2 cups tomato concasse (or tomato paste)
6 cups chicken stock
Salt, as needed
Pepper, as needed
4 ounces cooked chickpeas
6 ounces cooked black-eyed peas
6 ounces cooked ditalini or macaroni
Garnish: 5 ounces Parmesan
Gently simmer the salt pork in the oil. Do not brown.
Add the onions, celery, carrots, peppers, cabbage and garlic and sweat until the onions are translucent.
Add the tomato concasse, stock and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Do not overcook.
Add the chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and ditalini. Simmer the soup until all the ingredients are tender, 10 to 12 minutes more. The soup is ready to serve now, or can be cooled and stored for later use.
Garnish individual portions with Parmesan cheese.
Information and recipe adapted from The Professional Chef, The Culinary Institute of America.