Slicing and Dicing

Knives - the sharp end of food preparation

If you are squeamish, I advise you to sit on your hands for this section. A sharp knife is a much less dangerous tool than a blunt one. For starters, you need to use more force to cut with a blunt knife, so if an accident is going to happen, it’s going to happen with a lot more welly. Now, an accident with a sharp knife is far less painful not just because you’re using less force, but also because a sharp knife cuts nerves, whereas a blunt one crushes them. Plus the sharp-knife wound heals more quickly. The only exception to this rule is in cases of amputation, where hospital treatment is advised.

Knives generally fall into two categories: Eastern knives and European ones. At the top end of the forged knife spectrum, as a sweeping observation (and one that won’t stand up to a huge amount of technical scrutiny), Oriental knives are made from very hard steel, and keep their edge for longer, but are more difficult to sharpen at home. Whereas Occidental (not to be confused with Accidental) knives will be made of a softer steel, and will need regular home maintenance. When you’re chosing in the top price ranges – Global versus Wüsthof, for example – the main thing is to chose a knife that feels comfortable in your hand, rather than buying a particular brand (that said, there’s nothing wrong with staying loyal to a brand once you’ve found one you like).

But part of the responsibility of buying any expensive knife is learning about how to look after it properly. The person who sells you the knife should do this as a matter of course, but it doesn’t always happen, so don’t be embarrassed to ask difficult questions - even if it means an email to the manufacturer asking for advice. Good knife makers are always happy to help. And please remember that if something goes wrong with your knife because you didn’t take care of it, any maker’s guarantee will be invalidated.

Looking after a knife includes how you store it, clean it, sharpen it, and even the sorts of things you cut with it, and the type of cutting board you use. I’ll be developing this section of the website in the future, but for the moment I’ve put some cleaning advice in Cookware Care.

Don’t panic! I’m not trying to be alarmist or elitist! There’s nothing wrong with spending small sums of money on knives that are cheaply produced but have a decent edge, and don’t require a user’s manual. There is no point at all buying a cheap knife that hasn’t had an edge put on in the manufacturing process, because it is almost certain you will never be able to put an edge on it yourself.

Brands to consider

For cheerfully affordable, functionally funky, you simply can’t beat Kuhn Rikon’s Colori range. These are actually a Japanese steel, so are pretty hard-wearing but also (conversely) easy to keep sharp at home. These knives are ‘stamped’ rather than forged, which simply means the knife was cut out of a sheet of metal rather than smelted, moulded and beaten into shape (plus all the various hardening and grinding stages). Some of the Colori knives have a nonstick coating, so that starchy or wet foods like potatos, apples and cucumber don’t stick to the blades. This is great for wafer-thin vegetable slicing, and also (so a customer has informed me) cutting up sushi without squashing it flat. Who’d have thought? Color knives also come with a snugly fitting sheath so you can store them safely in a drawer rather than investing in a knife block or magnetic strip.

Moving up the price spectrum we get to Oxo Good Grips (an American brand of ergonomic kitchen tools), Taylor’s Eye Witness (one of the last bastions of Sheffield knife manufacturing) and Scanpan (stylish Danish cookware and utensils). The Cookcraft’s top name in cutting edge is Wüsthof. These are my personal favourites – astonishingly wonderful fully forged German knives. Once you have picked up a Wüsthof knife you will understand what balance and craftsmanship truly is. But be prepared to remortgage your house for a down-payment.

Ceramic knives are becoming more popular, but at the moment they are considered to be ‘in-addition-to’ rather than ‘instead-of’ the essential knives in your kitchen. When buying ceramic, bear in mind that the cheaper ones will be cheaper for a reason – they will be more brittle and possibly not so sharp. They’re also almost impossible to re-grind should they lose their edge. The technology is still relatively young though, so if you’re a knife-fancier, don’t discount them totally.

Buying your knives

Whenever you buy knives, especially on a limited budget, bear in mind what you don’t need. For example, why buy a block set of 6 when when you only use two or three knives in your kitchen? At the Cookcraft we have a ‘two-plus-one’ rule. Most people need two basic knives: a cook’s knife (long and wide) and a paring knife (short and slim). These will cover most functions in most kitchens. Your ‘plus one’ is the knife you or your household would use most frequently – e.g. a sandwich knife if you have a sandwich-eating family, a bread knife if you’re home-bakers, a carving knife if you eat a lot of roasts… and so forth.

I would urge you to visit a shop – any reputable cookshop – to do your knife research. Never buy knives on the internet. If it’s not a reputable company, the knife is very likely a cheap copy. If it is a reputable company, it should know better than to sell knives to people without confirming their age. It is illegal to sell knives to anyone under 18.

Primarily it’s important to buy a knife in person, because knives are by their nature personal. You can’t know if a knife is going to suit you until you have handled it, tested its weight, balance and cutting edge. At the Cookcraft we have a try-before-you-buy policy on knives, and usually have some vegetables to the ready for that very purpose. You are more than welcome to bring your own vegetables if you prefer.

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