The Top 5 Knife Secrets Every Serious Cook Should Know
A great knife makes for great cooking. This especially applies when the knife is ultra-sharp, with correct length and weight that makes it easy to wield. It also helps if the knife is something of profound beauty as is always the case with Japanese kitchen knives.
The hardworking Japanese or Western blades you use for cutting, slicing and carving your meat or fish or for chopping up your vegetables make such a fundamental part of cooking, particularly in professional kitchens.
There is so much that you can learn about a kitchen knife. Japanese kitchen knives often present a challenge because there are so many of them out there with very distinctive characteristics. In fact, there are tons of forums on the web dedicated to the subject kitchen knives. It is often a subjective topic but it is also an objective one because wielding the Japanese kitchen knives is both an art and a science. You can’t, for instance, use the yanagiba to chop up your vegetables or a bunka knife to slice your sushi. It is also subjective in the sense that what works for one cook won’t necessarily work for another.
In this article, we give you a primer on some of the top secrets about Japanese kitchen knives that should come in handy in your home or professional kitchen.
Secret One: You Don’t Necessarily Need a Complete Knife Set
There are knives that are a must-have and those that are good to have. It is tempting to kit your kitchen with a constellation of beautiful and differently-shaped kitchen knives but some might simply end up being adornments. You will also be paying for knives that you don’t actually need and are unlikely to use.
However, if you purchase your knives individually and on a needs basis, you will end up with a precise and useful collection that match your cooking needs.
A chef’s knife may seem like all that you need but you will, organically, find yourself buying up natural companions to your chef’s knife that actually serve a need such as a paring knife, petty knife, a bunka knife, a nakiri knife or a sujihiki knife. The bottom-line is that building a knife collection should be an organic process where your actual needs dictate new purchases.
Secret Two: Know What to Buy
If you are angling for Japanese kitchen knives or looking to purchase a Western-style kitchen knife, you must begin by looking at factors such as the type of knife, what it’s best used for, steel type, hardness and type of handles among others. For instance, if you are shopping for an all-purpose chef’s knife, you can either go for the Mercer and Wüsthof Chef’s knives or for the Japanese variants such as the gyuto and the santoku.
You need to learn some of the core knife vocabulary that will enable you to ask the right questions to a salesperson when you are down to actually pulling the trigger and buying that dream Japanese or Western-style kitchen knife. Remember the salesperson might not even be physically present and may be on the other side of the world so being able to precisely describe what you want matters a lot.
Some of the key questions to ask when shopping for a particular kitchen knife include the following: -
- What steel type between carbon steel and stainless steel should I opt for? Know the properties, strengths and weaknesses of carbon steel vs stainless steel. A carbon steel is often an indicator that the knife will be hard and sharp but susceptible to corrosion and chipping. Stainless steel may not necessarily give you good edge retention due to the softness of the steel but the knife will be corrosion free and will keep its luster. Carbon steel knives will develop a patina over time.
- How long should my knife be? The blade length for any kitchen knife is always a personal choice for any chef or cook. Choose a blade length that you will be comfortable wielding and which will fit your workspace. If you find the larger and longer knives a little intimidating, you can opt for smaller and shorter knives such as the santoku.
- What should be the width of the knife? Knives with narrower blades such as the sujihiki and yanagiba are ideal for slicing and carving uses. Knives that have wider blades can be all-purpose kitchen tools used for smashing or crushing ingredients, scooping up chopped dices or slices or for cutting up the larger and taller ingredients such as cabbages and melons.
- What’s the sturdiness of the knife like? Some knives are so sturdy that you can use them to cut through tougher skinned ingredients while others are too delicate for robust cutting uses.
- Does it have a curvature in the belly? A knife with a curvature in the belly would be suited for rocking or rock chopping uses while knives with flat edges are better suited for up and down or push cutting uses.
Secret Three: There isn’t Really a “Best” Knife
Our shopping habits are always dictated by the need to find “the best” of a particular category. When it comes to buying knives, what is “best” is rather subjective. A knife that perfectly suits one chef or cook may not necessarily be the best for the other person within the same household or professional kitchen. Always try to give a little thought to the kind of cook that will use the knife and the types of produce they will use it on.
When shopping for a kitchen knife, it is also important to give a little introspection to your cutting technique. There are generally two broad cutting approaches. There are those that cut more aggressively and who like speeding through the cutting, dicing, chopping and slicing to get their ingredients ready in the shortest time possible. Then there are those slow and meticulous cooks that will take their sweet time to prepare the ingredients, even when it comes to the tiniest of thyme. Ultimately, it is a choice between speed and precision and your approach pretty much determines the best kind of knife that would be suited for your style. Finally, consider the types of knives available in Australia and determine which of these will match your personal cutting style.
The simplest way to determine which knife will suit you best is by visiting the store and holding the different individual knives in your hand to help you figure out which of these wields nicely. If you are shopping online and aren’t sure about what to pick, talk to the salesperson and describe what you are looking for. Based on that description, they can help you figure out what type of knife will make a perfect fit.
Secret 4: Your Best Knife Sharpener is a Whetstone
To keep them at their peak performance, your knives must be sharpened regularly. You really need this when you are using the ultra-thin and razor-sharp kitchen knives such as the sujihiki and yanagiba slicers or the usuba knife where the sharpness of the knife is the central component of its performance.
Home cooks may not be under such intense pressure to keep their knives ultra-sharp at all times but if you are a professional chef at the top of their game, keeping your knife sharp at all times will be a key part of the trade.
You will know your knife needs some urgent sharpening when you start meeting some resistance when you are slicing, dicing or chopping your produce. If the knife is getting blunter, you simply won’t get the optimal best out of your prized kitchen tool. Many of the premium Japanese kitchen knives are serious investments. You simply want to get the best out of the tool to make it worth the while.
Many knife experts will tell you that the whetstone is the best knife sharpener that you can have. Whetstones give you the ultimate control when sharpening your kitchen knives.
Sharpening kitchen knives to achieve the razor-sharp edges that is often associated with Japanese kitchen knives isn’t a walk in the park. It isn’t just a chore; if you fail to do it properly, you may end up ruining the edges of your kitchen knives. If you can’t master knife sharpening on your own, you can always pay a professional to do the knife sharpening for you. The advantage with professional knife sharpeners is that they are skilled in handling different types of knife edges, be they Japanese or Western, straight or curved or single-bevel and double-bevel blades.
Then there is the frequency of knife sharpening. For home use, this will simply be a yearly occurrence. However, if you are working in a professional kitchen such as a sushi bar, you may have to sharpen your kitchen knife with greater frequency.
Unless it is absolutely necessary, frequent knife sharpening for home use is discouraged as it shears the metal off the blade to bring out the new edge. With each subsequent sharpening, your knife blade will get smaller and smaller which may end up reducing the lifespan of the knife.
The best at-home knife sharpening solution would be the use of a whetstone. Most of them will handle any knife style and they don’t shear off as much metal so your knives will also have a longer lifespan.
How to Use the Whetstone
The whetstone is also known as a water stone for a reason. To use it, you first have to soak it before you can begin gently dragging the knife against it at an angle. The angle depends on the knife being sharpened.
Some stones have two sides: the coarser and the finer side. For such whetstones, you will begin sharpening your knife on the coarser side to shear off most of the knife material. You can then proceed to the finer side of the whetstone for smoothing and polishing the edges of the knife.
The trick for correct sharpening is nailing the sharpening angle. If you are unable to do it, use a knife sharpening company such as Koi Knives which does Japanese knife sharpening in Adelaide.
Like mastering a knife technique, using a whetstone will take time and practice but it is a good skill to have if you are a serious cook working with premium knives.
Secret 5: A Glass Cutting Board isn’t your Friend
For excellent edge retention, know the right boards to use as cutting boards. We often go for the pretty glass boards and other types of beautifully crafted boards with which to adorn our countertops. However, these may not be the gentlest and most durable for your delicate Japanese kitchen knives. Glass boards, for instance, should only be used as adornments.
The best materials for a cutting board should be wood, plastic and rubber. The type of board that you work with has a direct bearing on the durability and edge retention of your kitchen knives, particularly if your work entails cutting up a lot of produce.
Cutting boards with very hard surfaces don’t yield any give so they are likely to dull, chip or even break your kitchen knives. If you are chopping on a glass cutting board, you may even chip off some shards of glass that may make their way into the food or the kitchen floor.
When shopping for a cutting board, go for one with more give which will be gentler on your knives edges.