Cutting Tools

Materials

Ceramic blades are generally a poor choice. They can be ground to a razor-sharp edge and that that edge doesn’t dull even with prolonged use, but their major drawback is that they chip easily and are unrepairable.

Carbon steel is easy to sharpen and it can be ground down into an extraordinarily sharp edge. Its disadvantages are that it dulls relatively quickly, requiring you to resharpen it every few weeks or so to maintain a good cutting edge; it can rust if not cared for properly; and it will discolor if it comes into prolonged contact with acidic fruits or vegetables. You have to carefully clean, dry, and oil it after each use to preserve its luster.

Stainless steel is not as easy-sharpening as carbon steel but it’s easy to cleanup and rust-and-tarnish-free.

Build

A full tang. The tang is the extension of the blade into the handle. In a good knife, the tang should extend all the way to the end of the handle. This provides maximum durability and balance.

Forged blades are made by pouring metal into a mold, pounding it, trimming it, sharpening it, and polishing it by hand. This creates a very strong, very versatile blade from edge to heel. A stamped blade is cut out of a single sheet of metal and sharpened on one edge. Stamped blades usually bear a telltale sign of parallel stripes (caused by the rollers used to flatten the metal) when you reflect light off of it into your eyes. Stamped blades are generally unbalanced and flimsy. The lower-end knives of most major manufacturers are stamped.

The Home Cook Kit

A Slicing Knife

This can be either an 20~25 cm Chef’s Knife or a 15~20 cm Santoku Knife. This is the knife for 95% of a home cook’s cutting tasks so it’s important to be comfortable with it and wield it with a good Blade Grip & Claw technique.

The key difference in how the two types of knives are used is that with a Western-style Chef’s knife, rocking is a very common motion. That is, planting the tip of the knife on the cutting board and lifting only the heel end as you feed food underneath. With a Japanese-style Santoku knife this is usually not practical. The shape of the knife doesn’t lend itself well for rocking. Slicing and chopping are the more common movements, and mincing herbs becomes a matter of repeated slicing rather than rocking. The only way to tell which knives you prefer is to go into a store and try them out.

A 7~10 cm Sheep’s Foot Paring Knife

The key to a good paring knife is precision, and that means having a thin blade and the ability to make cuts with minimal hand motion. With a sheep’s foot knife, it’s possible to make contact with the cutting board with nearly the entire length of the blade while the tip is firmly inserted into the food: the straightness of the cut is defined by the straightness of the blade.

A 25~30 cm Serrated Bread Knife

Important to have if only because other knifes can’t do its job properly, but just about the only thing I a bread knife does is cutting crusty bread, like baguettes or rustic Italian loaf. If you never eat these, you have no need for a bread knife.

A 15 cm Boning Knife

A boning knife should be thin and moderately flexible, with a very sharp tip. The idea is that you want to be able to get that knife in between all the meat and the bones, working your way in, out, and around structures that aren’t necessarily straight.

A Good Heavy Cleaver

A cleaver is meant to be for only the toughest of the tough jobs, and it will get beat up. It doesn’t require the razor-sharp edge-maintaining abilities of expensive German or Japanese steel, so there’s no sense in paying a higher price for one when cheaper models are just as serviceable.

A Y-Shaped Vegetable Peeler

A regular vegetable peeler has a blade aligned with the handle, requiring you to hold both vegetable and peeler at an awkward angle, limiting your precision. With a Y-peeler, you hold the peeler as if you’re picking up an iPod, giving you far greater accuracy

A 10-Inch Honing Steel

Many people confuse honing with sharpening, but there is a distinct difference. When you sharpen a knife, you’re actively removing material from the blade, creating a brand new razor-sharp beveled edge. When you hone a knife, all you’re doing is making sure that edge is straight.

The thing about metal is, it’s malleable. That means that with regular kitchen use, that thin sharpened edge can get microscopic dents in it that throw the blade out of alignment. Even if the blade is still sharp, it can feel dull because the sharp edge has been pushed off to the side. That’s where a honing steel comes in. When used properly, a steel will realign the edge of the blade so that the sharpened bit is all facing in the right direction. You should steel your knife with every cooking session to ensure that you’re getting the best edge possible.

A Cutting Board

Of the types of boards on the market, plastic (polyethylene) and wood are the only ones you should consider. A glass cutting board is like death to blades.

A few years back, if you’d asked a health expert which type to use, they would have said plastic, not wood. Plastic is inert and inhospitable to bacteria, they’d say, whereas wood can house dangerous bacteria and transfer them to your food.Turns out those health experts were wrong. A number of recent airtight studies have shown that wood is actually less likely to be a means of transferring bacteria, due to its natural antimicrobial properties. A wooden cutting board can be a death trap for bacteria. So long as you give it a scrub and a thorough drying after each use (which, of course, you should do with plastic boards as well), it’s a perfectly safe material.

As for its actual function as a cutting surface, wood also takes home the gold, with some modern plastic boards coming in a close second. Wood is very soft, meaning that your knife can make great contact with every stroke, but it also has some self-healing properties—stroke marks will close up and fade away.

With a wooden board, you’ll want a small bottle of mineral oil to rub into the surface with a soft cloth or paper towel after each use to prevent staining and enhance its life.