Cooking, Modern Grange

Sharply Focused: Knife Skills

Culinary stores fairly glitter with their variety of cutting objects, some German, others Japanese, these Italian, those French — the spectrum running from hand-forged to hand-stamped to stainless steel to good for fish to great for bread to perfect for deboning to exhaustive etcetera.

The good news is that you really only need three kitchen knives. The confusing news is how to care for them.

But let’s keep with the good. A 6- to 10-inch chef’s knife forms the basis for this trinity. Perfect for slicing onions, dicing carrots, or removing a chicken’s thigh from its body, the chef’s knife has the length and heft needed for most utile tasks.

A small paring knife allows you to peel and mince, cut through delicate areas, debone a bird, deftly remove skin, or quickly quarter an apple for your child’s lunch.

A serrated knife is a basic for cutting bread without tearing or compressing the loaf, as well as for any other tasks in which you want to cut through to the interior without compromising the outside (think: ripe tomatoes).

Holding the knife before purchasing is essential, particularly with a chef’s knife. A 10-inch blade may seem too long once the knife is in your hand; a 6-inch, too small. As you heft it, ask yourself: Is it too heavy or too light? The chef’s knife that will work for you is one that you feel comfortable clasping. While a sharp knife is a safe knife, none of them are safe if you can’t wield it well, if the blade is too long for your height, or the steel to heavy for your strength.

Carefully examine its shape. Some home cooks prefer a chef’s knife that has a bolster (also known as a “collar” or “shank”). This is the thick area where knife and handle align. In most Western knives, like German brands, the bolster acts as a safe guard for your fingers. Japanese and other Eastern implements normally don’t have a well-defined bolster. Choose a knife with a bolster that works for you, whether stout or negligible.

If possible, test the knife in the store before you buy it. Some outlets will allow you to try dicing an onion or at least cutting through a piece of paper. Is the heel — the thick end of the blade — made for your hand and stature and strength? Does it “thunk” down or rebound? You use the heel when applying extra force, as when cutting through a strong winter squash or a ripe summer melon, and you don’t want a knife that bounces back up unexpectedly or stops the rocking motion (that’s the “thunk”) when you’re pressing down.

All of the glittering knives in that culinary store are sharp when you purchase them. The trick is in keeping them that way. Experts suggest that you hone your chef’s or paring knife each time you use it. The honing steel (often called a “sharpening” steel, an unfortunate misnomer) is a long circular or ovoid stick with a handle. Its job is to fold the microscopic “teeth” in the knife’s blade back to center, which is why it’s important that you use it on both sides of the knife’s edge. It does not “sharpen” your knives but rather, realigns them so that the inherent sharpness is redefined and restored.

To hone your blade, make sure that the tip of the honing steel pointed down onto your cutting board (wood or another soft material only), hold the knife at a 20-degree angle near the steel’s handle and work slowly down the blade’s edge, pulling your elbow straight back to your torso as you work. Do it slowly at first until you get the feel for the process.

Sharpening your knives is entirely different than honing them and needs to be done far less often, perhaps only twice a year, depending on the use they experience. You may have it professionally done or use a whetstone at home to draw the blade’s edge back into form. Should you have it done by a professional, expect that the knives may be gone for up to a week. If you can, watch the artisan at work. If you see sparks as he or she sharpens, take your knives some place else. Sparks indicate that the knife is being overheated, which can detemper the knife and affect its longevity and usefulness.

We host a knife skills class on Saturday, Jan. 31, with cutlery master Mike Solaegui of Perfect Edge Sharpening. Mike will take us through some very basic methods that will probably make you rethink how you’ve been using your knives all of these years; he certainly surprised us! He’s also available to professionally sharpen your cutting tools for you. Bring them with your questions as we hone our skills together.

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