People often ask me what the is the most important kitchen tool to own. The answer is simple: a sharp knife. Many interpret this to mean an expensive knife and start rattling off German or Japanese brand names, but I stop them. An expensive knife cuts just the same as a less expensive one. Before working in a professional kitchen, I had the same opinion about knives. Lured by celebrity chefs and advertisements in culinary magazines I longed for a Henckles or a Nesmuk Jahrhundertmesser and I was under the impression that commercial kitchens used them. I was wrong! Professional chefs prefer cheaper knives for several reasons:
An expensive knife is just that…expensive! Typically, more than one is needed in a professional kitchen and low margins dictate that spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on an expensive knife is out of the question.
The handling and care for an expensive knife requires time and a professional kitchen environment is hectic and fast paced. There is no time to carefully clean and treat the knife between uses. The dish washer typically does not know that a knife should be hand washed and often just run it through the dishwasher.
Contrary to popular belief chefs don’t carry around a suitcase of knives and they don’t stop to switch knives between butchering a side of beef and dicing onions. They typically use the same knife stopping only to wipe it off or quickly rinse it between uses.
Knives get used and abused in a kitchen. They often break especially when used improperly to cut through bone. Sure, the chefs know that a cleaver is recommended to cut through bone but in the mad rush of service he/she grabs the nearest tool which often is a simple chef’s knife.
Knives get lost and are sometimes thrown away accidently. I have seen kitchen staff go through the garbage looking for a discarded knife. In a busy kitchen this happens more than you would think possible.
So, what do they use? Most professional kitchens use inexpensive knives which they don’t actually own. The subscribe to a knife service that utilizes inexpensive brands. The service delivers knives to the restaurant and switches them out on a schedule. Most busy kitchens do this on a weekly basis. The service ensures that the restaurant kitchen always has a steady supply of quality sharpened knives. The knives they use are a tradeoff. The blade itself is high quality stainless steel that can withstand a fair amount of abuse, but the handle is plastic. The tradeoff is that the knives are strong and durable where it counts: the blade. The plastic hand saves money and lightens the weight of the knife. The handle is usually roughly finished allowing for tight gripping when greasy. Apart from being inexpensive the service ensures that kitchen staff always have sharp knives. The most important aspect of a knife is its sharpness. A dull knife is useless and dangerous. Most knife accidents happen because of a dull blade.
So what does this mean for the home cook? You can recreate this knife service in your home by following these easy steps:
Purchase several inexpensive butchers’ knives. Don’t pay more than $50 for each. I have four but a minimum of two is recommended.
Purchase matching knife guards for each knife.
With the money you save from buying inexpensive knives purchase a good quality electric knife sharpener. I prefer the Chef’sChoice 15 Trizor XV EdgeSelect Professional Electric Knife Sharpener which can be purchased for $160. I am sure there are a bunch of macho men beating their chest and waxing on about how they can sharpen a knife on a stone. I am not a macho man. I am a nerd who in my middle age needs reading glasses to see small objects. I am no good at sharpening a knife on a stone. This gadget allows me to quickly and safely sharpen a knife.
Only use the knives for cutting through animal protein, vegetables and fruits. For heavier jobs use a cleaver and for delicate cutting use a paring knife.
Before using the knife hone it on a honing steel device. A knife honing tool is that gadget you see in a knife set that most people think is a knife sharpener. It doesn’t really sharpen the knife. It is meant to refresh the edge of the blade between uses so that it maintains the edge and sharp angle of the blade. Honing a knife keeps the sharpness of the blade for a longer period of time.
Wash the knives with soapy warm water. Never run the knives in the dishwasher since high temperatures dull the blade and will eventually deteriorate the handle.
When not in use store the knives in the knife guard or sheath it in a knife stand. This prevents it from chipping if it falls or is rattling around in your kitchen drawer. Sheathing or “guarding” the knife also prevents accidents because an exposed blade is dangerous.
Once every week sharpen the knives according to the sharpener instructions.
Do this for all knives…even serrated ones. An electric knife sharpener is multi-purpose and can be used for all your knives.