A Guide to Choosing the Right Knives
My Go Fork Yourself co-host Molly Mogren is currently in the market for some new knives. And since I am a knife freak, she asked me which three knives are must-haves in every kitchen. In typical fashion, I couldn’t keep it to just three… but I tried my best! Here’s how it went down.
Molly Mogren: Let’s get to it: What are three knives everyone should own?
Andrew Zimmern: I think you need to have a chef’s knife. The standard image of that is a European pointed knife that has a handle with a high enough rise so that your knuckles don’t come into contact with the board. There are a lot of Asian knives that fit that criteria, too. It’s really more of a personal preference, stylistic issue.
MM: Chef’s knives come in so many sizes. Why might you want a smaller knife versus a big ol’ 10 or 12-inch knife?
AZ: Size might matter in a lot of other areas, but with knives that isn’t always the case. Some people like a smaller knife—maybe a six-inch knife as opposed to a 10-inch—which makes perfect sense. Remember back in grade school when we all had to play baseball in gym class? They always said, “If you want more control of the bat, you should choke up.” Essentially, this just makes the bat shorter. It’s the same with knives. Limiting the length gives you more control. For a lot of home cooks whose knife work is not a big part of their every day experience, a smaller knife allows you to work safer and faster with more precision. Though it’s not my personal preference, I’m all for it!
MM: When should you go bigger?
AZ: Well, keep this in mind when you’re selecting a chef’s knife. You’re going to want something that’s big enough to cut through things that are large. I can slice flank steak against the grain with an eight-inch chef’s knife for sure. A six-incher? Not always. An ideal chef’s knife is big enough to allow dicing, chopping, slicing and some butchering. People joke that one good chef’s knife is all you need. For the most part, that’s true. However, some paring work is tricky with a knife that big.
MM: Tell me about it. [shows him the bandage on her left index finger]
AZ: That’s a very common place to cut yourself. Did you take your eye off the ball?
MM: I did. I was peeling a sweet potato and talking on the phone at the same time. Whoops. Okay, so paring knives. Discuss.
AZ: I actually don’t use a traditional paring knife. Instead, I go for one that’s four or five-inches long. It’s Japanese and it’s a small knife with a very paper-thin blade so I can cut small things very thin, like a shallot or shaving garlic. This knife is my go-to for cleaning up vegetables and peeling. And by going just a little bigger than the traditional paring knife size, I can also do some light filet work.
MM: So you would recommend a knife like that over a more traditional paring knife?
AZ: Yes, without a doubt because it does more things.
MM: Is a serrated knife a must-have?
AZ: Yes, I’d say a serrated knife and a slicer are musts. Serrated knives are really important for cutting fibrous surfaces. A pineapple is a great example. If you use a thin, whippy blade of a slicer on a pineapple, you’ve got a much higher chance of cutting yourself because the blade can easily come off that fibrous surface. Not so with a serrated knife. It’s also the perfect option for a crusty baguette or a watermelon. And I happen to think a big, sturdy serrated knife is a better option than a wimpier bread knife.
Some people don’t like serrated knives because there is this mythology that you can’t get them sharpened. That’s not true. You can. And you need to sharpen them less because you don’t use them as often. There’s just less wear and tear.
MM: Tell me about this slicer you speak of.
AZ: While you can slice with a paring knife and carve with a chef’s knife, if you are cooking for more than two people at any given point, you are going to want a slicer. I have a lot at home… even one that is only used for smoked salmon. I know, I am a nerd like that! But I have an English slicer that’s probably 14-inches long, round tipped with a very thin blade and low rise. It’s pretty stiff. I just used it to cut and serve London broil. I use it all the time, for everything—watermelons, even chicken breasts hot off the grill.
MM: Knife sets: Yay or nay?
AZ: I’m all about using the right tool for the right job. I’m not a gear head, but I know you can take out a spark plug with a wrench and a pair of pliers. I also know you can use a spark plug wrench that’s specifically designed for the job. It’s the same with knives. Think about the four or five basic food jobs you need to accomplish and get knives that fulfill those duties. That’s why knife sets are great.
The problem with sets though is that they often include knives you don’t need. I feel sets are a way for some companies that sell mass produced knives to move product. I don’t believe in that. I believe you need to look at how you use knives and what you use them for and let that inform your decisions. Get the right tools for the job.
MM: Is there another knife or kitchen tool you’d throw into the mix? Think of it as your cutting wild card.
AZ: I know this sounds nuts, but I gotta throw a good pair of kitchen shears in there, too.
MM: Oh, they are key. I love my kitchen shears!
AZ: I use kitchen shears every day on foods. I can break down a whole turkey with a good pair.
MM: Wow, that’s pretty impressive. We need to make a video of you doing this around Thanksgiving.
AZ: Yep, definitely. Any time. That’s great; it’s the kind of thing that’s easy for us to do! Tell our readers to stay tuned for that this fall.