October 08, 2010

Tools of the Trade: Knives

It is sometimes said a cook can only be as good as his or her knives.  I don't personally believe that, as my mother was a pretty darn good cook and she never owned a set of knives that you could classify as even halfway-good.  Still, there's no doubt that a good set of knives makes cooking a lot easier or that good knives give better results.

"More expensive" doesn't always equal "better" when it comes to cooking - Cooks Illustrated's reviewers found that a cheap brand of non-stick skillet rates right up there with the elite All-Clad version that costs something like 10 times as much, and their taste testers have pretty consistently preferred domestic pasta brands you can find in supermarkets ahead of the pricey imported stuff - but from everything I've seen, knives really do seem to be one place where you get what you pay for.  That doesn't mean that the only set of acceptable kitchen knives is to spend a fortune on a set hand-forged by some Japanese master swordsmith, but the fact is, if you want to have a sturdy, reliable set of kitchen knives that holds an edge well and doesn't require ridiculous amounts of maintenance, you're going to have to fork out a little bit of money.

After doing a lot of research and after trying out a lot of brands, Juli and I decided to go with Wusthof knives.  Wusthof produces several lines of products that are consistently ranked quite high or top-of-the-class, and their knives are known for longevity and reliability.   Nothing is foolproof - and really, "fool" is probably among the kindest words one might use to describe a grown man that decides to use a $200 chef's knife to open a can of paint (I've seen the results of such endeavors, and I assure you, they are not pretty) - but assuming one uses them as directed, keeps them sharp and shows a minimal level of common sense, the better Wusthof lines can be expected to stand up to decades of use. 

Wusthof knives, shears, blade, steel and sharpener, Epicurean cutting board

We chose the Wusthof Classic Ikon line.  The Ikon knives get excellent ratings, both overall and within their price range, and I liked the curve and length of the handles - really, they feel perfectly fitted to my hand.  One can purchase this popular line in sets of various sizes, or as individual knives.   Probably the best bet, cost-wise, is to find a set that has most of the knives you think you're likely to use, and few or none you're not likely to use, and then supplement it with a couple individual knives to round out your personal set.  For most people, an 8-piece set is probably a good starting point.  The set we ended up purchasing was identical to this set, save that ours came with the 8-inch carving knife in place of the sandwich knife.  I knew I'd get a lot of use out of everything in there save perhaps the 4 1/2" utility knife, but as it turns out, that one has been among the blades that has gotten the most use, along with the 8" chef's knife and the paring knife.   I'm also quite fond of the Ikon kitchen shears.  They cut through chicken bones with only slightly more difficulty than they cut baking parchment, and the two halves detach, which makes them easy to clean.

So far, the knives we've purchased to supplement this set consist of the Wusthof Classic Ikon Santoku Knife, 5" and the boning knife.  Between those, pretty much everything we need is covered.  The Ikon line has a lot of other knives, including larger and smaller versions of some of the basic knives and a lot of more specialized ones - apparently the tomato knife is wildly popular - but right at the moment, there are really only a few additional purchases we plan to make.  In addition to a set of Ikon steak knives, Wusthof makes a knife called the Super Slicer.  Sort of a combination bread knife and carving knife, this thing is just plain slick.  It slices freshly-cooked meat or poultry and crusty bread as easily as the proverbial "hot knife through butter."  It's not a necessity, since we have both the carving kinfe and the bread knife and both work great, but it's on the  "maybe" list.  A more definite buy will be a meat cleaver.  Unfortunately, the Ikon line doesn't yet include a cleaver, and as far as I can tell, there aren't plans to add one any time soon, so I'll probably go with the Wusthof Classic model.

The Wusthof knives hold an edge well, but since sharpness is a must for cooking knives, it's also good that they are quite easy to sharpen.   I'm told some of the other premium brands, such as JA Henckels, are made of a much harder steel, and that while this might result in them holding an edge slightly longer, it also makes them a lot more difficult to sharpen.  In contrast, the Wusthof Icon line is made of a softer steel, which makes them very easy to sharpen.   When I need to sharpen up one knife in the midst of a project, I tend to just use the sharpening steel that came with the basic set, but every couple weeks (or slightly less, when we've been using them a lot), I run all the knives that have seen much use (other than the bread knife, which is not supposed to be sharpened) through the Wusthof Ikon sharpener I purchased at the same time as the basic knife set.  It's a lot more precise than the steel, but easy to use - a half-dozen strokes of the cutting edge of the blade through each side of the sharpener (one is set with ceramic sharpening stones, the other with diamond rods, both pre-set for the correct sharpening angle) is all it takes to return one of the blades to a perfect edge. 

Along with good knives, a good cutting board is a must.  We've been through a few of them, and for ease of cleaning we bought a glass board awhile back, but at a recent knife class Juli and I attended, we were told that glass boards are really tough on knives, so we don't use it for its original purpose anymore.  We also had to replace a bamboo cutting board bought from Walmart that was warped straight out of the gate because of the heat-sealed plastic it was packaged in.  In their place, we bought two Epicurean 13" x 18" cutting boards.  These pressed wood-fiber boards are durable as heck (I'm told the same company makes, or used to make, skateboard ramps, and uses the same process developed to make sturdy ramps to make the cutting boards), lightweight and stain-resistant, and they clean up more easily than any cutting board I've ever seen.

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