Mostly, but not only, about knives, and cutting stuff…
I omitted several fairly essential subjects last time, not least that of knives, arguably the most vital of kitchen tools, of which I mentioned just one.
You don’t need a lot of knives, hell, to be fair you can get by with just 2 (chef’s and bread), but it does make life easier if, where there’s a task-specific knife, you use it. The 8” chefs’ knife, mentioned previously, is a pretty universal tool, one I used to use for almost all veg and meat prep (the Santoku knife, below, has now taken over for veg), slicing cheese, chopping herbs. I have a 4” utility knife, but I can’t tell you the last time I used it. The big knife gets used for everything, from the brutal – portioning a rabbit – to the delicate – de-veining prawns.
Victorinox do a range of knives with lightweight rosewood handles and seriously sharp, light but strong blades – very spoonie-friendly. The chefs’ knife comes in sizes from 7” to 12” but the 8” version that I have will suit most people, £27.59 including VAT, from Nisbetts. It’s a bolsterless knife, which I prefer, having never bought in to the “bolsters add strength and balance” idea – it’s a knife, not a bloody sword, and too short for balance to be anything more than a very minor issue which, for all but the most picky/gullible, can be ignored.
Strength is a non- issue. After all, right behind the bolster the metal immediately thins down into the tang. For me that creates a weak spot, which isn’t there on a blade which is a uniform thickness throughout its length, including the tang. And for those like me who hold the knife partly by the blade – watch Marco Pierre White in his Knorr TV ads; just like that – a bolsterless blade is more comfortable.
And while the chefs’ knife really is a brilliant universal tool, I’ve just bought a Santoku knife. Santoku is short for Santoku Bocho, or “three virtues” in Japanese, and refers to the three kitchen tasks at which it excels – slicing, dicing (for which read chopping), and mincing (as in, for example, the very finely hand-cut beef in steak tartare). The blade is a classic sheeps-foot profile, with an almost flat cutting edge. In addition, the dimples in the blade, typical of western Santoku blades, help prevent whatever you’ve sliced sticking to it. Allegedly. Cheese is very good at that, but the worst thing I’ve found is panceta (the Spanish version of the double-t Italian up-market streaky bacon). My chefs’ knife will slice it as thin as paper, but it sticks to the blade with great enthusiasm – I’m hoping the Santoku knife will eliminate or, at least, minimise it so I don’t have to pause and peel every damn slice off the blade.**
**Note: It won’t – the dimples are a total waste of time, which explains why the Japanese, for the most part, don’t bother with them – still a fantastic knife, though.
Do I actually need it though? My original reaction was to say no, probably not, but I like to treat myself occasionally. However, having used mine, I’ve changed my mind, and would say it’s the third essential knife after chefs’ and bread knives. Actually, in use it initially feels quite strange, with its heavy, stubby blade and flat edge, the action is quite different to using a chefs’ knife. In fact, it feels very like using a Chinese cleaver and, given the Japanese mindset, I suspect the Santoku is simply a more elegant version of that extremely utilitarian tool. Once you get the feel of it, it actually works very well, and prepping the second half of my shallots (see this post), has gone very much faster. Frankly, for making light work of prepping veg, a Santoku knife is probably unbeatable** and that makes it an ideal spoonie tool.
**OK, a pro can use any knife effectively, but we’re not talking about them, but disabled people, for whom, if they can use a knife at all, this style is fantastic.
Genuine Japanese Santoku knives are expensive, upwards of £40, very upwards, in some cases up to 4 or 5 times that, but Nisbetts have the US Chef World German steel** ice-tempered knife – well worth checking out at £16.79 including VAT. The blade has a strangely oily look and feel, though it’s not
**I’d love to be able to tell you what sort of German steel (my Victorinox knife is Solingen steel, and it’s superb), but their website is an information-free zone and a total waste of bandwidth.
I would have liked just one ceramic knife in my collection, because they’re way cool, and keep their edge for a hell of a long time, but there are two downsides for the average spoonie. One is cost – they can be ferociously expensive; and the other is fragility – a tendency to shatter if dropped on a hard surface, like my tiled kitchen floor.**And I drop knives a lot (only half of my right hand actually works – thumb, index and middle finger – 20 years sitting at a computer, using a mouse and, for the past 8 years, a trackball, has damaged the nerves in my hand). Pan lids too, get dropped, which is why I hate the bugger who decided glass was a good material for them! Nearly as stupid as glass pans – which are so off the stupid scale they inhabit a different universe!
**A third downside is that you need a diamond-coated steel to sharpen one.
But enough digression, the last task-specific knife that really is essential, is a bread knife. True, any old knife will cut bread after a fashion, and if you eat sliced bread you won’t need one at all (but please mend your ways ;) ). If, however, you want to peel slice after consistently thin slice from a loaf, you need a proper bread knife (with the right knife, and plenty of practice, you can slice evenly down to about 2mm. OK, you can’t butter bread that thin without very soft butter, but it’s a good test of skill/ great pose value.
I have a truly great bread knife, which I got from Sainsbury’s, for the very un-princely sum of £2.95. It’s a right-handed knife, with a blade that’s gently scalloped on one side, so that presents a flat face to the bread. About 9” long. Avoid serrated bread knives – they generate a lot of crumbs as they tear into the loaf like a rip-saw, and are harder to sharpen; they are ambidextrous, though, probably their sole virtue.
Sadly, Sainsbury’s did that knife only for a very short period about 5 years ago, but that’s the type you need – you’ll just have to pay more. Try this one, Nibnetts again.
Any more cutting stuff? Well, if you eat much fish, a long, flexible filleting knife is a good buy, best bought from a specialist tackle vendor, like Tacklebargains. Mine, which I got there, was a special offer, extremely flexible, extremely sharp, about 7” long, and cost a tad over a fiver complete with leather sheath – absolutely perfect for skinning fillets. Sadly, they don’t have anything at that price right now, but it’s worth keeping an eye on them.
Finally, the last knife-specific cutting task I can think of is boning, definitely not a spoonie-friendly task, but worth mentioning.
Probably not a great demand for it these days – the only time I do it is when boning out a leg of lamb (I like to keep my hand in – I know you can buy boneless joints). I use another fishing knife, this time a shorter and very stiff-bladed filleting knife, but proper boning knives are widely available, and you want one with a straight, rigid blade (leave the flexible and curved blades to the butchers), try Nisbett’s again. You’ll thank me, come the apocalypse, when you’re hunting and dressing-out radioactive feral sheep! ;)
Of course, if you have knives, you need to keep them as sharp as possible. It takes a degree of skill and consistency to use a whetstone effectively, but there are many sharpeners on the market that need minimal skill. I have a Mino Sharp 3, with 3 water-cooled wheels, from coarse to fine, to put an edge on the bluntest of knives (there’s a version with just coarse and medium wheels, and I really don’t see the point). Once sharp, a quick touch-up on the fine wheel before use will maintain the edge at its peak. For blades sharpened on one side only, like the bread knife, there is no substitute for a stone, and also no substitute for practise, keeping the blade at about a 20-degree angle (less if you can do so consistently – the shallower the angle, the sharper the edge), to the stone – use the stone’s corner on scalloped blades – the single skill I brought out of school woodwork classes** was how to put an edge on a blade. A steel needs the same skill level as a stone.
**Wood doesn’t like me – it splits if I look hard at it. I get on really well with metal and mechanisms, though…
Note: A blade gets blunt because the very fine metal of the edge rolls – you can sometimes feel that with a fingernail. Cheap and nasty sharpeners, like the Anysharp, work by stripping off that rolled edge, removing visible amounts of metal from the blade and dramatically shortening the life of the knife. Good ones work by realigning the roll, reshaping and resharpening it, leaving just a smear of metal on the stones, not a little heap of swarf, like the Anysharp.
NB: A new knife will literally be razor-sharp – handle with care. Do NOT test the edge with your thumb unless you want it laid open to the bone! When I got my Victorinox chefs’ knife I gashed my finger on the heel of the blade within seconds – so sharp I didn’t even feel it. Once the blood-bath had stopped, and I’d superglued the cut** I blunted the heel with a whetstone, not easy as the steel is very hard. It remains pretty sharp, but not dangerously so.
**Superglue was originally a surgical glue, devised for gluing broken GIs back together on the battlefield, which is why it glues fingers together so readily.
Other stuff: A stick blender is very useful, if you have a decent grip. Lakeland have some Fleximats about a millimetre thick. Cut a hole in the middle the size of the stem of your stick blender, cut a slit to the nearest edge so you can slip it onto the stem – and it makes a perfect shield, sat on top of a pan, so the blender doesn’t spray you with hot soup. It’ll serve you well for years. The rest of the pack – you get five – are good for protecting a wooden board from contamination by fish, bloody meat, and smelly stuff like garlic.
Personally, I keep wooden chopping boards for bread and/or cheese, high-density polyethylene for everything else, as fish, meat, and some veg will taint and/or stain wood; they’re very easy to clean. The above Fleximats work, but for me are second-best.
If you fancy hand-whisking, then a fine-wire balloon whisk, about 10” long, will get the job done. I find a fine-wire whisk, like this one, more efficient than a heavy one and, of course, easier to use. And I’ve taken the very fine wire, very small, whisk that came with my stick blender, and mounted it on a wooden handle intended for a file, it works like a dream, and is perfect for small pans, or even mugs.
Finally, a flash of inspiration I had when I got my new cooker last year – I bought an oversized frying pan, a 30cm Tefal pan, which makes it much easier to turn food, and makes a big difference to how clean the cooker stays, as it’s almost impossible for oil to splash out when turning stuff.
By the way, has anybody found that the red spot in the centre actually does anything? I haven’t… I know what it’s supposed to do, but I’ve got 4 pans of various sizes, and the spot remains stubbornly inert.