Saturday, July 20, 2019

My Favorite Knives for Cooking and Meal Prep

I've been asked quite a few times for my opinion on kitchen knives - basically what I like to use and why, so I thought I would put these in a page so I can reference my thoughts without having to repeat myself. As some of my readers know, I was a professional classically trained chef for more than 10 years having started as a pot washer and prep cook, working my way through various production lines and ultimately become a sous-chef at my last place of employment before giving it up and eventually getting into Software Development (I know that sounds strange but you should hear some of the stories from others who end up doing Software Product Management). In any case, the knives you see above are my regular stable - the knives I use in day-to-day cooking (I do 95% of the cooking at home which is why you see the occasion post on food preparation). To understand how I got to the knives above, I need to walk you through the process of how I got there - I'll explain the various knife types as I go and why they are good or bad.

The first kitchen knives I owned were some hand-me-downs and for the most part were pretty bad - they had stainless blades, were hard to sharpen and had slippery varnished wooden handles. Worse, they were quick to dull - part of this was due to a lack of care-knowledge and partly due to the poor quality, especially of materials. When you're younger you just don't know and you tend to take things for granted. At some point, if you start as a lowly prep-cook and start to get on the line you realize that you need your own knives - those provided by a restaurant tend to be for institutional use and are pretty beat up - not that they're all bad. The set below are some of the first I ever purchased - usually there's a knife sharpener who comes around and besides putting an edge on your knives he would also sell blades from the commercial suppliers - that's what these three knives are.

Note the bottom two have plastic, basically indestructible grips that are textured so they don't slip in a sweaty commercial kitchen environment. The top is a chef-knife from The Clyde Cutlery Co - still made in Ohio and popular as a starter blade at many chef schools. The second is a basic Forechner Victorinox-bladed commercial serrated with a Fibrox grip and the bottom is a classic Dexter-Russell Sani-Safe slicer with a no-slip grip. The plastic handle knives in a commercial kitchen are frequently thrown into the Hobart dishwasher for cleaning and are usually beat-up all to crap - that's just the way things are. I recommend that knives are never cleaned this way as over-time it seems to destroy the temper and make them lose their sharpness even quicker. Of these three knives the only one I still occasionally use is the serrated AKA bread knife, especially when there are others helping in the kitchen, as it's still fairly sharp, has 14 inches of blade length and rarely needs sharpening.


Since I mention sharpening let me get into that a bit as it's really more important than the knives themselves - the secret to fast, efficient and enjoyable cooking is to have sharp knives. That's not to say that you HAVE to have a sharp knife - it just makes things better, like ice cream - you don't have to have ice cream on the plate next to your pie, but it sure makes things better.

It's been my experience that in most commercial kitchens the knives are unusually dull - it has more to do with the almost haphazard day-to-day extremes faced by line cooks, as an example, I've used a chef knife to open a gallon can of tomatoes because the can-opener is broken and speed is of the essence - it's that use plus constant dicing/etc that dulls knives. To fix this the better kitchens engage in professional knife sharpening - either they're taken up periodically and taken to a sharpener for a charge (the chefs usually pay the fee - used to be a buck for a knife and 3 dollars for a serrated but I'm sure it's way more now) which means you can only send at most half your knives at a time - it also means you need extra knives as backups which means more sharpening,ext (see where this is going?).

Or you can engage one of the local mobile sharpeners - in Atlanta there was this guy named Geoff Edges (no, really that's his name) who would come around with his van and he would pick up knives, take them outside to sharpen and be back, sometimes for a second pass. Great guy and quite a character and to prove how small the world is, lives in my neighborhood (found this out by accident) and has a shop nearby. Geoff could do some amazing things with knives - for instance, I had an expensive serrated break a took as it took a fall - he dressed it up and sharpened the beast using a narrow band sander - not something everyone carries around.

People in the commercial kitchens that really care about their knives bring them to work every day, either in a wrap or in a tool box (which is what I did). They also keep guard on the blades, not so much to avoid cutting things accidentally, but to avoid dulling or damaging the blades - I still have those as well. But let's get back to the knives.

The next set I got into was during my tenure at Kanpai of Tokyo as a hibachi chef (the technique is actually called Teppanyaki which refers to the flat griddle but Americans are dumb and hibachi, the term popularized by Beni Hana, remains to this day - fyi hibachi actually refers to a small wood-charcoal grill). You basically have two knives during the show in teppanyaki - a paring knife and a chef knife - both need to be well balanced as you spin them over your fingers. They also become really dull, as you can imagine, cutting meats on the stainless steel griddle. I was lucky in that one of the Japanese chefs I trained under (Ura) left me his old chef knife - that's the one on the bottom - so that's what I used when cooking table-side. It's hard to tell but that's an old Japanese made carbon steel knife that's had about half it's blade lost due to sharpening. I love carbon-steel as it sharpens super easily, however it also dulls quickly and rusts. The Seki Yahagiba above it is a more modern high carbon stainless steel knife for cutting sushi and maintains an edge longer and doesn't have to be oiled. I learned to sharpen these on water stones that we kept under the sink - the technique is totally different that what I learned previously.

A bit later I was back in an American kitchen - there was a period back in the 90's when everyone was raving about and had to own a Chinese cleaver - these are broad, thin bladed cleavers that you can really do some miraculous things with (I still have mine - below). The cleaver required some different techniques to get used to - mostly because the grip height if a further distance from the cutting board - difficult for many Americans to learn to use on a commercial counter but there were many benefits - later cooking shows like Yan Can Cook provided some useful tips in their use - for instance using the back of the blade instead of the tip (since it has no point and they're basically the same cut from each edge, why not cut closer to your hand for more control?) example below with similar Clyde chef knife from above to provide some sizing context:

Which brings me to the set I used at my last cooking job at Indigo Coastal Grill. The top knife is my favorite - I think these days they're called Santoku blades (that's the shape) but back in the day we called them hybrid chef-knives. It has many of the qualities of a chef knife with the grip closer to the cutting board, but a wider thin blade so you can still use the techniques garnered from using the Chinese cleaver. The Forschner Victorinox  paring knife was relatively cheap and keeps a good edge so I picked it up too. I ended up with an extra of the Santoku (found it at a flea market of all places, for $8) so have two that I swap out.

This is the set I use day-to-day:

Note that besides the Spiderco Santoku and the Wustof serrated, it's mostly a bunch of paring knives. I use those quite a bit - the "tournee" at the bottom is for cutting round things (like artichoke hearts) - I like having several as it keeps me from having to wash them all the time - I can swap out different knives and put them in the sink and wash them all together.

I also have a bunch of other knives and who doesn't? But for the most part they don't get used. These are all slicers but the scimitars (the curved knives 2nd and third from the bottom) I occasionally use - they're for cutting round things - originally I got those for cutting big fish - if you've ever tried to cut a whole swordfish you'll know what I mean.

As I already wrote, I also like my paring knives. The small serrated (two on the left) are particular useful but can be a bit dangerous to use (since we all tend to get closer to what we're cutting with paring knives, those tiny beast shave off skin like no ones business).
 Various serrated knives
I really don't use these knives at all - I basically just collect them. They're all Case-XX from back-in-the-day. When I was a kid you would go into hardware stores and there was always a Case-XX display, mostly of hunting knives but also these for cooking. They were considered some of the finest made in the US at one time so when I see them cheap I pick them up - nostalgia is a bitch!
 I also find these useful to have - the top is an oyster knife and the bottom is a nice set of kitchen shears - I use those to cut out the spine when I'm spatch-cocking fowl.

 For steels - and yes they are important, I like these two for different reasons - the one on the left is a diamond-impregnated steel and is useful for truly dull knives - they'll put an actual edge on a knife that's past being improved by the steel on the right - which is a traditional magnetized steel. The way a steel works is that it creates a magnetic field on the blade which makes things slide away while cutting (it also smooths out micro-nicks so it improves the straightness of the edge) - for the most part it doesn't really sharpen as that requires removal of material.

So that's about it really. If you're wanting to get into series cooking I would avoid those fancy sets and super expensive knives. They're rarely worth it in my experience. And one other thing, as I've mentioned how you store your knives can have a big impact on their sharpness. I recommend a dedicated drawer in the kitchen for knives only - this will make them much safer (and is good Feng Shui) and it will keep them sharper, longer, but you do also need blade protectors. I also DO NOT recommend those counter top knife blocks - they take up room on the counter and really, how do you clean them? Have you ever shined a light down one of those slits in a wooden knife block? Disgusting!

-- John

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