Knives are probably the most overlooked absolute necessities in the kitchen. For years my in-laws subsisted using a conglomerate of old steak knives. Many invest in those beautiful full sets, stored in their matching butcher block, only to delay the maintenance and sharpening of the blades which keeps them useful. And make no mistake about it: the most dangerous tool in a kitchen is a DULL knife. A sharp knife is easily directed and goes where expected with minimal force. This is not to say that a sharp knife doesn't present a danger, especially if used improperly. As an example, a razor sharp 13 inch chef's knife should not be the tool of choice to separate frozen hamburger patties, as demonstrated by the circumference scar on my ring finger. But a dull knife, even when being used for the job for which it was intended, just won't cut cleanly. Additional pressure must be brought to bear and as that dull knife slips from its intended course, we learn that somehow, even if it won't cut a tomato, it can result in stitches.
There are a great many variables in the metal used in knife blades. Carbon steel, while softer than some of the other hardened steel alloys used in knives, can be sharpened and honed razor sharp, but tends to lose its edge more quickly than the hardened alloys such as high carbon stainless. The blade also tends to stain, and if not properly dried, rust. On the other hand, the harder high carbon stainless alloys, while easy to keep bright and shiny, can be a bit more expensive. Regular stainless steel is not a good choice as it is brittle and difficult to sharpen. But, especially with hardened steels, if the blade is inferior to begin with, without some hard work, your cutting edge will remain unusably dull.
Whatever the makeup of the blade, it is the manner in which the blade is joined to the handle that will dictate the durability of the knife. The best knives are "full tang", meaning that the metal of the blade extends throughout the handle, as opposed to cheaper knives that merely inset the blade steel into a slot which extends several inches down the handle. The handle of a full tang knife can be as classic as wood affixed to either side of the tang, usually with rivets, or as modern as various plastics or epoxies. Wooden handles may be a bit less utilitarian in appearance, but also require hand washing and can lack some of the special grip features found in some of the molded handles.
Certainly the job of any knife is simply to cut, but what is being cut dictates the type of blade that can handle the job most efficiently. The basic kitchen should be equipped with at least 6 knives. A paring knife, usually with a blade of 3 inches, is useful for small cutting jobs, peeling fruit and vegetables. Because of the variety of chores the paring knife does, it's quite useful to have a pair. A chef's knife has a wide blade, with a bit of a rocker to the edge. This allows you to use the shape of the blade to mince onions, garlic and herbs. The wide flat blade is also useful in crushing garlic. It is an absolute necessity for chopping and slicing. Generally, you want both a 6 and 9 inch chef's knife. Slicing or carving knives come in a variety of lengths, from 8 inch up to massive 16 inch carvers. They have a thinner and narrower blade. Most useful for slicing roasted meats, vegetables your kitchen should contain at least a 10 inch. Utility knives are essentially large paring knives and come in sizes from 6 to 8 inches. A 6 inch is requisite for your knife block. Depending on your baking preferences, I would also suggest a bread knife, whose saw like blade is not only essential in slicing crusty baguettes, but is also useful in slicing delicate tomatoes. You may also consider some of the new Japanese style Santoku knives which combine slicing and chef knife shapes. While not a knife, you should also have sharpening steel, which is used to keep the blade finely honed.
Knives should never be stored loose in a drawer, although there are drawer knife blocks that adequately protect both the blade and your hands. Typically knives are stored in a counter knife block, or on wall mounted magnetic strips. When purchasing a knife block, buy one with additional slots for expansion of your collection. Good knives are not inexpensive, but represent an investment that will literally last a life time. Some of the more popular brands include J.A. Henkels, le Sabatier, Wustoff and Shun. Basic collections, usually including a block can generally be found for under $200.00. Certainly lower quality sets can be found (witness the gourmet set in my rented condo) but typically either their inadequate performance or lack of durability make them a poor choice in the long run.
Volume 2, Issue 18, Posted 10:10 AM, 08.24.06