One definition of aichmomania is an obsession with knives. I don’t mean to start this post on an uneasy note but I must confess to you all that I think I have a slightly unhealthy preoccupation with the sharpness of my knives.
I love my knives: they are one of the most essential and used items in my kitchen. I cannot emphasise enough how important I believe good knives are in making your cooking easier and better. I am always aghast when people argue that knives that are too sharp are dangerous. The opposite is actually true: you are far more likely to slip and cut yourself with a blunt knife than a sharp one, as blunt knives have a nasty habit of not moving cleanly through an object- the knife is not cutting so you press the blade in, the blade is not sharp enough to sink into the object and so the blade slips to the side and very probably into your hand. If a knife is sharp it will move exactly where you want it to.
I have acquired twelve knives over the years of, what I would call, a professional standard. I have others that I am fond of, but should really get rid of. In reality, if you are just starting out into the world of expensive knives, you only really need two, with the addition of one more if you are feeling flush.
The first on the left in the picture above is a peeling knife. This is a knife with a small blade and handle. It has a myriad of uses, mostly fiddly jobs such as shaping things and peeling onions or garlic cloves.
The second is a 21cm cook’s knife, which also doubles up as a carving knife. This is the most important knife you will own. Many cook’s knives have a slightly fatter blade, but this is the one I like to use more. It is this knife which you will use the most and so is therefore the most important to get right in terms of how it feels in your hand when you are buying it. This is the knife you will use for chopping, dicing, slicing and cubing; it will become an extension of your hand. When I first starting using this size knife, it felt too big and unwieldy in my hand, but I urge you to persist, as it really is the right tool for the job and will make your kitchen prep much easier and faster as you get used to it.
The third is a bread knife, less necessary than the other two, but makes more difference than you would believe in slicing bread or anything which needs a serrated edge.
My good knives are all by Global. They are made with Japanese stainless steel, have a seamless handle and have just the right amount of sand in each handle so that they are perfectly balanced. They also have all their blades cut on a steep, acute angle, which makes them incredibly sharp. For me, they are the best knives because of the way they feel in my hand. When you buy your knives, make sure you hold each one for a while, noting the weight and the feel of the handle; you will be investing a lot of money and it’s important to make the correct choice. A cook’s knife should feel substantial, but not too heavy. The handle should mould comfortably into your hand so it feels like it will work as an extension of you. Other good brands are Henckles and Wusthof.
I think you should keep your knives on a magnetic rail rather than a knife block. By using a knife block, every time you put a knife into it and pull it out, you are rubbing the blade on the wood and slowly blunting it.
Never put these kind of knives in the dishwasher; as boring as it sounds, you must get in the habit of washing them by hand, drying them thoroughly and then, ideally, sharpening them before you put them away. This small routine will keep your knives in the best condition and reassure you that they are money well spent! Keeping your knives sharp is so important. At home, us non-professionals can only do a limited job, so once in a while take your knives to be sharpened professionally. Cookshops and even your local butcher are a good place to start.
How to hold your knife? Tomes have been written in this subject- I won’t write one here, as it is something you have to come round to and feel comfortable with. The main points are to hold your knife as though you are shaking hands with it.
Curve your hand around the base of the knife and hold firmly but not too tight. Pinch the blade just in front if the handle with your thumb and forefinger. Then wrap your other three fingers round the handle. This is called a pinch grip. It’s probable that you have spent a lot of time holding your kitchen knife in the same easy as your table knife, ie with your index finger pointing down the top if the blade. This, along with a blunt knife, is what will make you cut yourself as, when you hold a knife like this, your grip is not firm. If you press down with your finger on top of the blade, you will feel it wobble underneath. If you grip it with a firm handshake, it will always feel stable and therefore under your control.
Cutting should more often than not be in a rocking motion, rather than a straight up and down motion. Make sure you always tuck your fingertips underneath, resting the knife edge along your knuckles rather than your fingertips.
There is more to say about knife skills than I have space or knowledge for. The best knife skills book I have come across is Knife Skills Illustrated by Peter Hertzmann. I recommend it as it’s very straightforward and the illustrations are fantastic and informative.
If you do decide it’s time to learn how to use knives properly, be kind to yourself. These are skills which take years to develop- that said, it is amazingly satisfying how quickly you can start to feel like a professional, just by holding your knife properly. Just don’t expect to julienne a carrot in 30 seconds straightaway!