Sunday, December 6, 2009

Do It Yourself Meals - Tip #2

Next to your cookware and appliances there are few items that are as important and indispensable to food preparation as a good set of knives. In fact some might even say the knife is the single most valuable and most used tool in the kitchen.

Tip#2 - Invest in good quality knives.
Every kitchen should have at least four knives: a chef's knife, a paring knife, a Chinese cleaver and a bread knife. Armed with these four knives (which I like to call the Fantastic Four, apologies to Stan Lee) there is virtually nothing that you won't be able to handle. Of course there are plenty of other specialty knives available (some I will mention later) but these are the four that you will need the most often.

There are various types of blades available including:
  • carbon steel - good edge, inexpensive but vulnerable to rust. May impart an "iron" taste to acidic foods
  • stainless steel - needs more frequent sharpening but resists corrosion
  • high carbon stainless steel - your best bet. Good, long-lasting edge, resists corrosion, doesn't discolour or stain and fairly easy to sharpen on a steel
  • titanium - light metal that shows wear over time, softer than steel but also more flexible
  • ceramic - very light and hard and will not corrode, requires special tools to sharpen. Also brittle and will break or chip if dropped or used improperly

In addition to the material the blade is made from there is also the matter of the blade edge. A flat ground edge runs from the back of the knife to the edge creating a long 'v' shape. Sometimes the grinding starts partway down the blade. The ground edge is sturdy and great for rough chopping. The hollow ground blade has a slightly concave, beveled edge starting about midway down the blade. This gives you a sharper, thinner edge but is also less durable than the flat ground blade. Serrated blades, typically found on bread knives, have a wavy or scalloped edge. Some have a more saw like edge which I personally find harder to keep clean. The serrated edge works well for items that are hard on the outside but softer on the inside such as bread, tomatoes, avocado, etc. The serrated edge may need sharpening less often (or not at all) but special equipment is usually required to put an edge back on them.

And once you've selected the blade composition and edge you need to consider the handle. Most knives have a wooden, plastic, metal or composite (laminated wood and plastic) handles. Some are fashioned in such a way that the blade and handle are one-and-the-same metal (I personally find some of these slippery and difficult to grip). Wooden handles are usually comfortable, easy to grip but they require more care and maintenance. Wood is susceptible to staining, bacteria and water damage (warping and splitting). Plastic handles are stain and bacteria resistant and tend to be water-proof, but they can suffer from cracks - many get brittle over time. Composite handles have the benefits of both wood and plastic, resistant to bacteria, more durable than wood or plastic alone and requiring little or no maintenance. The metal or stainless steel handle is the most durable and sanitary but often also the most expensive. Some have been engineered for a better grip (rough or textured surface, some have rubber incorporated into the handle). The weight of the knife is usually heavier which can put a greater strain on the user's hand and wrist.

Descriptions of the Fantastic Four:
The chef's knife (sometimes called a French knife): This knife has a long blade (between 6-12 inches). Typically the blade near the handle is 1.5-3 inches tall and tapers the length of the blade to a point. The cutting edge of the blade is slightly curved outward so that the user can rock the knife while chopping/slicing. The edge of the knife should rarely leave the cutting board during this process. This is the most versatile knife in any kitchen and can be used for chopping, slicing, crushing and scoring.

When using this knife it is best to hold it by the handle but extend you hand just over the top of the handle with the base of the blade held firmly between your thumb and forefinger. Held in this manner the knife can not slip or twist while cutting. Your other hand should be used to hold the material being cut. Be sure to fold your fingers so that the fingertips are pointing down and back, away from the blade. Use the flat surface of your fingers, between the first and second joint, to guide the knife.

The paring knife: This knife is used primarily for cutting thin strips (paring) or removing the outer skin on vegetables (although a specialized knife called a vegetable peeler works better for this) or for shaping fruits and vegetables. The blade is usually a ground edge from 2.5 - 4 inches in length. Some have strong thick blade (good for prying and cutting hard materials) and others have very thin, very flexible blade (good for peeling and cutting fruits and vegetables into garnishes). Like the chef's knife the paring knife is a multi-purpose blade.

The Chinese cleaver (Chinese knife): The word cleaver is a misnomer since this knife is not technically a cleaver. It is often refereed to as a cleaver because it has some visual similarities to a meat cleaver including a rectangular blade that is slightly thicker than most Western knives (although far from the thickness of a meat cleaver). The Chinese knife is also a multi-purpose knife which originated in Asian countries. With the increased popularity of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese cooking the use of the Chinese knife has grown more and more popular. Good quality versions are now available from a number of companies. The rectangular blade usually has a ground edge and measures from 7-11 inches long and about half that height or less. The edge is often slightly curved keeping both corners of the blade from touching the cutting board at the same time. The height of the blade creates a great surface to rest your knuckles against making this a very safe knife to use. Although the blade looks rather awkward I've found that by holding the blade, just up from the handle, between thumb and index finger (and sometimes the middle finger) I have total control over the knife. This knife can be used for slicing, chopping, mincing, cutting of large pieces of meat or vegetable, crushing and, when necessary, the back of the blade can be used to tenderize meat. My favourite feature of the Chinese knife is how handy the blade is for transferring chopped food from the cutting board to the stove. Simply lay the knife flat on the board, slide it under the food (you can use your hand to keep the food from sliding off the board) and then simply carry the knife and it's load over to the fry pan. The main drawback of the Chinese knife is it's weight. The large metal blade can put a fairly heavy strain on the user's hand, arm and wrist.

The bread knife: This knife has a 6-10 inch serrated blade and is typically used to slice bread, thick skinned vegetables/fruit and anything else that has a harder surface than interior. Even if you buy your bread pre-sliced there will be other uses for this knife.

With these four knives you will be able to accomplish most cutting and chopping tasks in the kitchen. There are other knives that you may want to add to your set including a carving knife (for slicing cooked meat and poultry), a butcher's cleaver (for cutting through raw meat and bones), a boning knife (for removing bones from fish, beef and pork), an oyster knife (for opening oyster shells and removing the meat), the aforementioned vegetable peeler and a mincing knife which has a semicircular blade with either one central handle or two handles, one on each end. You use the mincing knife by rocking back and forth to finely chop herbs, onions and other vegetables.

How you hold your knife is very important. Many people simply hold the knife by the handle and this is fine for the paring knife but for the others you should hold the handle in your three fingers (middle, ring and pinky) but grasp the blade where it meets the handle with your thumb and index finger.

Finally, in addition to the Fantastic Four you will want to invest in a couple of other essential items such as a good honing steel (or other sharpening device) for keeping an edge on your knives. Remember, a sharp knife is safer than a dull one. A wet stone for putting a new edge on a damaged blade. And finally, a knife block to safely hold your knives. Do NOT keep your knives loose in a drawer, it is both dangerous (would you put your hand into a drawer full of broken glass?) and can potentially damage the edge on the blades. The best types of block have several different sized openings for your knives as well as a space for your honing steel. There are many different styles, even some that will fit into a drawer. Never put an uncleaned knife back into your block, most blocks are very difficult to clean and once the opening is fouled the knife will become contaminated every time you put the blade in. Some people prefer magnetic knife bars to a knife block but I find it is far too easy to bump a knife handle sending the knife crashing to the floor... and your feet.

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