The Versatile Chef’s Knife
A home cook’s first cutlery acquisition is often the versatile chef’s knife. A chef’s knife is designed for slicing and dicing, but is strong enough to break down tough meat joints when needed. The two main type of chef’s knives, French and German, differ in their blade shapes, but an eight-inch blade is most common. The size and shape of the chef’s knife is one of personal preference.
It is important to keep your chef’s knife as sharp as possible. Cuts from knives in the kitchen usually are the result of dull knives rather than sharp knives. Sharp knives will cut cleanly and smoothly, while dull knives may catch or require additional force to cut, resulting in accidents.
The first key to having a sharp knife is to have the knife professionally sharpened. If your chef’s knife is newly purchased, you should not need to have it resharpened. A knife that has been used for more than six months can be refreshed by a professional sharpening. Your local kitchen store may provide this service, or be able to recommend a knife sharpener.
In order to maintain the edge on the knife, you should use a honing steel before each use. A honing steel does not sharpen the knife, but straightens the edge of the blade, which slightly bends with use. To use a honing steel hold the knife blade at about a 20 degree angle to the honing steel. The easiest way to approximate the proper angle is to pretend you are trying to “cut” a thin slice off of the steel. Working from the larger end to the tip, move the blade in a smooth arc across the steel. Repeat this 4 or 5 times on each side of the blade, moving in the same direction each time. Caring for the knife in this manner can reduce the need for a professional sharpening to only once-a-year, or less.
Also, choose an appropriate cutting surface. Wood and polyethylene cutting boards are the preferred choices. Hard materials, such as stone, glass and marble, will dull the blade quickly, requiring more frequent sharpening.
Grip the chef’s knife comfortably with your dominant hand. The most common method is to wrap the hand around the grip, with the fingers and thumb at the bottom. For precision work, some chefs will hold the grip by their fingertips or place their first finger and thumb on the heel of the blade. The choice of grip is entirely up to you.
If slicing, do not use a back-and-forth sawing motion; use smooth, long strokes. A sharp knife should be able to make a cut with one smooth motion. When dicing, imagine the tip of the blade is a hinge, and move the blade up and down with short strokes, feeding the food item under the knife with your free hand while making sure your fingers remain safely out of the way. Remember, move the food when dicing, not the knife. If finely mincing, such as with parsley, use the curve of the blade to mince with a rocking motion.
After working with the knife, clean it as soon as possible. Do not put a chef’s knife in the dishwasher, the heat and chemicals may damage or discolor the blade and handle, and the agitation may cause the blade to bang against other utensils, dulling it. Hand wash it, carefully, with warm water and a mild soap. Make sure the blade is completely dry before putting into storage. A wood knife block is the most common storage for a chef’s knife, but an easy option, if you have only a few knives, is to purchase a knife sleeve, a tough plastic sleeve that encloses the knife and allows you to store it in drawers.
Stored properly and used correctly, a chef’s knife is a kitchen workhorse that will give years of solid service. Happy cooking!