Perhaps this post’s title isn’t exactly the sort of thing you want discovered in your browser history, but we’re going to proceed as planned because it’s important. There is literally nothing that will improve your time in the kitchen more than owning good knives and knowing how to use them. I meet people regularly who tell me how tedious they find cooking; I’m willing to bet that they’re using cheap, dull knives. Most of cooking is actually prepping the ingredients, and lousy knives make this task far more laborious than it needs to be.
I used to teach cooking classes at a fancy kitchenware store. While I always loved teaching the classes, I failed miserably at the most important part of the job: selling people silly gadgets and pointless equipment they didn’t really need. The spiralizer and the popcorn maker and the banana slicer and the electric egg poacher and the chocolate fountain seem like necessary additions to your already-crowded countertops, I know. But in order to cook well, you need just a few things: a couple of decent, heavy pots and pans (hopefully a cast-iron skillet!), a good cutting board, and well-made knives that suit you.
Knives come in all sorts of expansive sets, like the one shown above. The average home cook has no need for eight or ten or twelve knives, unless you host posh steak dinners for a crowd on a regular basis. I’d far rather you spend the same amount of money on three really good knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a bread knife. Costly, yes. But knives aren’t an iPhone; they’re not designed to be replaced every six months. If you take good care of them, knives can last a lifetime.
Never buy a knife that you haven’t had the opportunity to hold and cut with. Like tennis rackets or skis or golf clubs, knives come in different sizes and will fit one person better than another. A good knife store will offer demo knives, cutting boards, and fresh herbs or vegetables to cut; make the most of this opportunity and try various knives to see what you like. Knives are broadly grouped into two categories, Western (such as Wusthof and Henckels) and Eastern (such as Shun and Global). The blades and handles are different, and there is no right or wrong choice – just the one that fits you best.
Once you’ve spent a couple hundred dollars on knives, please take good care of your investment. Knives NEVER go in the dishwasher or a sink of soapy water; they should be washed and dried carefully after use. The dishwasher destroys knives faster than anything else, and if knives are left in a sink the water seeps into the handle, plus it’s a huge safety risk.
You want to devote yourself to keeping that edge sharp, so store knives properly in a knife block or on a magnetic strip. Throwing knives in a drawer where they can bang around guarantees that you’ll ruin the blade.
Know the difference between honing and sharpening. A honing steel might have come with your knives; watch a basic YouTube video and learn how to hone. Sharpening, however, should be done by a professional at least once or twice a year, depending on how often you cook. A sharp knife makes kitchen prep enjoyable rather than tedious.
Use quality cutting boards made of wood or polypropylene; NEVER ever use knives directly on glass, marble or granite. Knives shouldn’t be used to hammer, pry or stir ingredients, and your knife isn’t a can opener! Never use the knife in a manner that causes the blade to twist, and don’t cut frozen foods with a straight-edge knife – this is a quick way to ruin the edge.
Learn basic cuts (mince, dice, julienne, chiffonade) and understand why each might be used in a recipe. Cutting foods into similarly-sized pieces means ingredients cook more evenly. Always keep ingredients flat and stable when cutting; if necessary, cut a thin slice from one side of the fruit or vegetable to provide an anchoring surface. Lay a damp kitchen towel under your cutting board to keep it from moving on the counter.
And above all else, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. The only way to improve your knife skills is to practice them as often as possible. Knife skills are more muscle memory than anything else. Buy inexpensive vegetables and make lots of soups, chopped salads and mashed potatoes!
P.S. Want to learn more? If you’re in Denver, come to my hands-on knife skills class on July 25. I’ll guide you through the classic cuts and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice with your own knives and mine too! Details and registration here!