I could easily have an entire blog about knives alone. A good sharp knife is undoubtedly the most important kitchen tool you can own. Once you have it, getting used to using it is also mission critical. Everything in the kitchen goes faster when you know how to use your knife.
I know so many people who read a recipe and immediately toss it aside if the ingredient list calls for chopping, dicing, mincing, or slicing. They worry it will take them so long to just prep the ingredients, even a quick recipe seems to take forever. This can be true if you don’t use your knives often. But, as with anything, the more you practice the better you will be and the sharper your knife, the more efficiently it will cut things. Do you remember that moment when you started to drive and, after months of really concentrating on every little thing, it became second nature? You realized you could do it without having to think so much. Using a good knife is the same-you will have that moment when you say to yourself, ‘Jodi was so right-this is a piece of cake’.
When you invest in new knives, I believe you only need three-a chef’s knife, a pairing knife, and a serrated knife. Your chef’s knife will do 90% of your work and should last you many, many years, if not a lifetime. Your pairing knife is handy for small jobs and the serrated knife is great for bread and cutting tomatoes. You do not need to buy a 10 piece knife set. These sets usually include a bunch of knives you will never use and the quality of the knives are no where near as good as some of the individual chef’s knives you can buy. A good chef’s knife isn’t cheap. It will run you anywhere from $75 to upwards of $300.
I never recommend a brand of knives to people. Everyone needs something a little different. The blade of a chef’s knife can be 8, 9 or 10 inches long and the handle can be wood, plastic, or metal. The blades are generally steel, but ceramic knives have become popular as well. I highly recommend finding a store that carries lots of knife brands and trying them out to see what feels good in your hand. This is the knife you will use to mince garlic, dice a shallot, slice an onion, and julienne a carrot. It will also slice a steak, cut chicken for a stir fry, peel a pineapple, and dice avocado. In other words, it should perform most of the prep tasks in your kitchen so you need to love it and be comfortable with it.
When you buy your knives, invest in a honing steel as well. If you have a set of knives at home now, this is the steel rod that has probably been collecting dust in your knife block since last Thanksgiving. The steel will hone the blade of you knife, keeping the blade properly aligned so it holds a nice edge. This does not sharpen your knife but, if you use it every day when you are about to start cutting, your knife should not need to be professionally sharpened more than once a year. Some retailers will convince you to buy your own knife sharpener, which I think is a hoax. People get so excited about using these they wear down their knife blade prematurely. Find somewhere to take your knives to get sharpened professionally. In San Francisco, I go to Columbus Cutlery on Columbus and Vallejo-they do an amazing job (and sell a huge variety of knives too).
To find out if your knife is sharp, get a fresh tomato. You should be able to drag your knife across the top and slice into the skin without having to apply any pressure. If it doesn’t cut the skin, try running it on your steel (do this by holding the knife at a 20-degree angle to the steel and run the entire length of the blade down 4-5 times on both sides). If you try the tomato test again and it still doesn’t cut, it’s time to sharpen you knife.
A good sharp knife is worth its weight in gold. Buy one, keep it sharp, practice, practice, practice and you will have made one of the best investments of your life.