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A knife is to a chef as a scalpel is to a surgeon. They both have a myriad of other tools, but their blade is their primary instrument. You can get away with that cheap peeler, and you certainly don’t need a spoon rest, but a good knife is indispensable. If you’re like most people, you have one larger knife for most cutting chores, maybe from a set, that’s been in your drawer for years banging its edge against your other gizmos. All it’s good for is a prop in some B horror film.
The first and foremost thing a knife should be is sharp. Higher quality knives achieve and maintain a superior edge. A sharp knife cuts food easier, quicker, neater, and with less chance of injury. A dull knife is more resistant to piercing food, and thus, is more likely to slide sideways and cut the hand holding the food.
Carbon steel knives (a mixture of iron and carbon), are the sharpest but vulnerable to corrosion and discoloration. They just don’t last. Most professional grade knives are high-carbon stainless steel, (a conglomeration of other metals with the iron and carbon). They don’t rust or deteriorate. You sacrifice a little bit of sharpness for indefinite durability. It is a good compromise.
Construction is also important. Better quality knives are forged, i.e., the metal is heated to thousands of degrees, placed in a mold and hammered into shape. This process increases the strength and resiliency of the steel. You can recognize such a knife because it has a full tang, which means the steel extends from the point all the way to the end of the handle. It is heftier, durable, and has a better balance. A forged, full tang knife, if properly cared for, can last a lifetime. Cheaper knives are stamped or die-cut and only have a partial tang, whereby the steel only partially extends into the handle. Worse yet, they are sometimes imbedded in those shoddy plastic handles that will inevitably become loose. Finally, always choose a knife that feels comfortable in your hand.
Some chefs avow that he best way to sharpen a knife is via a professional knife sharpening service. They have the equipment and the expertise to regrind the edge to a pristine condition. Others disagree claiming that their grinding procedures will degrade the blade over time.
They assert that the procedure of choice is to sharpen it yourself on a sharpening stone. Forget all the crazy sharpening gadgets on the market. Most of them are ineffective. To use a stone you must lubricate it with either mineral oil or water. Whichever you choose you must stick with it. Switching between mediums will damage the stone. Lubricate the stone with oil or submerge it in water for a few minutes and then repeatedly run each side of the blade from the heel to the tip across the length of the stone. The trick here is that the knife must be consistently held at a 22-degree angle. Varying the angle at which you hold the knife will thwart the sharpening process. Obviously this a skill that takes time and practice to master. The number of strokes necessary will depend on the knife’s dullness.
Every time before preparing food, you should run the knife a few times across a sharpening steel on each side at the same 22 degree angle. Sharpening steels do not sharpen, they hone. Remember playing with paper airplanes as a kid? You’d throw it across the room and bounce it off the wall. The nose of the plane, although still pointy, was then crooked. You had to straighten it with your fingers for the next flight. This is what happens with your knife. Even one use can cause the edge to angle to one side or the other. A steel re-straightens the edge. Finally, store your knife in a block, on a magnetic strip, or any contraption that protects the edge, and always wash it by hand. The heat of a dishwasher can damage the handle over time, not to mention the possibility of other items banging into the edge of the knife.
Professional chefs and more serious cooks will possess an array of knives for various tasks. At the very least you should have a standard chef’s knife and a paring knife. A high quality 8-10 inch chef’s knife, from a reputable manufacturer like Wusthof or Henckel will cost you anywhere from $70 to $100. It is a worthwhile investment, even for the home cook. The paring knife will run you $20 to $30. Avoid knife sets. They may seem like a good deal but even the top brands make cheaper knives and that’s usually what’s in the set.