For many years cooking for me would include selecting a knife from the block then patiently saw away at whatever I chose to cook. I never considered which knives were the most suitable for different ingredients, or that sharpening a knife is a blessing, turning a cook’s tasks from a chore to a joy. Instead, chopping an onion was rather tiresome and time-consuming resulting in irregular sized chunks dotted with crude indentations from when my knife tried and failed to hack them apart.
Since then I have worked in a cookware shop and there, it was as if a light bulb had been screwed in above my head, the light dawned on me. Using the correct knives for particular jobs improves cooking to become a pleasure. Add the bonuses of sharpening and maybe, if you’re feeling roguish, a fully forged knife and your onion will be demolished into precise even dice.
So here is a guide to knives which has assisted my culinary education and will hopefully be useful to anyone who is sick of that dead-beat go-to knife that urgently needs a replacement.
A fully forged knife (also known as full tang) is more expensive than regular knives hanging in sachets on the shop floor. These are encased in a glass-fronted cabinet and lit by overhead spotlights, enshrined if you will. Forged knives are more expensive because the blade runs the full length, right down to the base of the handle. There is no risk of the blade separating from the handle and the balance of the knife is evenly weighted to ensure an easier chopping action. Some clearly indicate the fully forged blade by rivets embedded in the handle.
Your choice depends on personal preference; each knife has a unique balance and different weight – to some a Sabatier may seem unnaturally light and therefore off-putting for chopping up a humongous squash for instance. Your chosen design needs to feel comfortable in your hand, the handle suiting your hand shape and providing ergonomic grip.
This also applies to the type of knife you select. An extra wide 26cm chef’s knife won’t be suitable for a petite person unless you’re adept with a cleaver.
The Chef’s Knife
The go-to knife in the block, useful for basic chopping. It comes in numerous sizes ranging from 26cm to 12cm, however to most common is 20cm. The curved tip allows for cutting with a rolling action for speed and, with practice, precision. Perfect for a dicing job including my spaghetti Bolognese which, I admit, does require a bit of the old chopping.
The Utility Knife
An in-between size, therefore lacking a specific role, the utility knife is a smaller version of a chef’s knife and useful if you’re daunted by wielding a heavier blade. Handy for chopping smaller batches of food or if you need to segment an orange for my blood oranges in spiced caramel recipe.
The Pairing/Vegetable Knife
A mini knife for delicate tasks such as deveining prawns. It can also be used for scraping meat off the end of cutlet bones or deseeding chillies.
The Santoku Knife
Recognisable from the oval hollows embedded in the blade, the Santoku knife originates from Japan and translates as ‘three benefits’: slicing, dicing and mincing. Versatile like the chef’s knife it is used for chopping and slicing. However, unlike the chef’s knife, it does not require the rolling action as you chop, instead you cut downwards. The hollows are called a granton edge and work as air pockets meaning the knife is useful for slicing as they prevent food from sticking to the blade. Great for chopping a cucumber when you make pickles.
The Boning Knife
This and the filleting knife look uncannily similar due to the arched, narrow blade. To tell them apart gently press down on the tip and the boning knife will seem sturdy and rigid. Its sharp point and narrow width helps you to remove bones, fat or gristle, or joint a chicken with precision, allowing you reach into small spaces.
The Filleting Knife
Thin and flexible, this knife is ideal for fish. Usually used on its side it neatly hooks around a fillet with enough bend to keep the shape of the fish intact and easily slides under the flesh to remove the skin. Best kept razor sharp! I used mine when I cooked some whole seabass, and also in many culinary school exams.
One of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever had in the kitchen was beginning to use a steel. And when I say that I mean trying to use it correctly so I don’t blunt my knife!
You need to hold your steel downwards, the tip resting on the surface and your knife at an approximate 20° angle (I know, a complete juxtaposition but unless you have a protractor the angle is guesswork until you’ve done it enough to feel familiar). Too wide an angle you will blunt the knife. To find 20°, I’ve been taught to hold my knife with the base of the blade touching the steel at 90°. Cut that angle in half by moving your knife to 45°, then in half again. From here you can slowly swipe you knife in a smooth arc down so the tip of the blade comes to rest on the lower third of the steel. And then repeat on the other side! I tend to do it six times each side.
The Pull Through Sharpener
On the other hand, there’s this beauty. This is the Robert Welch pull-through sharpener which has one grinding wheel. The wheel is set to the precise angle of the knives whether it’s unique to the brand a la Robert Welch or the typical 20° so no guesswork is involved – hurrah! Other pull-through sharpeners may have one or two grinding wheels – coarse, to put an edge on a blunt knife, and fine, for daily sharpening and to follow after the coarse wheel. Hold the knife vertically with the base in the slot and gently pull the knife towards you, then back again, usually six times each way. Pull through sharpeners are not suitable for thin Japanese knives as they tend to take out chips in the blade. It is mainly for convenience.
It is recommended you sharpen your knives before every use, just a quick couple of swipes keeps the edge and prevents gradual blunting which can only be corrected by a professional.