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Two Good Knives

July 1, 2010

I’ve got a lot of knives.  In fact there is a bundle of knives that I still haven’t unpacked from the last move sitting on a high shelf in the garage.  They have been there for two years, and they are completely unmissed.  Mostly because even without them, my knife blocks are completely full.

I’ve got chef knives, boning knives, paring knives, bread knives, utility knives, steak knives and cleavers.  I have forged knives, stamped knives, and even some cheap, flimsy serrated Walmart knives to abuse and throw in the dishwasher.

Some of these knives were bought new, and others have seen generations of use across continents.  Still others were once used in the service of the butchers in Mrs. Fussy’s family.

But the truth is that you only really need two good knives.

Which two knives are right for you is not for me to say.  It can’t be done.  Everyone has different hands.  Everyone has a different comfort level with blades of a certain size.  Everyone will have different preferences as to whether they prefer a heavier or lighter tool in their hands.

But you do need two.

The first knife you need is a large knife with a broad blade.  The second knife you need is something a good bit smaller and thinner for more delicate tasks.

A long long time ago I remember going knife shopping with my friend BRAFAL.  He was going to buy a good knife and he went to a great store to find just the one that was right for him.  The store was Sur La Table.  Not only was the staff incredibly well versed in the differences in each of the knives, but they were equipped with demonstration models and plenty of food available for cutting.

So BRAFAL was able to spend the better part of an hour slicing potatoes and onions as he tried out different sized handles and blades of different weights.  Ultimately he found the one that was the most comfortable for him to wield.  If memory serves, he liked the lighter Japanese-style knives.

The big knife is the one you will use the most.  It is suited for doing big things, like cutting through a standing rib roast.  But it is also suited for doing small everyday tasks like chopping garlic or dicing onions.  While it may seem odd to use such a large tool on something as small as a clove of garlic, there is no better way.  The wide blade is ideal of crushing the garlic, which causes it to slip from its papery skin.  And after a few passes under the blade, you’ve got some beautiful garlic ready to go.

The more you use your knife the better your knife skills will become.  If you are interested in cooking quickly, there is nothing more important than honing your knife skills.  Mine are adequate.  But it is something I would love to work on more.  Just be patient.  Like learning anything new, this takes time to master.

Don’t expect to do it like they do on TV your first time out of the gate.  With a little practice you will be faster and more precise with your big knife than a food processor tackling a similar task.  For example, even if I am making a mega batch of coleslaw, I’ll use my chef’s knife or cleaver to shred the cabbage.  If you consider set-up and clean-up time, doing this task by hand takes less time than using the Cuisinart.

Just remember to keep your knives sharp.  There is nothing more dangerous than a dull blade.  Sharp blades go where you want them to go and effortlessly slice through most foods.  As long as you aren’t doing anything stupid (like putting your fingers underneath the blade) you’ll be fine.  Dull blades can slip and they require you to apply significant force to cut through food.  This is a dangerous combination and it’s a great way to accidentally stab yourself.

My knives are embarrassingly dull.  And it’s a major problem.

Right now I’m on the fence about getting a good stone and properly maintaining the knives myself or biting the bullet and taking them to be professionally sharpened.  Like anything else of quality construction, they need a little TLC if you want them to last a lifetime.  But in my opinion, good knives are worth it.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2010 9:28 am

    I found with my wusthofs if I hit them with my straightener for 10 passes on each side every time I use them they stay MUCH sharper for a longer period of time. I have gone from needing a sharpen every 6 months to over a year.

  2. July 1, 2010 10:19 am

    Go to Macy’s and buy a Chef’s Choice 100 with the 3 sharpening slots. Cooks Illustrated recommended it to me and it has literally changed the lives of me and my knives.

  3. Elyse permalink
    July 1, 2010 11:46 am

    We’ve been thinking about looking for a place that will sharpen our knives for us. We actually have stones but we are TOO LAZY.

    In addition to the knives you listed, it is nice to have a big cheap cleaver for hacking bones.

  4. particle permalink
    July 1, 2010 1:21 pm

    the necessity to know your knives by using them enough to be comfortable and competent is important advice that will allow prep tasks to fly by and allow you to concentrate on other matters essential to preparing a quality meal . however, saying you only need two knives is too simplistic a view.

    you can’t convince me to get rid of one of my three favorite knives. my 7″ santoku is a clear winner for rough chopping, dicing, and mincing. my 6″ carver is ideal for roast chicken, turkey, and bread slicing. nothing can beat my paring knife for peeling and coring apples, hulling strawberries, and other tasks that require an extension of your fingertips instead of an extension of your hand.

    further, there are special purpose knives that are essential for certain tasks. here in the pacific northwest, i am able to buy fresh, whole salmon and halibut, direct from the boat. proper filleting of any fish, whether it’s 2 lbs or 125 lbs, is a i can’t even imagine attempting with anything other than a flexible fillet knife.

    the best advice i can give is that you should start with two knives, and get to know them well. once you do, you’ll know when you need to add a knife to your set of tools, and what to look for to maximize the return when you make your purchase.

  5. July 1, 2010 1:44 pm

    I have a cheap Japanese waterstone. I’d love to get one with two different grains, but I find that this one of medium-fine grain works well enough. I use my knives every day to varying degrees of abuse (slicing lemons to breaking hard squash to butchering a chicken) and I sharpen the knives about 3-4 times a year. I give a few good swipes with a honing steel every time after I wash and dry the knives and before I store them. That way, they’re ready to go when you need them.

    I have German blades, easy to sharpen. Japanese blades are much harder and, I’m not positive, but I think you might have to send them away to be sharpened professionally like the Shun knives do.

  6. Dave J permalink
    July 1, 2010 1:54 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly that one does not need a block full of knives. You can get two quality knives like Dan recommends for less than a complete block of lesser knives. I’m a huge fan of the Global, myself. I sharpen with a non-electric rotating stone sharpener, which works fine and fits in the knife drawer.

  7. Shawn permalink
    July 1, 2010 2:45 pm

    FREE knife sharpening @ the Coop. I think it happens every other Tuesday. From the CoopScoop the next one is Tue, July 6, 5pm – 7pm
    Where – outside the Co-op Community Room
    Description – With Vince Manti. Due to the overwhelming popularity of this service, please bring in no more than five knives at a time. (No serrated blades, please!) For more info, call 482-2667.

    As with all their other FREE community events, there is no need to be a member to participate.

  8. Raf permalink
    July 1, 2010 4:40 pm

    3 knives – chef, paring, and a serrated bread knife.

    take them to a professional for sharpening. they do it better than you can do at home and if you’re good about keeping them honed on the steel, the edge will last a long while.

    • July 1, 2010 5:39 pm

      My first two knives were a santoku and a paring. The next was a bread. Raf knows.

  9. July 1, 2010 11:48 pm

    I have two knives that fit your descriptions just about exactly. I use the bigger one for almost everything, and it is awesome. I have the same knife in a slightly larger version–just the tiniest bit–and yet it makes all the difference for me using the smaller one. Then there is a much teenier one with a blue handle that we have two of. It is lovely. My knife skills aren’t prefect, but they’re decent and neat if not terribly fast.

    My mother is incredible with knives. Not just using them, but sharpening them. A few months ago she gave the boyfriend and I a good 45-minute brief session on how to sharpen them. We just use a stone we got at the Asian grocery store (it lasts foooorever and is a bargain). I think everyone should know how to properly sharpen their own knives. It’s a movement that, like slicing etc., needs practice but is always worth knowing, and once you get it down your hands and arms never forget it.

  10. July 2, 2010 10:23 pm

    I so want to take a knife skills class. Can anyone recommend one? I know Different Drummer’s did one at some point, as well as CIA, but I’ve just never gotten myself organized to do it. I’ve certainly gotten better on my own over time, but some real training would be nice.

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