Handling Knives

Handling Knives

Almost any good cook will tell you that a good-quality knife is the single most important tool in the kitchen. There is no reason to buy a lot of knives. Just be sure to stock 3 top quality ones - a chef's knife (for chopping, slicing and dicing), a paring knife (for paring) and a serrated knife (for bread and tomatoes). The chef's knife is the most important.

Men are usually comfortable with an 8" to 10" chef's knife and many women prefer a 6" knife for its lighter weight. Hold the knife in your hand, it should feel comfortable and be easy to grip. The knife that feels good in your hand is the right knife for you.

To get a sturdy blade, look for knives that are fully forged or full-tang, meaning that they are made from a single piece of metal that is beaten, ground into shape and extends from the blade to the back of the handle, where it is usually riveted into place. Avoid stamped knives, cut from sheet metal, because they are not as strong. Also, make sure that the blade is made of high-carbon stainless steel, which keeps its edge longer and won't stain or discolor food.

When sharpening on a stone, place a clean whetstone on a damp towel to prevent slipping. Position the stone and towel near the edge of a sturdy surface. Lubricate the stone with water or mineral oil to help reduce friction, which could eventually harm the blade. Position the wide end of the knife blade against the upper corner of the stone and tilt the blade up at an angle of about 15 degrees. Move the blade toward you in an arc over the stone, beginning with the wide end and ending with the tip, so that the entire length of the blade gets sharpened. It will feel like you are shaving slices off the top of the stone. Repeat 10 to 15 times, keeping an even pressure.

Turn the knife over and repeat with the opposite side of the blade, making an equal number of strokes and keeping an equal amount of pressure. Always sharpen the blade in the same direction to ensure that the edge remains even and properly aligned.

To hone on a steel. A steel does not sharpen a knife, but it hones or aligns the blade between sharpening to keep its cutting edge razor-shape. Find a spot where you have plenty of room to work safely. Grip the steel safely behind the guard with your thumb and forefinger.

Hold the wide end of the blade against the tip of the steel at an angle of about 15 degrees. Draw the blade of the knife down along the steel, curving slightly so that the entire edge touches the steel. Keep the pressure even. Reverse the knife, holding the other side of the blade against the other side of the steel. Draw the blade down in the same direction as before, curving slightly as you go. Use a light touch, stroking evenly and consistently. The knife should make a slight ringing sound as you work. A heavy grinding sound means that you're applying too much pressure. Do five sweeps on each side of the blade. If the blade requires more than five strokes per side, it should be sharpened on a stone.

When cleaning, wash knives in hot, soapy water but never in the dishwasher, which could ruin the blade and the handle (especially if the handle is wooden). Also, avoid dropping knives into a sink full of water, where they can be dulled by other utensils or metal pots and could injure anyone reaching into the sink. Be sure to dry knives thoroughly between cutting tasks and before you store them.

To protect knife blades for storage. If storing knives in a drawer, stock the sharp point of each knife into an old wine cork. The cork helps protect the knife tip and helps prevent the blades from knocking into each other. Alternatively, you can make a homemade sheath from an old cardboard box. Using scissors, cut off a rectangular piece of corrugated cardboard that's just large enough to fit over the knife blade. Starting at a short end of the rectangular piece, use the scissors to snip through the center of the corrugation, creating a pocket for the blade. Stop just short of the other end so that the blade will not poke through. Insert the knife blade into the sheath and store flat in a drawer.

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