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Knife Sets [Jul. 8th, 2012|11:44 am]
Because I am so bloody tired of whining. And fountaingirl inspired me -- although to be fair, most of this I was able to gank from training manuals that I wrote. With attitudinal editing.

Ha, I SLAY me.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to cookware and knives, a set is almost always a waste of money. Well, not a WASTE…but you probably could have spent less money and gotten exactly what you need…or the same amount of money and more useful pieces.

(For those of you know don’t know me, in addition to being full of a lot of opinions about a lot of things and not shy of sharing them: I managed stores for that high end company whose initials are WS, was a cookware buyer for another high end company based out of New York whose initials are DD, and made a living for decade cooking for other people. So, I've handled a knife or two in my time.)

Here’s a brotherhood of chefs’ secret: give us a good chef’s knife, a paring knife and a bread knife, a steel or stone or something to hone them on and that’s all we actually need. Short of fancy garnishing or slicing salmon paperthin, or de-jointing large carcasses, you can get anything done with those knives.

Yes, yes, I have a drawer full of knives, plus a block – but chefs accumulate knives the way a freshly groomed horse let out in a field collects burrs.

Sets typically have a chef’s knife, a steel, maybe a paring knife, one or two slicers, a bread knife, a boning knife. But all of the same construction. And that’s an expletive waste. Plus, you’re probably not going to need those two slicers. Or you’ll feel compelled to use them for things where a chef’s knife would have done a better job.

A bread knife is disposable. The heavy duty drop forged ones are too damn thick to cut properly. You can’t sharpen a serrated edge, so it’s pointless to buy one that will last a lifetime. The knife will exist for a lifetime, but it’s not going to cut through a baguette for most of that life. Deglon is the best bread knife I’ve ever used, although I will admit that it just seems as if the French, of all people, would know how to make the best tool for a crunchy crust. I’ve had one for about 20 years and it still cuts beautifully, and just ordered a replacement via Amazon – not there’s anything wrong with the blade, but the wood handle lost a piece because I haz the lazy and sometimes it sits in water. I like a straight blade instead of offset, because I don’t feel control with an offset. You may like another brand – Forschner, Dexter Russell, whatever. I like the aesthetics of a wood handle on a breadknife because it looks better if you’ve got bread out on a breadboard. But there’s no need to spend more than $30 on a breadknife, and yes, stamped is what you want, not forged, and an 8 inch blade should be fine for everyone.

The other place that forged is a bit of a waste is your paring knife. It’s a small knife, so it’s hard to put and keep a good edge on a 3.5 inch knife. Forged and full tang gives you weight to help with cutting – if you need weight to use a paring knife, you are using a paring knife for things that call for a chef’s knife. Rather than throw down $40 on a really good paring knife…throw down 10-20 on two – a 3 and a 4 inch, or a 3.5 and bird’s beak if you peel fruit a lot, or two of the same, so that if you just used on one meat, you still have one to use on a veg without needing to wash it. Buy the stamped ones – use them for 10-20 years, and then get new ones, when you can’t put an edge on them anymore. I keep an eye out when I’m at HomeGoods/Marshall’s/TJMaxx and have scored a bunch of Wusthof paring sets/individual knifes there for less than $10 each.

Chef’s knife is your main tool. Depending on the size of your hands, and your preference, you want either an 8 or 10 inch. I used an 8 inch for so long, and my kitchen space is tight, so I stick with smaller, even though my manhands have no trouble with a 10 inch. Six inches is too small to get anything done. (We’re talking knives, here, people, settle down.) Trust me, you’ll get used to a larger knife. This is where weight and balance are critical. And where I recommend you get yourself into a store, or find a friend who owns one you’re considering and handle them. I’m old school and so imprinted on the German style handles, that rounded handles don’t feel at all comfortable to me. Textured or soft handles just creep me out. But they might be better for you. The heft and balance of a knife are critical and very personal. Here’s where paying a good amount is worth it. Full tang, drop forged. OR not. Seriously – are you cooking 8 hours a day? Four hours? It’s very easy to get all fetish-y with knives --- which, okay, if that’s your thing…But seriously, at the end of the day, it’s a tool. I’ve worked in all sorts of kitchens and ultimately can cut with damn near anything as long as it’s got an edge. So, don’t hyperventilate and obsess – yes, you should be spending $70-150 here, I think, but at that price range, you’ll have a good tool.

And you’ll need a steel to put an edge back on your knives – the actual blade edge is metal teeth that come down from either side and meet in the middle, and steeling re-aligns those teeth. With use, or being an ass and whacking on the edge of the sink or counter, pushes them out of alignment and they get dull. Look at the blade edge face on. If you move the blade slightly to the right or left, you may see tiny glintings. Those are unaligned teeth and you need to steel. When it’s properly steeled and sharp, it should be almost impossible to see the blade straight on. Steels are not made to be washed – clean and dry your knife first. And for the love of Mike, please wash your knife after steeling! Those little teeth come off and while the steel’s magnetic, it doesn’t grab them all – if you don’t believe me, wipe a freshly steeled knife on a clean white towel.

Do not put knives in your dishwasher. Ever. There are all sorts of reason, but ultimately: dishwasher detergent is slightly abrasive in order to clean your dishes. So, you’re essentially sandpapering the edge right off your knife in the dishwasher. That’s just dumb. But honestly, I if I had $1000 for every time someone obsessed over finding the perfect knife and then WRECKED it by putting it in the dishwasher… well, I’d probably be chilling on some mountaintop in Provence right now, sipping an aperitif and wondering how I was going to fill my week now that I didn’t have to work anymore.

Now, there are other knives you might want to add. The slicers that everyone puts in their sets…the short one’s too short for anything and the long one is barely good enough for most. Do you slice roasts a lot? A stamped four inch paring knife is all you’ll need to get good slices off a chicken. (If it’s not, you need to buy your chickens someplace else, because those hormones are going totally disrupt your system.) But okay if you actually do carve roasts, cook hams that aren’t spiraled already…and need thin slices – again, thin means you don’t need/want a heavy forged thing. Stamped is fine. Preferably granton – which is those shallow oval divots on the side of a knife, which gets an air pocked in between the knife and the slice and lets the meat peel off the knife easier. If you’re mainly slicing steaks, pork tenderloin, the chef’s knife or the Santoku below, are probably going to be more useful. And there’s no need for granton on all of your knives – I find it harder to clean, and always get annoyed when I get lazy and use the knife below for chopping garlic, because it can take some scrubbing to get the garlic juzsh out of the granton scoops. If you let it dry there. Hey, when I get lazy, I get LAZY.

I have an Analon Santoku knife that I’ve become fond of, it’s got a granton blade, is very comfortable. I love it for slicing vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, anything where the motion I want is a straight slice. For chopping, I’ll go back to my chef’s knife so I can get the rocking motion. You may like to chop with this, although if you cook a lot, I can’t help but feel you’re setting yourself up for an elbow issue, with all of that repetitive sharp movement.

A sausage/tomato knife – basically a four-five inch serrated knife. Again, no need for it be forged – serrated can’t be sharpened, so you want to feel okay about tossing it and getting another one if you’ve used it to dullness. It’s hand to have a small serrated knife for tomatoes, and cutting dry sausages, although a good sharp Santoku can cover this territory for you.

Anything else? Yeah, another chef’s knife. Again – so if you just used one to cut raw meat or sundried tomatoes and now you need to chop parsley, you can just pull out another one and go. Or, if there are two of you cooking. I have four. But that’s more of an accumulation thing, rather than purposeful. Two’s good. Buy one now and put another on your Christmas list.

Oh, brands? If you like traditional, Wusthof. Friederich Dick, aka, F. Dick, which is just an awesome name if you spend half your day talking about knives, is similar quality, but traditionally at a much lower price, although I haven’t shopped for knives in years.

I’m impressed with the Anolon, for a home cook – to be fair, they gave the Advanced Santoku for review – and I don’t know if the Bronze line available at Bed Bath and Beyond is the same grade – but for less than $20, work your 20% off coupon, it makes a cheap addition to your kitchen.

Other brands I’ve liked and would recommend – MAC, Forschner. There are all sorts of Japanese brands (other than MAC) but I haven’t tried most of them, so I can’t really speak to them. Knife people tend to have this SHARP obsession. Don’t get me wrong, you need a sharp knife, a dull one that doesn’t bite whatever you’re cutting will slide and get you. Look if you cut all day long and speed is critical, a razor sharp knife will save you a lot of fatigue. If you are a home cook…it’s like using a Formula One racer to go pick up the dry cleaning. Do you know how many times I’ve heard a chef extolling the killer sharpness of his/her new Japanese or whomever’s on the bleeding (heh) edge of cutlery technology – and right after talking about how incredibly sharp and awesome they are, he or she will then tell you about whatever bit they cut off of themselves or the number of stitches they had to get at the emergency room. Seriously, most people don’t need to pursue the sharpest edge out there. You can get good enough sharp.

But of course, a roomful of chefs and you'll find very little agreement on what the best knife is -- which is always a sign to me that there are plenty of good options and you spending some time thinking about what you DO with your knives and what YOU like, will get you to the best place.

Oh, and if you really want to test the edge of a blade, don’t be scraping it across your thumb. You should be able to look at it straight on and SEE that it’s sharp. And you can shave some hair off your forearm, but honestly that’s sort of gross in a kitchen. Here’s a hint: lightly tap the knife blade across the back of your fingernail – if it bites in, it’s sharp. If it doesn’t, it’s not. Also, file under “why you never see chefs getting manicures”.

Where to buy them? Well, you can test drive them at WS, department stores, Bed Bath, local cookware stores. I like Chefknivestogo.com. Although the Deglon I got at Amazon. Shop around for pricing – but make sure you’re comparing like to like, as each of the knife brands will have 2-3 different quality tiers.

But that’s all just my opinion. And if you just bought a set, or are happy with your set – it’s certainly EASIER to get a set. And now you’ve got a nice set that looks good on the countertop – and are perfectly fine – and you can fill in with the cheap stuff, as you run across it.

[User Picture]From: fountaingirl
2012-07-08 05:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you this is SUPER helpful. Really.

I am not one for wanting to display knives, I dislike the whole block thing. That just says to me "hey serial killer who broke into my house randomly - here's the biggest blade in the whole house! go to town!" to me. The set I was considering was one with a bag, so I could safely stash them away when not in use.

But yeah, I'm not a professional chef. I use the hell out of my 8" chef's knife, and that's the one that is no good any more. It's slid on me twice while cutting onions - ONIONS ffs! - and taken gouges out of one index finger nail and one ring finger nail. Not that I'm complaining - those nails are why I still have the fingertips. So. Perspective.

But yes, in the next few weeks it is time for a decent chef's knife. And, apparently, a steel. If I buy the beer, can you show me how to use one? Or will the good people at w-s show me how?

I need a cheap bread knife too but now that I know it doesn't have to cost much, this makes a big difference.
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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2012-07-08 05:34 pm (UTC)
If you don't own a steel, the only thing wrong with your knife may be that it needs a good sharpening and steeling. Bring it over and I'll see if I can put an edge on it.

I like bags to travel with -- but not so handy for daily use. If you've got room, consider a flat wooden thing that lives in a drawer that you can slide them into. I have a block as well, because, well, I have a crap load of knives and like to be able to grab them when I need them instead of rooting around. Plus if they're not completely dry, they'll continue to dry in a block or drawer block...not so much in a roll bag. You can also go cheap and get sheaths (Chef's Choice makes them) to fit over the blade edge and just put them in whatever utensil drawer has space. That's what I used to use when i was carrying my kit to client's houses - -because literally, it was just a chef's knife and paring -- the full roll-up bag was for vacation...

Oh, and kitchen shears are good as well -- although keep an eye out at the HomeGoods, etc., stores and you can pick those up uber-cheap as well. Cuts up a chicken, snips herbs, more importantly cuts open that bag of potato chips without them blowing all over the place.
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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2012-07-10 02:06 am (UTC)
Oh, those were the days! Tis better to have a knife that takes and keeps a wicked edge but must be protected from damp and rust...or a bright shiny carefree one thas has to be seduced and beaten into an edge, but you can leave it laying around wet and it's not the worst for it...or something in between?

Thankfully, unless you're really INTO knives, in terms of hobby/fetish/obsession, steel blending technology has taken us beyond that, at least as far as kitchen knives go.

Oh, for the nights of heated discussions over German vs. Japanese steel and layering and the various temperings and....I had friends that could sit around a table all night long debating the differences, carefully scraping their knives against whetstones, fighting over oil vs. water, re-grinding electronically vs. manually. Oh, no, wait, THEY all sat at the table debating. I just unpacked my motley crew of blades, made dinner for 16 and got it on the table.

Because when you are the border collie in your pack of dorks....
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[User Picture]From: dansr
2012-07-08 07:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you. That was amazingly helpful!
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[User Picture]From: sestree
2012-07-08 08:30 pm (UTC)
What about ceramics? yes / no?

I like a small thin blade paring knife but they're hard to come by now.
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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2012-07-10 01:59 am (UTC)
Ceramics sound/feel funny to me. Because I'm a textural dork. Nothing against them conceptually. Thin paring isn't all that hard -- if you're not patient, seek out a STAMPED Henckel's or Wusthof 3"/3.5" paring knife. You want the cheapest of the ones they offer -- that'll be your thinnest blade. Thin enough to get a radish slice you can practically read through. If it's large type. And you have your reading glasses on. I cruise the HomeGoods/Marshalls/TJ Maxx aisles often enough to pick them up from time to time. (Because yeah, for me, I need about 4 traditional paring knifes to feel as if I have enough.)
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[User Picture]From: ferlonda
2014-03-04 01:52 am (UTC)
Very interesting indeed. Thanks so much for passing this on to me! It makes me glad I have mostly washed knives by hand and not put them in the dishwasher unless where ever we're staying it's the usual thing. It just seemed like the wrong thing to do...
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