Monday, April 21, 2008

Blades of Glory (Part I)

Our topic du jour in this installment of How's it Taste is knives. Ask any cook, professional or otherwise, and they'll tell you that the single most important item in the kitchen is a good quality knife. Ok, I just made that up. I actually have no idea what they'd tell you. I certainly wouldn't tell you that. I mean, a good knife is important, to be sure, but what good is the best knife in the world without a cutting board to go with it? Your "blade of glory" would get dull in no time flat, and then where would you be, Mr. Smartypants? And what about some good pots and pans to put the food in once it's ready to cook? Or a stove to cook it on? Or, or, or...? Uh, anyway, I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that while there really is no MVP in the kitchen, a really good knife is important. Very important. You really don't want to skimp on quality here. But have you checked out the knife section of your local Bed Bath & Beyond lately? The choices are almost overwhelming. How are you supposed to know what to buy? You could do a little online research. But be careful- there's a ton of information out there; some good, some bad, a lot of it conflicting. So I've done my own bit of research and I'm going to offer my-2-cents-worth here, and hopefully clear some things up a bit. More likely, I'll just add to the confusion, but whatever. Going to give it a shot anyway.

The first thing I want to look at is the ever-popular Knife Block Set.

Don't get one.

Seriously, do not waste your time or money on buying one of these things. They're popular because they're relatively cheap- if you were to buy each item individually it would cost a lot more than the entire set at once. So it seems like you're getting a good deal. In reality, though, it's like that old Andy Griffith episode where Aunt Bee went out and bought a freezer's worth of food that neither she nor anyone else would eat, just because it was so cheap. The key selling point here is "if you were to buy each item individually..." But you wouldn't buy each item individually because most of them you really don't need. And even if you did buy each one separately, you wouldn't need to get all of them from the same brand name. Let's take the
OXO Good Grips Professional 14-Piece Knife Block Set for example, found on Amazon for about $80.


8-inch chef knife
8-inch slicer
3-1/2-inch parer
5-inch utility
4-inch Santoku
8-inch bread
sharpening tool
6 steak knives
wood block

For starters, you should avoid those wooden knife storage blocks anyway because, while convenient, they're very unsanitary. Sure, you clean the knife before you put it in the block, but that doesn't mean dust and dirt and germs can't get in those little slots anyway. Just how are you supposed to clean inside of them? There are better, cleaner ways to store your knives- magnetic knife racks, knife sheaths, or even just in a large plastic container (like an open silverware tray) in a separate drawer, away from curious kids' hands.

Now let's look at the knives. Man, where do I start? In this set you have six distinct knives, plus six steak knives. Would you seriously need to buy all of these, separate or otherwise? Let's set aside the steak knives for a minute; I've worked in commercial kitchens for 7 or 8 years now, and 99% of the time the only two knives we've ever needed were a chef knife and a bread knife. Granted, commercial and home kitchens have different needs, so let's look a little more closely, starting with the top of the list.

8-inch chef knife. You do need one of these. For some people, like me, this is probably the only knife we'll ever need. Count this one in.

8-inch slicer. What exactly are you going to be slicing that you can't slice with an 8-inch chef knife? Count this one out.

3-1/2-inch parer. Do you make a lot of apple pies? If so, do you peel the apples? If you answered "yes" to both you can probably say "yes" to this knife, but- do you really need to pay more for an Oxo Good Grips 3-1/2-inch parer? Probably not. You can probably find something decent at the dollar store.

5-inch utility. What, exactly, are you going to be cutting, chopping, dicing, de-boning, etc., that you can't cut, chop, dice, de-bone, etc., with an 8-inch chef knife? Unnecessary. You can safely count this one out.

4-inch Santoku. This one is doubly useless. I honestly don't see why Santoku knives are so darn popular. I tried one once- hated it. The only good reason I can think of for their popularity is the hollow-ground edge, but guess what? They make hollow-ground chef knives too. You need a good curve on the edge to be able to rock the blade. Generally, the edge of a Santoku blade is too flat to do any real dicing or chopping (Oxo's isn't bad, but 4-inches? That's a toy, not a knife). Santokus are better for top-to-bottom slicing. But I don't want to slice. I want to rock. Can you imagine if Dee and the boys had sung "I wanna slice", instead of "I wanna rock"? I can't either. Y'know why? Because it's unimaginable, that's why. And so is using a 4-inch Santoku.

8-inch bread knife. Surely you need one of these, right? I mean, didn't I say myself we use them in commercial kitchens too? I guess I did say that. But- the main reason commercial kitchens use bread knives at all is because they generally use the absolute cheapest quality knives they can find- you can easily cut bread, even the crusty baguette kind, with a good, sharp chef knife. But restaurants don't often use good, sharp chef knives, so they need bread knives to help out. But do you, in your home kitchen, really need a bread knife? Do they even make bread that's not pre-sliced anymore? I'm pretty sure it comes that way, straight out of the oven, nowadays. Ok, so maybe you go for the good stuff, the artisan kind. Or maybe you're a rebel and make your own. Again, do you really need a bread knife? Wouldn't you rather get all primal and just tear it apart with your teeth?


Or you could do like Jesus and the disciples and break that shit.
Ok, so the bread knife is a possibility. But even if you do decide to "buy it separately", you probably don't need to go for same quality as for your chef knife. Again, dollar store to the rescue.

Sharpening tool. Ok, just to clarify, it's actually a honing steel. Or honing tool, if you get the ceramic kind. They don't actually sharpen knives, they just realign the edge. You do need one of these. But not one from the dollar store. Mainly, though, because those are too short. You want one that's at least 12 inches long. (12 inches referring to the length of the steel, not the total length.) Oxo has one on Amazon for $15. It says the overall length is 18 inches, so I'm guessing the steel is actually 12, with 6 for the handle. Check out this 5 1/2 minute youtube clip with Alton Brown that covers the basics of sharpening and honing. Just don't believe his lies about the best knife being the one that's the most comfortable in your hand. Normally he's pretty right on, but he really missed the mark on this one. You do want a comfortable handle, but you also want quality steel. And you can have both, for a reasonable price. (I think it's worth noting that he happens to use and recommend Shun knives on his show. I'm sure the handles are comfortable, but I've seen others that I think are more comfortable and cost less. And since Food Network never showcases brand names, what do you want to bet that he also didn't pay for his Shun knives?) When I hone a knife, I do it the way they show here, rather than the way they show in the video. I'm just a little nervous about sliding a knife towards my hand, slowly or not. (Oh, and you can sharpen knives yourself at home, despite what he says.)

Lastly we have the 6 steak knives. And again, you don't need to buy the best quality when it comes to steak knives. The dollar store may be a little too cheap in this case, but you can get a decent set for not a lot at your local department store. So what are we left with that you will actually need?

8-in. chef knife -- $??
Honing tool -- $15
Storage tray --$1
Set of steak knives -- $10

Bread knife -- $1
Paring knife -- $1

Minus the chef knife, you can get everything you really need (plus a couple extra you probably don't) for $28, leaving you about $50 for your chef knife. Even Oxo only charges $20 for theirs. So by not buying them in the block set you not only save money, but end up with more counter space and less clutter in your kitchen. The price difference is even more pronounced if you decide to go with a higher end knife set like this $350 18-piece "gourmet" knife set by Wusthof. Separately, their chef knife goes for about $100. So $128 instead of $350. (And c'mon, do you really need a separate knife for your sandwiches? And tomatoes? Hey, at least their Santoku is 6-1/2 inches. Incidentally, I've seen some sets that include a "boning" knife. Now when was the last time you found yourself saying, "Dang, now where did I put that boning knife of mine?").

Oh, remember when I said you should avoid those wooden knife blocks altogether? This one might be an exception worth making.

Coming up in Part II I'll have my thoughts on chef knives, as well as some useful links on knives and knife sharpening.


Backpacking Dad said...

I use all of my knives.

But I do it out of guilt. I made my wife by me a Wusthof set for Father's Day a couple of years ago :}

jb said...

At least it's a good set!

(And you do use them all...)

My main beef with the sets is that so many of them contain knives that most people don't even need and will never use. I'd rather save the money for the one or two I actually will use.

MadWomanMeg said...

Who would have thought so much could be written about knives. And yet I learned so much. I am now officially saving for some GOOD knives. Thank you.

jb said...

Oh and there's more to come! I was just getting ready to start on the second half today. Possibly I won't finish it today, but if not, it'll be up soon. (It's not that it's long, I just get sidetracked easily.)

Thanks for stopping by! : )