Thursday, 25 November 2010

A chef's guide to knives

I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learnt about knives since becoming a full time chef, and give a few knife-themed recommendations, for what it’s worth.

I’m by no means some all-knowledgeable sushi knife master, but being a chef in a good kitchen you naturally learn a good knife from a bad one, and get an idea of what you need...and what you don’t.

Here’s a snap of most of my knives - I keep the majority of them in my knife roll at the restaurant every day, a couple I keep at home in my kitchen.

The obvious thing to say here is that working in a restaurant means I need a fair few more types of knife than you'd ever really need cooking at home (see section on that further down). Plus there's a couple of specialist ones e.g for small Asian fruit.

So, as a chef, here's what I've found I've needed...

  • A large 'chef's' knife
  • A second medium sized knife
  • A boning knife
  • A small knife
  • A turning knife
  • A serrated knife
  • A speed peeler
  • A steel, and a stone.
  • Other stuff - I recon a peeler, fish tweezers, scissors & a microplane
  • Specialist things - e.g oyster shucker, curved fruit knife etc.
So, for those interested, here’s the basic groups of knives seen above:

A ‘chef’s knife’

This is a longer bladed all round knife. It’s probably the most used and useful knife both in a professional kitchen and is the best place to start for a general use knife in the home kitchen. Used especially for cutting vegetables, basic (dicing, slicing...) of meat and fish, and also perfectly suitable for finer knife skills stuff like julienne (v.fine strips) or brunoise (fine dice).

A 'second' knife

I use a smaller second knife, it's a santoku style knife which i try and keep extra sharp, and use especially for finer knife skills stuff which, at Nahm, tends to mean things like lime leaf chiffonade, chilli julienne and alike.

A smaller blade means a bit more control and it’s nice to have a separate knife from the one I use for the less precise more blunting activities like slicing tough lemongrass and galangal.

Here's my santoku, it's made by Kin (more on them below):

A boning knife

A boning knife is a designed for meat e.g jointing a chicken or removing the bone from a leg of lamb. It needs to be sharp, but also robust as it’s going to come up against bone and cartilage – you don’t want to be using your best handmade Japanese knife for this kind of thing. For me i a cheap but reliable brand like Victorinox is perfect here.

Filleting knife

A filleting knife is basically for fish. Normally medium length and slender, sometimes flexible (which is especially useful when filleting flat fish) but many chefs just use a smallish sharp general use knife for fish. Personal preference really.

Other stuff?

Other knives I regularly use:

A serrated 'bread' knife for bread, tomatoes and for larger fruit prep.

A small sharp knife for carving fruit and for other assorted fiddly slicing jobs.

A small curved 'turning' knife - for peeling shallots, cleaning certain small fruits and other bits n bobs.

A 'rambutan' knife (yellow handle in pic) - for taking the stones out of small fruit like longans or rambutans and similar fiddly jobs.

A speed peeler - essential £2 piece of kit. Fish tweezers, oh and scissors (ideally ones strong enough to cut the backbone out of a chicken or two)

A microplane - v.useful all purpose grater - especially if, your partial to finishing all your dishes Jamie-style with a showering of lemon zest or parmesan (accompanying Essex boy commentary is optional).

A steel and a stone - a steel being the handy way to quickly (but fairly superficially) sharpen knives. A stone is where you do the serious sharpening (think I'm going to do further post just on the subject of sharpening).

So what do you need at home?

Not too much really. Quality over quantity is defo the way to go methinks:
  • One good quality medium sized chef's knife
  • Some means of sharpening above knife - steel stone or one of those run through things
  • A basic serrated knife
  • A small sharp knife
  • Other obvious stuff - scissors, peeler etc, plus fish tweezers are probably worth having around.
As mentioned above less is almost certainly more here: if you just buy one or two good quality knives (i.e instead of a whole jumbled knife set) then you can probably afford better quality, plus you'll probably take better care of what you do have.

Generally buying a 'knife set' will mean at the very least buying stuff you don't need / wont use, and, unless you're paying a fortune, the knives in question will probably be shite too!

Final point here is that I believe it's much better for your knife skills to be using one or two good quality knives regularly rather than picking up a different one every time you want to chop a carrot - being familiar with one good knife means your chopping will improve more quickly, and you'll probably cut yourself less too!

So what to buy?

I'd say spend most if not all of your budget on one quality general use knife, then buy a basic bread knife, small knife etc if you don't have already.

So for your main knife....well it's personal preference, but a medium length chef's knife is probably the best bet here.

In terms of brand and here's couple of options:

At the cheaper but reliable end are European brands like Wusthof and Sabatier e.g this or this

But you want a really high quality & beautiful knife then Japanese is probably the way to go. Many people instantly think Global...which are ok - they're reliable but fairly pricey and very much mass produced.

Personally I like Kin knives - they make beautiful high quality
Japanese knives, and you can buy them online. I'd say the 210mm knife from their professional range would be a great choice for an all rounder:

There's loads of options on their site so have a browse, or if you want go chat to them and try before you buy then look out for their stalls at Taste of London / the BBC Good Food shows etc.

Finally if want to fondle some expensive Japanese knives & are happy to blow a lot of cash ...then head to the Japanese Knife Co shop near Baker St tube in central London

Their knives do not come cheap but it's worth a trip just for a look round.

So that's my 10cents worth on knives, hope it's vaguely useful / of interest.


Oh and, as mentioned, I'm going to do a follow up post on what I've learnt about keeping your knives sharp, which is probably the most important part of all...coming soon.


angela@spinachtiger said...

Is there a special tweezers for fish bones? I use a regular. Just wondering.

Bob Coppin said...

Looking forward to the sharpening article. I'm looking to but a stone pretty soon.

Sushi Naples said...

A well-thought-out menu will have chicken breast in one dish, for example, chicken stock in another and gizzard stuffing as a side, so that the entire chicken can be used, saving money on buying just breasts.

chumbles said...

Excellent post - actually, as near as spit an article and interesting to read. And you're absolutely right; I have a core of four reliable good quality knives that do virtually everything. And the peeler is identical to the one I use (I don't understand why anyone would use anything else). Magic.

@Bob Coppin: the single best piece of advice that Andy has given, in effect - sharpen your knives before use! With a few exceptions I always do this.

@Sushi Naples: ??? Shurely shome mishtake?

chumbles said...

Hi Andy, I know Christmas is the absolutely busy time of the year; but if you can find the time for your follow-up post on the care and sharpening of knives I would be really, really grateful!

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