Knife Skills 101 Part 1 – Selecting the right knives for youPublished on December 14, 2015


  • Photo by: Mark Holleron

  • Photo by: Mark Holleron

  • Photo by: Mark Holleron

  • Photo by: Mark Holleron

“Let the knife do the work”. That’s what I so frequently let people know when they begin using kitchen knives. Whether you spend $50 or $550 on a knife, quality kitchen knives are designed to slice, dice, and mince with ease, provided you know a few key techniques and you take care of them. Proper knife handling and skills are vital components which will make your cooking experience enjoyable, efficient and safe.

Let’s start from the top: Choosing some knives. Different knives are designed for different tasks. If I was stuck on a desert island the following four items would be the ones I would like to have with me:

1.    A 9” or 10” in chef’s knife. This will be your workhorse knife as you chop, slice or dice your way through pretty much any ingredient. I prefer a well-made classic ‘French’ knife, however, there are many options available to you these days. Quite popular now are Japanese knives, many made similarly to a classic chef’s knife. Whichever one you choose I recommend doing some research and purchasing a reputable brand even if it seems to be expensive. I still use the chef’s knife I started with at chefs school, every day, and it still has decades of use ahead of it. At the time I bought it, it seemed to cost a small fortune, but looking back now it was well worth every penny. Make sure it as seamless as possible to avoid areas where dirt and grime can build up. Many knives have molded composite plastic handles which make cleaning easy.

2.    A 3” or 4” paring knife. This one will tackle most other jobs for you. These smaller knives, with thinner more flexible blades are designed for the finer work like coring tomatoes, mincing garlic or trimming mushrooms.  Again, worth doing some research to see what might suit your needs best. As with the Chef’s knife also worth making an investment in quality.

3.    A 9” or 10” serrated knife or bread knife. These knives are a must for most everything else. Designed for slicing breads, however very useful when slicing a variety of foods, like pastry-crusted beef Wellington, a toasted club sandwich, pâté en croute, or many other preparations which would become ‘smushed’ if you were to slice them with a chef’s or paring knife.

4.    A sharpening steel. This is an instrument designed to hone or help keep your knife sharp. It won’t sharpen a dull knife. A dull knife will need to be sharpened on a sharpening stone. A steel will keep your knives sharp provided you hone them pre and post use. These are a few different types, including steel, diamond-coated and ceramic. I’ve been using a $30 one made from steel for almost 25 years and it’s as good as new.

Other knives to consider as you build your set are:

If you plan on working with meats, fish and poultry then I would suggest a boning knife. You can purchase ones with rigid blades or flexible ones. I prefer a rigid blade for most jobs however a flexible blade is better when filleting fish and working with more delicate items.

A decent cleaver is a nice knife to have. You won’t use it too frequently but if you enjoy rack of lamb or ribs from time to time a cleaver is a worthwhile investment. Cleavers are built to chop their way through the toughest of jobs…the last thing you want to happen is that you accidentally chip your $300 chef’s knife on a pesky back rib bone.

If you enjoy a nice Prime Rib, whole roast turkey or slow-roasted Ontario pork loin, then a slicing knife should be on your “knife to have” short list. Slicing knives are designed to evenly carve slices off your roast. They are typically quite long and sharp so watch your fingers!

There are many more types of knives you can outfit your kitchen with. It is easy to spend a small fortune on a set of beautiful knives. Choices include German, Canadian, Japanese, hand-made, machine-made, all steel, ceramic, carbon steel, dimpled blades, composite blades and more. It really boils down to what you feel most comfortable with and what you will be using the knives for. For example, if you plan on very detailed, intricate cutting perhaps a Japanese carbon steel knife is for you, these knives tend to have thinner, more delicately crafted blades than their German steel-bladed cousins. If you’re more the backyard barbeque chef then a more durable knife or set of knives would be in order for you. You get the point. If you are new to buying kitchen knives I recommend going to a reputable kitchen supply store. They will be helpful when it comes to deciding on the right set of blades for you.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about some of the essential knife skills you should learn and practice, as well as how to clean, store and care for your new knives.

Chef Geoffrey Morden (Shaw Centre)

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