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The Cutting edge - How to pick a chef Knife

After reading that local chefs Rita Calvert and Ken Upton described a good knife as their most treasured kitchen tool, several of my friends and neighbors asked me if knives are truly important. My answer is a definitive yes.

Almost every recipe in a cook's repertoire involves cutting of some type, making a knife the most frequently used tool in the kitchen. To be effective, a cook should have quality, reliable tools, especially when it comes to knives, which are inherently risky if uncomfortable to use, dull or inefficient. Professional knives, which by their manufacture and design are sharp and well balanced, do just one thing very well: They cut.

Of course, having a knife and using it well are two different things. Being able to handle a knife effectively can be the determining factor in the taste, texture and presentation of a dish. Here is a very brief primer on how knives are made, how to buy a knife and how to use it.

What makes a good knife?

Kerry Smith, owner of A Cook's Revenge on Main Street in downtown Annapolis, provided an insightful refresher course on knives. He reminded me that you don't have to spend a lot of money to get a good knife. The veritable scimitars you may see wielded by chefs on television are jokes to many restaurant and food service chefs. These brilliant cooks who actually use knives every day, all day, frequently rely on off-brand knives (found at restaurant supply stores) that are as comfortable, sharp and reliable as some of the fancier varieties you may see for hundreds of dollars at the mall.

Of course, after toiling in the dregs of a hot kitchen all day, professional chefs do like to retreat to the luxurious solitude of their home kitchens, where the tools are their own, individually chosen with love. According to Mr. Smith, this affection for enduring quality will cost in the range of $50 to $150, with more expensive models being sheer luxury.

Much of the cost of a knife is determined by its manufacture, including composition and design. The design of a knife directly affects its balance, sharpness and longevity. Stamped blades are cut from a thin ribbon of steel using a template, much like a cookie cutter. The blades are tempered, sharpened and finished, usually by machine. The blade of a stamped knife is fitted into its handle, so the knife is not considered one fluid and integral piece. While usually thinner and lighter, the design of stamped knives requires a firmer grip and more pressure when chopping, mincing and dicing. They are usually priced lower than forged cutlery.

Forged knives offer the top of the line in quality. During production, a steel bar is heated to a very high temperature, set into a die and hammered to form a blade. It is then crafted by hand through tempering, sharpening and finishing, sometimes in up to 50 separate steps. Forged knives will always include a bolster and a tang. Knives that are "fully forged" are formed from one piece of metal and produce the strongest and sharpest blade.

Mr. Smith noted that while the design of the knife is important, you should also consider the composition of the blade specifically.

Carbon steel blades are an alloy of carbon and iron. They sharpen easily, but are prone to corrosion and discoloration.

Stainless steel blades won't rust or corrode, but are more difficult to sharpen. Once properly sharpened, however, stainless does hold a good edge.

A high carbon stainless steel blade is an alloy combining the best of both worlds: It doesn't discolor or corrode, sharpens easily and holds an edge.

Ceramic knives came on the scene about 10 years ago, and are prized for their sharpness and precision. They are 10 times sharper than steel with no surface tension. They aren't cheap, however, and given their brittle nature, they may break and chip more easily than a carbon stainless blade.

Mr. Smith highlighted the five most important factors to consider when purchasing a professional knife:

The knife should be comfortable to hold: It should feel substantial but not too heavy, which can lead to fatigue and strain. It should be well balanced in your hand with ease of cutting motion.

It should have a full tang (see diagram at left), (as opposed to a 3/4 or "rattail" tang), which provides optimal support, strength and balance.

The bolster should be integrated into the blade, not as a separate collar, so that it can provide adequate protection to fingers and knuckles.

The handle should be made of moisture-proof polypropylene or stainless steel with a smooth finish. Gaps or seams in the handle or between the parts of the knife will cause deterioration and can also harbor harmful bacteria.

A good knife will be durable: It should last for years with proper maintenance and regular sharpening.

When you prepare to purchase a good knife, hold it in each hand to consider its weight, balance and comfort. Ask the salesperson to try the knife; it should cut through office paper without pressure or resistance.

Mr. Smith doesn't advocate purchasing knife block sets sold by mass retailers. According to him, these sets contain many knives you don't need and may never use due to lack of comfort or knowledge. Instead, focus on purchasing just two good knives: a French or chef's knife and a paring knife. A serrated slicer makes cutting bread or tomatoes easier, but isn't necessary if you have a good, sharp chef's knife. Ditto with a boning knife.

Knife safety

Knives should come with one of those universal disclaimers stating the obvious: Improper use can lead to serious injury. Holding the knife correctly is vital for safe and efficient cutting.

When researching this article I turned to Chef John Toohey of Whole Foods Market for advice on knife skills. Mr. Toohey graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, where a stray cut could lead to an apoplectic professor, much less a failed class. He reminded me that when taking the rigorous Master Chef exam, many applicants have been rejected based on their knife skills alone.

Mr. Toohey teaches two ways to hold a knife, whether by the tang or the blade. Test which method feels comfortable to you using a back-and-forth or up-and-down motion. When cutting, always hold the knife with your dominant hand, using the fingertips of your opposite hand to hold the object you are cutting. Curl your fingers inward toward your palm with your thumb well away from the blade, using your knuckles as a guide for the knife. When held properly, the blade will rest lightly against your knuckles, ensuring a consistent cut and intact, whole fingertips.

Making the cut

Once you know how to hold your knife, it's time to practice cutting skills. Chef Rita Calvert has mentioned to me many times that practicing her knife skills is a mentally and spiritually therapeutic exercise. She relishes an opportunity to appreciate the rhythm of her work and the beauty of the food, and so should you.

Good knife skills are important, largely because the size, shape and consistency of cut foods determine cooking time, and thereby the taste, texture and even presentation of a dish. Imagine how chopped shallots taste, look and feel differently than minced. Or how chunks of vegetables floating in a silky soup would perhaps be better as a small dice. There are numerous basic knife cuts, too many to mention here, so Mr. Toohey identified the most important:

A mince is a very fine, even cut appropriate for herbs, garlic and shallots. Use it when you want the object to be physically minimized in the dish.

Julienne and battonet are long, rectangular cuts of even length and width. Julienne produces thin strips appropriate for garnish (crudites) or frying (french fries). Battonet can be used similarly, but produces a thicker cut. To julienne vegetables of an uneven shape, such as carrots, trim the vegetable so that the sides are straight, which will make future cuts much easier. Slice the vegetable lengthwise, then stack the slices, align the edges, and make parallel cuts of the same thickness through the stack.

A dice is a cube-shaped cut used in making everything from croutons to soup and salads. It is perhaps the most familiar, although most frequently poorly executed shape. Dice an onion too big and you may have salsa rather than dip; slice it too small and you may have charred bits rather than savory silkiness.

There are four basic sizes of dice. To master the cut, properly julienne the fruit or vegetable, then cut crosswise at evenly spaced intervals to make a cube. Brunoise is a very small dice, precisely 1/8 inch on each side. Small dice is a bit larger at 1/4 inch, while medium dice is 1/3 inch and large dice is 3/4 inch.

A chiffonade cut produces long, thin ribbons of leafy vegetables or herbs and is frequently used for garnish. To chiffonade basil leaves, stack the leaves on top of each other, then make fine parallel cuts across the leaves to produce fine shreds.

Practice makes perfect

Now that you have a good knife, know how to hold it and have memorized shapes and sizes of cuts, it's time to get to work. These recipes should help you practice your knife skills, use some of those vegetables you purchased over the weekend at the market, and encourage some culinary meditation.


For pesto vinaigrette:

3/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted golden
1 1/2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
For ratatouille:

1 long narrow Japanese eggplant
1 small zucchini
1 small yellow squash
1 small red bell pepper
1 small green bell pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red onion, chopped fine
1 medium vine-ripened tomato, seeded and pureed (about 1/2 cup)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
12 ounces soft mild goat cheese at room temperature
8 ounces mesclun (mixed baby greens)
To make vinaigrette: In a blender or small food processor, blend all vinaigrette ingredients with salt and pepper to taste until smooth. Vinaigrette may be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring vinaigrette to room temperature before using on salads.

To make ratatouille: Cut eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and bell peppers into 1/4-inch dice. In a large, heavy skillet, cook eggplant in 1 tablespoon oil over moderate heat, stirring until tender, then transfer to a bowl. In skillet cook zucchini, yellow squash and onion with salt and pepper to taste in 1 tablespoon oil over moderate heat, stirring, until crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer to bowl. Cook bell peppers in remaining teaspoon oil in same manner and transfer to bowl. Stir in tomato puree, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper to taste and cool ratatouille completely.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and cut a large sheet of parchment paper into eight 5- to 6- inch squares.

On a work surface, put a 3-inch metal pastry ring (at least 11/2 inches high) or other mold in middle of 1 parchment square and fill it with 1/3 cup ratatouille, pressing evenly and tightly into bottom of your mold. Cut goat cheese into 8 equal pieces and flatten each piece to form a 3-inch disk. Top ratatouille in ring with goat cheese disk, pressing lightly at edges to cover ratatouille completely.

Transfer round on parchment square to a large baking sheet and remove ring. Make 7 more rounds in same manner with remaining parchment squares, ratatouille and goat cheese. Bake rounds in middle of oven 8 to 10 minutes, or until heated through.

While rounds are baking, toss mesclun with 1/4 cup vinaigrette in a large bowl and divide among 8 plates.

Use a spatula to transfer a ratatouille round to center of each salad. Drizzle each salad with about 1 teaspoon vinaigrette and garnish with halved red and yellow cherry tomatoes.

From "The New Professional Chef, 5th edition" by The Culinary Institute of America

2 yellow squash, cut in long julienne
2 zucchini, cut in long julienne
2 leeks, cut in long julienne
Whole butter, as needed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, basil, cilantro and oregano, minced
Toss the yellow squash, zucchini and leeks together to mix evenly.

Heat the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the julienned vegetables and saute, tossing frequently, until heated through and tender.

Season the vegetables with the salt and pepper and add the chopped herbs.

From "Cocina de la Familia" by Marilyn Tausend

1 medium ripe tomato, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced white onion
1 fresh jalapeno chili, seeded and finely chopped
3 very ripe avocados
1/4 lightly packed, finely minced cilantro leaves
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Place the tomato, onion and chile in a molcajete or bowl and mash a bit, but leave it chunky. Halve the avocados lengthwise, remove the seed and scoop or squeeze all the flesh into the tomato mixture. Mix together with the cilantro, lime juice, olive oil and salt to taste. Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs and serve immediately

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