Buyers' guide to kitchen knives

Stylish kitchen knives that cut more than the mustard!

Kit out your kitchen with knives that are both practical and stylish with our comprehensive guide

Possibly the most essential and frequently used piece of equipment in any kitchen, a good knife can determine whether cooking becomes a pleasure or a chore. 'A knife is one tool that has to perform well in your hands every single day,' says Jay Patel, owner of The Japanese Knife Company, which supplies some of the most highly esteemed chefs and restaurants in the world. 'Like a pen, an iron or a vacuum cleaner, if it doesn't work well, it will cause immediate frustration.' Purchase the right knife, however, and not only will you find food preparation is easier and quicker, but safer and more enjoyable, too. If it's looked after properly, a quality knife will last a lifetime.

Buying a knife

Although it's tempting to rush out and arm yourself with a full set, the majority of work you do in the kitchen will be with one or two knives. Professional chefs may buy a blade for a particular purpose, but when choosing knives for your own kitchen, it's likely you won't need a vast array. As Marcia Barrington, tutor of the Divertimenti cookery school's most popular class, Knife Skills, advises, 'Begin by buying one or two essential knives, then build your ideal set over a period of time as you find you need other blades for more specific tasks.'

When choosing knives, remember the following:
o Buy the best knife you can afford. You get what you pay for and a high-quality knife will last for years. Better to invest in a good knife and sharpener, than a whole block you don't necessarily need.
o 'A knife is a tool, not art, so choose function over form and buy a blade not a brand,' says Jay Patel of The Japanese Knife Company.
o Hold a knife before buying it, to make sure the handle sits comfortably in your palm and that you're comfortable with the weight. You don't have to buy the same brand for every knife - many chefs use a whole variety of different manufacturers.
o A well-balanced knife means the handle and blade are almost the same weight, therefore the knife will rock easily. To test, hold it as you would on a board and rock it back and forth to see whether it feels comfortable. Ideally, you have to use your wrist less to achieve a rolling action while cutting. However, unless you're a professional chef, you're unlikely to get RSI, so, although it's nice to have a balanced knife, it's not absolutely essential.

Choosing your knives

When it comes to knife shape, straight, narrow blades are best for cutting raw or cooked flesh and are not suited to chopping, or cutting fast or with a traditional rolling action. Wider blades with a curved edge are ideal for preparing vegetables (it can rest against your knuckles as you chop) but they are unsuitable for paring or peeling.

A basic set of knives might include two or more of the following:
1. A 15-17cm cook's knife is essential and the first knife to invest in. Initially, it may seem big, but with practice it will become your knife of choice. 'This is the knife you'd choose if you were stuck on a desert island,' says Camilla Schneideman, director of the Divertimenti cookery school. 'Learn to use it properly and it will be an extension of your own arm'. A good all-round knife with a long, wide, general-purpose blade, it can be used for slicing, dicing, crushing, chopping and mincing. Additionally, you may want a bigger 25cm chef's knife that will take your weight when cutting things like squash or swede.
2. A paring knife is the most commonly used blade in a domestic kitchen. At 7.5-10cm long, it's a mini version of the chef's knife used for slicing and dicing vegetables and delicate pastry cutting. Models with a hooked curve are handy for cutting zest from citrus fruit.
3. A serrated tomato knife is one item that can be cheap and disposable (less than £10). It cuts through tough, shiny tomato skins without squashing the flesh and is also good for segmenting oranges.
4. A filleting knife is thin, flexible and pointed. The blade follows the bones closely, avoiding waste. Use a heavier knife to remove fish heads.
5. A boning knife with a narrow blade and a sharp point is used solely for removing bones. Some have a flexible blade for poultry, while others have a rigid blade for dealing with bigger joints.
6. A carving knife is long and flexible enough to allow meat to be sliced thinly. Some have a point, used to free meat from a joint with a bone; those with a round tip are for boneless joints and known as slicers.
7. A serrated bread knife should be long and rigid so it can cut through a hard crust without squashing the slices. Serrated knives can't be sharpened in the usual way, so only use on a wooden or polypropylene surface. Never use them for chopping.
8. A pallet knife is long and flexible with a rounded tip for easing cakes out of tins, sliding under pastry or spreading cream or icing.

Sharpening

So you've invested in a knife that will make you the next Nigella. Well, unless it's sharpened correctly your money will be wasted. Ideally, this should be every time you use it - here are your options:
o The European method of sharpening is to use a 'steel'. Old- fashioned steels were a cylindrical metal rod with grooves, but modern steels are ceramic or diamond-coated and more effective. It's essential to maintain the correct angle when using a steel (20 - 30 degrees, depending on the style of knife), otherwise you could end up doing more harm than good. A flat, diamond steel will never blunt and is more abrasive, so works quickly, but take extra care as any mistakes will be more exaggerated. A ceramic steel works less quickly, but removes less metal, so prolongs the life span of a knife.
o A mini, pull-through sharpener has a knife guide and ceramic wheels placed at the ideal angle to give a perfect finish, so is a foolproof way of resharpening steel knives.
o The traditional way of sharpening a Japanese knife is on a flat, abrasive surface called a whetstone. Combination stones with a variety of abrasive surfaces for honing blades are available relatively cheaply. Some also have a guide to ensure you keep the correct angle when sharpening your knives.
o It is possible to get knives professionally sharpened, but make sure they know exactly what they're doing: a grinder that takes off excessive amounts of metal can do more harm than good.

Need to know

o Stamped blades (the cheapest) are punched out of sheets
of steel then sharpened. Rolled, hammered or dropped forged knives are also cut out, but then heated and pressed, which makes the metal denser so it holds its edge for longer.
o More expensive layered or laminated knives are made by layering or folding the metal to create a really strong blade.
o Generally, the higher the carbon content in the blade, the better it is. However, a high carbon content makes the knife brittle and prone to rust, so other elements are often added.
o Good quality ceramic blades are not as brittle as you'd think, but can still chip or break if dropped. The absence of metal means that the purity of flavour is maintained and food doesn't discolour.
o A special technique is required for using and sharpening Japanese single-edged blades. Bear this in mind before buying one.

Storage and care

Leaving knives loose in a drawer is not only dangerous, it lets them bang against each other, blunting or damaging them.
o Try a magnetic knife strip on the wall. The knives are easily accessible and nothing comes into contact with the blade.
o Use knife guards - plastic or wooden sheaths that slide over the blade. You can buy these separately if they're not provided.
o A wooden knife block will minimise blunting. Eva Solo does blocks with flexible plastic inserts, The Japanese Knife Company has a polypropylene block to prevent damage and Henckels does a block that suspends blades between fibre-optic strands.
o If you're building a collection, a fabric knife roll, like the ones used by professional chefs, is a good idea.
o Never put knives in the dishwasher. Heat and chemicals blunt blades, cause pitting in the steel, and can work handles loose.

 
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