Kitchen Focus

A good knife or set of knives is an important kitchen investment and something that can easily last a lifetime or more. Given that, it makes sense to put a little more than a moment's contemplation into what kind of knives to procure and why. What you choose will depend a lot on how you cook and what you like eating. Not every kitchen requires the same kinds of knives. This month, I'll spend a little time talking about choosing the right knives for you, some of the different types of knives and then wrap things up with a fun stir-fry recipe for you to enjoy.

Choosing the Right Knives

There are several things to consider when you are going to purchase knives, such as price, functionality, maintenance, and comfort. When purchasing knives, always purchase the best quality you can afford. Good quality knives will make the task of using them more efficient and they will last much longer than less expensive knives. When choosing knives, consider the tips below to ensure that you purchase the right knife for you.

  • Purchase individual knives rather than selecting a set. Generally, you are better off purchasing fewer knives and selecting those of better quality that will fit your needs better.
  • Before purchasing a knife, be sure to understand its features to ensure it will perform the tasks desired.
  • Be sure to pick up the knife and see how it feels in your hand. It should be comfortable to grasp and it should feel balanced. Be sure it is well weighted. Remember that a heavy knife will require less effort when slicing and chopping.
  • Consider the type of blade and blade edge the knife has and the care and maintenance involved. Some blades will need sharpening more often than others and some will need professional sharpening because of the type of blade edge they have.

Which brings us to an overview of some of the kinds of knives you might consider. This is, by all means, not an exhaustive list. However, these are among some of the more popular options available to the home chef.

Your Knife Guide

  • Boning Knife: A knife with a thin short blade, typically 5 or 6 inches long, used to remove the main bone within a cut of meat, such as a ham or a beef roast. A boning knife will typically have a long narrow blade for ease of manipulation around bones. The blade is rigid and proportioned to the size of the bones being removed. Bigger cuts of meat require a larger more rigid blade that is not too flexible to prevent injury from the blade bending too easily. Smaller meat cuts can be trimmed and boned using a smaller less rigid blade.
  • Chef's Knife: Also called a cook's knife, this knife is an all purpose kitchen knife that is used for most types of chopping, dicing, mincing, and slicing.

    Chef's knives come in various lengths of 6, 8, 10, and 12 inches. The smaller sized knives are typically referred to as mini chef's knives while the longer lengths are known as traditional chef's knives. The heft, weight and balance of this knife allow it to be used for heavy duty work with thicker cuts of vegetables, fruits and meats. The length of the knife you purchase is significant. The longer the knife, the heavier and more difficult it will be to handle. Small handed cooks should choose shorter blades while large handed cooks will prefer longer blades.

  • Cleaver: A knife with a wide rigid blade that is approximately 6 inches in length and tapers to a sharp cutting edge. This tool is used to chop, shred, pound, or crush food ingredients and materials. The blade of the cleaver is thick, somewhat heavy and well balanced with a beveled cutting edge. The beveled blade allows for ease of chopping through vegetables or hard materials, such as bones. The flat blunt side of the blade can be used to pulverize meat. If the handle is flat on the end it may be used to crush seeds, garlic or other similar ingredients. A hole is typically provided on the top end of the blade to allow for ease of hanging this tool when storing.
  • Filet Knife: A knife consisting of a thin flexible blade, typically 6 to 11 inches long, used for filleting fish. The narrow blade enables the knife to cleanly move along the backbones of the fish, in and around areas adjacent to bones, and to evenly slice along the skin, removing it easily from the flesh.
  • Paring Knife: Traditionally, this utensil is a small knife with a straight, sharp blade that is generally three to five inches long. Its thin, narrow blade is tapers to a point at the tip. It is easy to handle and works well for peeling and coring foods or mincing and cutting small items. Working with small bits of food or small ingredients, such as shallots, garlic or fresh herbs, can easily be accomplished with this knife.
  • Santoku Knife: This knife is very similar to a chef's knife with a wide blade that has a long straight edge curving up slightly at the end. The main difference is that the santoku knife has a wider blade that is thinner in thickness, shorter in length, and curves up very gradually at the end providing a straighter cutting edge. Constructed of high-carbon stainless steel, stainless steel, ceramic, or titanium, this knife will typically be expensive to purchase, since it is precision made to be well balanced and well formed for ease of handling and greater control. With a thinner blade than a chef's knife, the santoku can cut smoothly and more precisely through dense vegetables, which may have a tendency to provide more resistance when using thicker width blades.

    Versions of this knife are manufactured with either a standard-edged blade or a hollow ground edge, also known as a granton edge. The purpose of the granton style blade is to assist with keeping particles from sticking to the knife edge as it chops small bits of food as well as a friction reducer to provide less drag when chopping, which enables easier and faster motion. Santoku knives are used for chopping, dicing, and slicing foods into narrow or fine pieces so they can be added as ingredients to enhance the look or flavors of the various foods being prepared. This knife also works well for butterflying boneless chicken breasts, providing a manageability and ease of handling for the cutting required to butterfly poultry.

  • Serrated Knife: A knife with a sharp edge that has saw-like notches or teeth. The blade of a serrated knife is 5 to 10 inches long. Serrated knives are difficult to sharpen; therefore many chefs spend less on a serrated knife and buy new more often.

    A serrated knife with a long blade is used to slice through food that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, such as slicing through the hard crusts of bread. A serrated knife with a short, thin blade is intended for slicing fruits and vegetables.

  • Slicing / Carving Knife: A knife used to cut slices of cooked or smoked meat, poultry and fish. There are many varieties of slicing knives, which vary in blade width, blade length, flexibility, pointed to rounded tips, and type of cutting edge. The construction of the knife depends on its use. Frequently the terms slicing knife and carving knife are used interchangeably, but the carving knife is actually a variety of slicing knife.

And now, before I leave you for the month, let me offer you a great recipe that will have you reaching for your favorite knife. Enjoy!

Eggplant Stir-fry

  • 1 T. fish sauce
  • 2 T. oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cornstarch mixed with 2 Tbsp. water (mix until cornstarch is dissolved)
  • 1 Chinese (large, with dark purple skin) eggplant, or 2 (thinner, with light purple skin) Japanese eggplants
  • 2-3 T. oil for stir-frying
  • 1/2 cooking onion
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-3 red chillies (including seeds), depending on how spicy you like it
  • 1/4 cup water for stir-frying
  • 2 T. soy sauce
  • About 1/2 cup (or more) fresh basil

Prepare the sauce by mixing together the fish sauce, oyster sauce and brown sugar. Prepare the cornstarch and water mixture in a separate cup or bowl. Set both aside.

Chop the eggplant into bite-sized pieces (be sure to leave the peel on - this is where most of the nutrients are).

Place 2-3 tablespoons of oil to a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, half of the garlic, chilli, and eggplant. Reserve the rest of the garlic for later.

Stir-fry for 5 minutes. When the wok or frying pan becomes dry, add a little of the water (a few tablespoons at a time) - enough to keep the ingredients frying nicely.

Add two tablespoons soy sauce and continue stir-frying for 5 more minutes, or until the eggplant is soft and the white flesh is almost translucent. Add a little more water when the pan becomes too dry (up to 1/4 cup).

When the eggplant is soft, add the rest of the garlic plus the sauce. Stir-fry to incorporate.

Add the cornstarch/water mixture. Stir well so that the sauce thickens uniformly (this will only take a minute or so). Remove from the heat.

Taste the eggplant for saltiness. If it's not salty enough, add a little more fish sauce. If it's too salty, add one tablespoon of lime juice.

Add 3/4 of the fresh basil, stirring briefly to incorporate.

Slide the mixture onto a serving platter and sprinkle the rest of the basil over top. Serve with hot rice.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 20 minutes