Whipping up a meal to impress your family and friends involves more than just good recipes — you need a decent set of knives as well.
The first step is to understand your prep work requirements because you’ll need to use different types of knives to slice, grate, chop or cube the ingredients. There’s no knife that can do it all — a knife that’s good for chopping through muscle and bone will not be so useful for finer work such as paring or creating julienne strips of cucumbers.
UNDERSTANDING THE BASICS
Humans have been using knives for a long time. In the Stone Age, knives were made from flint. Today’s knives are made from a range of materials, including rock, steel, carbon fibre, iron, copper, ceramic, titanium and even bronze.
It is good to have at least two different knives in the kitchen; one to cut smaller items and another to take on regular prep work. If you prefer Asian cuisine, consider getting a cleaver, which is suitable for chopping whole chickens or separating meat from ribs.
If you’re serious about cooking, there are high-end knives costing hundreds of dollars each. These can last you a lifetime if they are properly maintained through constant cleaning and sharpening of blades.
A GOOD GRIP
While one would not expect a knife from a neighborhood hardware shop to yield the same cut as a Japanese steel-grade knife created for slicing raw fish, there is more to consider than just the blade.
Another important aspect that makes a good knife is the grip — how the handle of the knife feels in your hand. Does it feel snug or is the handle to thin or wobbly? Another point to consider is the heft when you hold the knife. You need to feel some weight when you hold the knife by the handle so that it feels secure and comfortable.
Wobbly, poor-quality handles can cause you to lose your grip when chopping and this could easily cause you to injure yourself.
Blunt knives are frustrating to use — imagine not being able to slice even a tomato. In fact, some chefs have been known to quit because the knives are blunt!
“In my industry, many chefs will lament how frustrating it is to have beautiful ingredients to prepare but the knives are a pain to use!” claims Parakorn Utamchisek, a retired Thai chef who now resides in Singapore giving vegetable carving lessons on a freelance basis. “Some of them have walked out of restaurant kitchens and will only return if the owner invests in proper knives.”
Blunt knives are accidents waiting to happen, warns Parakorn. “I have witnessed injuries in the kitchen when a blunt knife, instead of cutting through an eggplant, slipped from the fruit and its pointy end poked the thumb of my student.”
PARTS OF A KNIFE
A knife is comprised of more than just a blade and a handle. These two main portions can be sub-divided into a few more parts that one needs to be acquainted with in order to wield the tool more effectively.
The blade does most of the work and is the most important part of the knife.
- Point: The point is the end of the knife used for piercing.
- Tip: The tip, the forward part of the knife that includes the point, is used in detailed or delicate cutting.
- Edge: The edge, the cutting part of the blade,spreads from point to heel.
- Heel: The heel is the rear portion of the edge.
- Spine: The spine runs along the top of the blade.
- Bolster: Leading from the spine is the bolster, the part that joins the blade to the handle. Sitting between the handle and the main part of the blade, the bolster offers a sense of balance.
The handle provides a grip for the user.
- Finger Guard: The finger guard is located at the junction of the blade and the bolster; it helps to prevent the hand from slipping.
- Tang: The tang is the surface to which the handle attaches to the blade.
- Scales: The main part of the handle, the scales are often made of synthetic material or wood. Two scales are typically attached to the tang with rivets.
- Butt: This is the end of the handle.
KNOW YOUR KNIVES
Here are some knives that will cover most kitchen tasks:
- BIRD’S BEAK PARING KNIFE (2–3 inches)
With its bent, pointy end resembling a bird’s beak, this purposeful knife is great for carving fruits and vegetables and achieving eye-popping garnishes that will make your plating stand out.
- PARING KNIFE (2–4 inches)
For cutting vegetables, small fruits and removing the core of some fruits. Good for mincing aromatics such as garlic and shallots. Not to be used on larger vegetables because it does not carry enough weight.
- BREAD KNIFE (7–10 inches)
Its long, narrow and serrated blade allows you to cut through bread and cakes.
- MEAT CLEAVER (8–10 inches)
Its broad and heavy blade is perfect for the Asian kitchen, allowing you to chop up a chicken, separate meat from ribs and slice through thick slabs of meat.
- CHEF’S KNIFE (7–9 inches)
Considered an all-round tool for its versatility, this knife allows you to chop, slice and dice with speed and ease, making it a must-have for any chef. If you’re planning to spend more time cooking at home, this should be the first knife to invest in.
There are different cutting motions that you can employ in the kitchen.
Hold the ingredient steady with your non-knife hand while forming fingers into a claw and tucking into your knuckles. Hold the tip of the blade against the cutting board, ensuring that the knife points upwards while the flat side rests against your knuckles. Next, the tip of the blade has to make full, constant contact with the chopping surface. You then pull the knife backwards a little such that the blade cuts into the ingredient. Press downwards and forwards while ensuring that the full length of the blade cuts through the ingredient. A circular motion should be maintained.
A stable chopping surface is required because the action of a chop will require some force while using a sharp blade. Since a chop requires more force than a slice, it is important to keep your non knife hand steady while tucking your fingers like a claw. Next, hold the flat side of the knife blade against your knuckles, constantly ensuring that the entire knife is lifted above the chopping surface while you make smooth but steady downward motions with even, consistent strokes to ensure a proper chop. The chop is never a circular motion; rather, it is achieved by lifting the blade back up and repeating the motion.
The Back Slice
With delicate herbs, a fine slice or julienne is best achieved through the back slice method. It starts with using a chef’s knife. To begin, ensure that the herbs are rolled into a tight bundle and held on the non-knife hand with a claw grip. Ensure that the tip of the blade rests against the chopping surface while the flat of the blade rests against your knuckles. The trick to having successful back slices is to always keep the knife at a low angle and pulling the blade back steadily while ensuring the entire length of the blade cuts through the food without any downward motion.
The Rock Chop
As its name suggests, this method involves using a rocking motion to achieve finely minced aromatics or herbs. Rock the tip to the heel of the blade over a small pile of, say, basil, in a see-saw motion. Re-gather the ingredients after a few chops and repeat until you have the texture you require. The Italians have a crescent-shaped knife known as a mezzaluna that is specially designed for this type of motion.