As food writers and restaurant consultants, my wife and I are often asked what our most essential kitchen tools are. Hers is a long list, starting with copper pots and running through candy thermometers, the Philips mixer grinder, and a handy label printer. My list runs a lot shorter: it starts first and foremost with a great set of knives.
But how many, and of what sort and quality do you need? It depends on how often you cook. If, like us, you’re pretty serious about showing off your inner Nigella, Jamie, or Wan for our Malaysian friends, you’ll want to have a few high-quality knives in your kitchen.
Start with a good chef’s knife, with a blade measuring seven to nine inches. You’ll also want a paring knife for more intricate work. Ever tried creating fine cuts on something small using a large blade? That’s just a sure recipe for cutting mishaps. I have three paring knives in slightly different sizes, but you really just need one.
I also strongly believe in owning a thin cleaver – the kind used for slicing up vegetables, not for carving up whole beasts. This can be substituted with a Santoku knife, a Japanese-style blade that came about in the post World War II era as a result of combining Japanese cleavers and Western-style kitchen knives.
A lot of chefs and other food writers will say that a serrated bread knife is a must-have. For me, it’s a good-to-have, but not an essential – although my wife, who is the baker of the family, might be inclined to disagree. If you wanted to splurge on another blade, I’d go with a great carving set, but that’s because I cook a lot of meat and like having a set of tools dedicated to slicing up my roasts.
Pick a reputable brand or respected independent knifemaker to buy from. Test how the knife feels in your hand. If you cook a lot, you’d want knives that you’ll enjoy using. One of my most prized possessions is a ridiculously expensive, custom Bob Kramer 8-inch chef’s knife. While I love it, my wife finds the grip uncomfortable and is far happier using a lighter knife with a slimmer handle.
No matter how good your knives are or how many you own, you’ll need to keep them sharp. A dull blade will just frustrate you, or worse, cause some rather frightening accidents. Cooking should be fun and relaxing, not lead to last-minute trips to the ER!
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