Knives are essential to cooking, providing the tool to shape the appearance of food, and usually the first step when cooking. The truth is that whatever knife you have will be adequate until you can find something better, and not having the expensive, fancy tools should never discourage you from cooking. However, finding the right knives and caring for them properly will reduce prep time, and enhance the attractiveness of the end product. A properly sharpened knife also decreases the likelihood of injury in the kitchen.
Knives are a daunting arena, but a home chef doesn’t need all of the tools professional chefs use. Plant-based chefs actually have fewer knife types to worry about, but the knives meant for cutting fruits and vegetables get much more use in our kitchens. Make sure you have a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a serrated bread knife or similar serrated knife. Anything beyond these three depends on personal preference and frequent use.
Serrated or scalloped blades are nearly a requirement for tomatoes, pineapple and bread, anything much harder on the outside than the inside. Tomatoes especially can also be cut successfully by a very sharp, well-cared-for flat blade. Having at least one serrated blade at your disposal is a good idea for most soft fruit.
A Granton edge looks like evenly spaced dimples about a centimeter in from the cutting edge. This knife type was designed for meat, but has been introduced to other knife types to leave room for air and liquids to escape, making the cutting of even fruits and vegetables easier. These are fun to play with, but we haven’t found any significant advantage to these.
The edge of the blade is ground down from the thickness of the rest of the blade, making these knives good for fine tasks like peeling. They are brittle and not recommended for anything hard, and need to be sharpened more frequently. A paring knife is more versatile, and can perform the same tasks.
Straight vs Curved
The straight knives are choppers, good for hard fruits and vegetables, such as squashes and sweet potatoes. The curved, or “chef’s knife,” is best for just about everything else. A properly durable and sharp chef’s knife will also work well on the hard vegetables, however.
There are several good kinds of paring knives to have. The first, most common is a spear point paring knife, which is excellent for most fruit, small vegetables, and hand-peeling.
The second is a stylet, or sheep’s foot paring knife, which is curved on the top and flat along the cutting edge, and good for small tasks like dicing garlic. Depending on your usual uses, this is less of a day to day knife than the normal paring knife.
If you’ve ever been interested in getting into food art, turning apples into swans and watermelons into roses, a bird’s beak paring knife, which curves in from the tip, will help you create your masterpieces.
The best kind of knife can depend on the way an individual cooks, cuts, and cares for their knives.
Ceramic knives are designed to keep their edge without sharpening for a much longer time than the average blade, but are more difficult to sharpen non-professionally once they do wear out, and require a special knife stone with a material harder than the ceramic.
Carbon steel knives are typically expensive, and considered very high quality, but require a fair amount of care, also. Carbon steel, and iron-carbon alloy, can rust if left in moisture. They can take a lot of use and abuse, a favorite for “rough work,” and are common in the world of professional chefs. The recommendation is to sharpen knives biannually for home use, and more frequently if used daily. Dull knives require more pressure to use, and have the potential to be dangerous, in addition to making prep work that much harder.
Stainless steel is a popular material for a lot of cookware because it’s easy to maintain, and very unlikely to corrode. Knives from stainless steel are easier to break and somewhat harder to sharpen than carbon steel, but are less expensive, need to be sharpened less frequently, and are more than adequate for the home chef.
Leafy greens, especially those with difficult stems like swiss chard and some kinds of kale, respond well to serrated knives. Flat knives tend to etch lines into greens without cutting all the way through.
There’s a special kind of knife invented just for watermelon, which looks like a pink and green bread knife without the hollow ground. Unless you eat watermelon twice a day, though, a chef’s knife or bread knife will easily cut through. The tricky part is just that watermelons are larger than the knives we use on them, sometimes leading to uneven cuts.
Hard Squash and Root Vegetables
For vegetables that are hard to cut, a sharp, smooth chef’s knife is the best. A blunted knife will require hacking or extra pressure, and is potentially dangerous.
For anything soft, especially with a tougher hide like tomatoes, use either a serrated knife, or for more precise cuts a sharp paring knife or chef’s knife. Most people, especially home chefs, vastly prefer a serrated knife for tomatoes, figs and similar fruit. If you prefer a non-serrated knife or just don’t have one, lean towards the chef’s knife for larger fruits and veggies, and the paring knife for smaller ones, although this is flexible.
While quite possible to cut with non-serrated knives, a serrated knife slices through more easily without sliding. Onions are actually very easy to cut once you get used to them.
Garlic can be cut with nearly any knife. A pairing knife or chef’s knife will work, but a specialty like the sheep’s foot paring knife or another knife that’s flat along the edge will make it mincing easier. For full slices, like those seen in traditional Chinese broccoli and garlic dishes, use a paring knife.
Now that you have the right knives, try prepping root veggies, and find the Fastest Way to Cook and Prep Inconvenient Vegetables and Fruits.
Image Source: Frank Lindecke/Flickr