Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Knife Talk

Some tips from butcher Tom Mylan... now posting on the Atlantic Food Channel... on how to use a knife properly... I'll warn you that he has some fairly graphic descriptions embedded in there about the numerous ways he's given himself ghastly injuries with knives... so the squeamish should NOT click through. However, I've pulled out a couple of the tips that I thought were particularly good:
I prefer a cheap, solid, stainless steel knife. Some of the best can be picked up at a kitchenware or restaurant supply shop for well under 40 dollars. Brands that work well at this price are F. Dick, Victorinox, and LamsonSharp. Plastic or wood is a matter of personal preference, but I pay the premium for a wood handle and then promptly scrub the finish off the wood. Why, you might ask? Simple: fat. I will sometimes spend a solid hour breaking down carcasses, and, after a while, that animal fat renders a knife with a plastic handle as slippery as a live eel. Wood, on the other hand, absorbs the fat, ensuring that the all-important grip is maintained. More on this later when we get to the "ways to horribly wound yourself" section.
Victorinox is a favorite of Cook's Illustrated as well, and we have a chef's knife and santoku from them that have served us quite well. I'd certainly recommend them to anybody looking for a good and reasonably priced knife. While I have splurged on expensive Japanese knives recently, and don't think Victorinox knives hold an edge nearly as well as they do, it's hard to argue that there is a real need to spend over $100 on a knife. Just like how a expensive pan isn't going to make your food taste any better, a powdered alloy knife isn't going to make your mincing any more uniform.

His insight about fat and plastic handles is pretty interesting... and certainly true... but a home cook isn't probably going to have that much of an issue with it since we're not breaking down carcasses bigger than a chicken or turkey. Just go and wash your hands if they feel slippery.
If your knife is made of the tough and cheap type of stainless steel you will never get it as sharp as the guy at your local housewares shop. High-end Japanese and carbon steel can be made especially deadly, but you have to know what you're doing. Keep your eyes on the prize: keeping it sharp, which brings us to the matter of the sharpening steel.

Learning to use a steel properly is far more important than spending the better part of a night laboring over the whetstone. There are as many YouTube videos and online guides to using a steel as there are stars in the sky, but the key is to do it lightly. By using a steel, you're attempting to realign a few molecules of steel back into a cutting edge; heavy pressure will only lead to a truly dull blade.
I actually did get a whetstone for Christmas, but agree it's for hobbyist purposes, and not to save the $10 or whatever it is to send out knives to get them professionally done. I will say that there does seem to be some variance in quality of these guys, so check around (Chowhound is good for this kind of info)... I thought the people here in Cambridge we sent them our knives out to last time took off more metal than they really needed to, but the people Anna used in Maine did an extraordinary job (for almost nothing). While I have yet to get up the courage to put my knives to the new whetstone, it seems to me he's overstating the labor involved... but, regardless, there certainly is no reason to do it yourself unless you really want to.

The honing steel, though, is definitely key. I've noticed a real difference since I picked one up to use on my Shun knives... honing every few times I cook has made a huge difference in keeping an edge.