Friday's Fixin's: Knife Know How

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Last week, I was emailing with my friend Maureen Abood author of the ever-charming Rose Water & Orange Blossoms blog. Maureen is one of those super inspiring people who followed her dreams in life by becoming a chef.  I fondly remember a dinner that we had in Chicago a few years ago during which she was contemplating whether or not to do quit her very lucrative job and go to culinary school. Of course you can imagine what I said to her…

I was so thrilled when I learned that she followed her passion and is now doing what makes her heart sing (Silver Lining).

Anyhoo, I asked Maureen about how to buy, use, and sharpen knives. I come from the camp of: “Oh let me use this knife to open the J.Crew box and then to cut a tomato.” And I wonder why knives don’t seem to work.  Hey, please give me a wee bit of credit for outing myself!  So, I asked Maureen for some tips. I figured if I could use some tips, you might be able to as well.  Thanks a million, Maureen!

Knife Know-How

I used to be afraid of knives. Especially big ones. No matter the job in the kitchen, I reached for my trusty little paring knife and hoped for the best. I chalked it up to lots of things other than fear, of course: small hands, small knife; better control; the small one seems sharper…you get the picture.

Then I started doing risky things, things like leaving my desk job in Chicago, moving to San Francisco and going to culinary school. Things like finishing culinary school and moving yet again, this time to northern Michigan, an idyllic place of my childhood summers on the lake, where I could cook and write all of the things I’d been wanting to cook and write for a very long time. And all of that was preceded by the kind of risk nobody ever wants to take, leaving something much more serious than a job—a marriage. I suppose the risk-taking dominos fell more easily from there.

So when I learned that we’d be required to sport a sharp, very sharp, 10-inch chef’s knife at culinary school, I decided that this was yet another risk worth taking. Besides, I knew I had come this far, so I’d better go big or go home.

We spent the first week working hard at figuring out our knives, and like anything new, you think it’ll never feel right until suddenly it does, and you can’t imagine doing it any other way.

I attended a session recently of the great Sara Moulton, and her thoughts on knives were these: let the knife do all of the work for you. That means the knife should be nice and long, so that you have a larger sweet spot on the blade. It’s in that sweet spot that the lion’s share of the chopping is done. And the knife should be heavy, so that it moves with ease against your work surface and you don’t have to lift your elbows up much to keep it moving.

Here are a few more knife tips I’ve picked up along the way:

  1. Invest in quality knives. It’s always a real education to walk into Sur la Table or Williams-Sonoma and get the salesperson talking about their knives. Go on a day when you’re not necessarily there to buy, and just look, listen, and learn.

You don’t necessarily need a full set of knives, though that is a wonderful thing. Basic knives to start are an 8- or 10-inch chef’s knife, a serrated knife (the knife with what looks like waves cut out along the edge of the blade, for grasping surfaces like the skin of a plum), a long serrated bread knife, and a paring knife (that’s the short knife used for small jobs like trimming peel from a potato). I use Wusthof, along with my all-time favorite, Shun classic knives .

The Shun knives are feng shui for the hand. They have perfect balance between handle and blade. The rounded corners of the black handle feel like a massage stone, washing away any fear of knife.

Wusthof makes a fantastic serrated tomato knife, and Wusthof and Shun both make terrific santoku knives—those are Japanese-style knives with indentations all along one side of the blade that keep whatever you’ve chopped from sticking to the knife. Santoku means “three virtues,” which is to say that the knife is good for three important tasks: slicing, dicing, and mincing.

  1. Keep ‘em sharp. Knives can be sharpened at home, but that’s one of those DIY activities that I find unnecessary. I take mine to a local shop every six months. Note that the honing rod included with knife sets doesn’t sharpen your knife. When you run the edge of the knife along the rod, all of the tiny chinks that come from chopping and that put the edge out of whack get honed back into alignment. Do this every week or so to keep your knives humming along.
  2. Keep ‘em clean. But never, ever in the dishwasher. That just dulls the knife’s edge and deteriorates the handle. Instead, fill the sink with sudsy water and immerse your knives, scrub with a soft sponge and dry thoroughly. The drying thoroughly part is especially important if you keep your knives in a wood block, because any dampness can cause mold in the wood. I like to wash my knives right after I use them, which doesn’t give food time to settle in and ruin the blade.
  3. Keep ‘em handy. My Sitto—my grandmother—taught me what to do: she kept her big chef’s knife sitting on the side of her sink at all times, at the ready.
  4. Use your knives correctly. It makes kitchen life so much easier and more pleasurable. Discovering how to dice an onion was a game-changer for me. One of the very best cooking classes offered at any culinary center is the knife skills class, which gives a basic knowledge of how to hold the knife and how to chop. You’ll learn to tuck your fingers under with the hand that holds whatever you’re chopping in what’s called “The Claw.” Sounds mean, and it should: the claw keeps your fingers from getting cut while the other hand is rhythmically slicing away. There are also loads of knife skills basics online, like this piece from my friends at The Kitchn.
  5. The side of the blade is as useful as the edge! What a revelation it was for me when I learned how easy it is to peel garlic or pit an olive with the flat side of my chef’s knife.

Learning to wield a big, sharp knife has been like all of the risks I’ve taken: No Regrets! That’s because I’ve discovered most things worth doing contain elements of risk—which in turn give such high rewards, such Silver Linings, back to me.

Maureen Abood is author of Rose Water & Orange Blossoms at http://www.maureenabood.com, a blog of stories, food, photos, her Lebanese family, and life Up North in Michigan. Maureen award-winning food writing has been published in Saveur, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Gastronomica, The Harbor Light, and elsewhere.

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