Monday, August 6, 2007

Gourmet Kitchen on a Budget: Part One

I do a pretty significant amount of cooking at the YFNN homestead, and while I'm certainly not a trained expert chef, I'm pretty darn skilled. When we have folks over for dinner, I'm occasionally asked why I use the equipment that I do. Most are pretty shocked to find out that you don't really need to spend a lot of money for a well-equipped and safe kitchen. So, I thought I'd put together a couple of posts about the subject. Basically, of I were going to restock my kitchen from scratch within a reasonable budget, what would I get and why?

I'll start with my favorite equipment: knives.

Knives are an absolutely critical component to an efficiently-equipped kitchen. The important thing here is to buy decent quality, sharp knives, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is safety. Cheap knives and more importantly, dull knives are a safety hazard. Yes, that's right, dull knives are much, much more dangerous than keen, sharp ones. Here's the reason: Say you want to slice an apple up for a Waldorf salad. When you use a dull, cheap knife, you have to use much, much more force to cut through the skin of the apple (or tomato, or whatever). All that extra force has the potential to cause a slip and then the tip of your finger can decide to make a swift departure. With a sharp knife, you just slice right through.

The second reason to buy some quality knives is longevity. Cheaper knives are typically made from carbon steel or stainless steel and wooden handles.

"Great! Stainless steel is really resistant to rust. That's perfect for a knife!"

Not quite. First of all, it's important to remember that it's stain-less steel, not stain-free steel. Improperly handled, stainless steel with certainly corrode. Second, regular stainless steel isn't very hard as far as metals go. Because of this, it doesn't keep an edge well, and as stated before, a dull knife is frustrating and dangerous. Avoid regular stainless steel knives. They're typically labeled with "18-8" or "surgical stainless steel."

"Okay, carbon steel it is. I'll have to be careful about rust, but at least it'll stay sharp."

Well, high-carbon steel is a good knife material, but it's certainly not stain resistant. High-carbon steel knives will rust, and well-used blades will turn black, even with good care. With the way I tend to leave knives in the sink and such, that's not a good choice either.

So what's left? Well, it's kind of a combination of the two. Good quality knives are typically made from high-carbon stainless steel. Most companies have their own proprietary blend of steel that they use. They keep a nice sharp edge, and they're very stain resistant. So, keep an eye out for "high-carbon stainless steel" construction.

“Okay, so what about the handles?”

Most low-end and even some very high-end knives come with wooden handles. High-end wooden handles are comfortable and luxurious, but wood tends to harbor bacteria and other creepy-crawlies if it's not perfectly maintained. Plus, if they get wet (or are run through the dishwasher), the wood can split and deteriorate. Other options are stainless steel or plastic composites. In my opinion, either is a fine choice. I personally like the warmer, softer touch of the plastic handles.

"Okay, so I'm looking for high-carbon stainless steel knives with plastic or metal handles..."

Hold on, there's more to the story. You've also got to think about knife construction. The construction method of the knife defines its balance and heft, both of which are important to ease of use and comfort. Most cheaper knives are stamped, or blocked. Basically, the blades (and the inner part of the handle) are stamped from a single sheet of metal, much like cutting cookies from cookie dough. The cut-out shapes are then ground for the edge and the handles are riveted or glued to the handle portion (or tang). This produces a lightweight knife that usually isn't well balanced. A better way to manufacture a knife is to forge it. Think of a medieval blacksmith hammering a sword out of red-hot metal on an anvil. That's essentially how a forged knife is made. Well, except nowadays they use big heavy presses and machines, but you get the idea. This method of manufacture allows the knife to have a bolster (a thick section between the blade and handle), and a more pronounced spine. This is good because a stronger spine means less flexing and bending, and the bolster adds to the heft and feel of the knife while helping to really balance it.

"High-carbon stainless steel, plastic or metal handles, forged blades. Got it. How many of these higher-priced knives do I need?"

Actually, not too many. You could go out and buy a set of knives that would have everything from a tiny paring knife to a huge 10" meat cleaver, but most wouldn't be necessary. It would be much more cost effective to pick up a few essential pieces right away and add to your collection as needed.

Here's what I think is essential:

- A good chef's knife - A decent chef's knife is my #1 tool in the kitchen and it's the knife I'll reach for nine times out of ten. It chops, it dices, it'll slice when necessary, and it'll even strike (like for cutting through bones) when it has to. It's the do-all knife. An eight to ten inch chef's knife is absolutely critical to a properly equipped kitchen.

- A paring knife - A paring knife is perfect for peeling vegetables, making decorative cuts, and for more detailed work. It'd be pretty stupid to try to peel an apple with any other knife.

- A slicer of some sort - Slicers have long, thin blades for less drag, and may or may not be serrated (toothed). They're perfect for slicing soft bread, a big pork tenderloin, or nearly anything else. If I had to pick just one, I'd pick a long (ten inches or longer) serrated bread knife. Bread knives can cut more than just bread, you know.

Everything else is certainly nice to have (I love my Japanese Santoku knife), but are not really necessary. Those three knives will get just about any job done.

"So, FNN, what do you personally use?"

I personally have a full set of Wusthof Grand Prix II knives, and I wouldn't trade them for the world. I absolutely love, love, love them. If it were safe and socially-acceptable to make out with cooking equipment, I'd be more than happy to smooch these knives like crazy. They're rather expensive, but certainly worth it to me.

Other good choices would be this design from Farberware or any Henckels knife.

"Ewww. You are creepy and disgusting, and you're gonna get hurt! Let's move on. So, how do I care for and maintain these new beauties?"

Well, it's really not that tough, but there are a couple of critical things to remember. First, use a good cutting board. I refuse to use anything but the plastic ones, for a couple of reasons. First, is safety. I absolutely hate glass cutting boards. Hate, hate, hate them. The food slides around, creating a safety hazard, and the hard surface dulls a knife super-fast. Plus, you have to worry about them breaking, and I don't particularly care for glass shards near my food. On the plus side though, they're dishwasher safe, maintenance free, and they don't harbor bacteria.

Then, there's your grandmother's favorite wooden cutting board. Sure, it's easy on the knife and the food, and those butcher-block boards sure are pretty, but that's about all it's got going for it. They can't be put in the dishwasher because they'll split and age, and they have to be oiled and sanded now and again so they stay nice and don't dry out. Plus, since they lots of little ridges and valleys and holes and can't be put through the dishwasher, they're great at storing little nasties like bacteria and such. Yuck. Add the hefty price tag for a quality wooden cutting board and you've got a real loser on your hands. If you absolutely have got to have a wooden cutting board, please only cut foods you intend to eat raw, like vegetables or fruits. No raw proteins like fish, meat, or poultry!

Nope, as far as cutting boards go, the only choice for me is plastic. It's cheap, durable, sanitary, and easy to maintain because you can just pop 'em in the dishwasher. My favorite cutting board is a big, thick one about the size of a large cookie sheet. It's even got a juice groove running the perimeter so that when I slice up a pineapple or a perfectly-cooked pork tenderloin I don't get juice all over the counter. Plus, it's so inexpensive that when it gets really hacked up, I can get another one for only a couple of bucks.

"Okay, you've digressed again. Can we get back to maintenance, please?"

Yeah, sorry. Okay, so as you use your knives, they eventually start to dull. Basically, your sharp edge becomes slightly bent on the microscopic level. However, all is not lost; you can fix most of the problem by using a steel before you use your knives.

"A steel? Didn't we already cover metallurgy?"

Not that kind of steel. A steel is that "sharpening stick" that makes that great "zzziiiiinnggg!" sound when you move your knife across it. It basically straightens out all the tiny bends that can create a dull knife. It can be a bit tricky to use at first, but this video should help. I use my steel right before I use any of my knives. It only takes a few seconds, and I love the way it makes that awesome ninja-sword zing sound.

Since a steel just straightens the knife's edge and doesn't really remove any metal when you use it, there will come a day when a steel just won't get the job done and you'll have to have your knife sharpened. Please, please, please don't use one of those home sharpening gizmos or try to do it yourself at home on your garage grinder. Sharpening a knife correctly is a complex dance of angles, pressure, materials, and skill and should only be done by a professional. It only costs a couple bucks per knife and if you're using your steel properly, it shouldn't have to be done more than once every couple of years. There's likely a professional sharpener near you, and if not, many manufacturers will allow you to send the knives back to them and they'll sharpen them.

Finally, don't put your knives in the dishwasher. They'll just bang around and hit other knives, the racks, plates and who knows what else. The blades will be duller than a butterknife in no time, and your handles will not appreciate the steam and dry heat, especially if they're wooden. Take a few minutes after you're done cooking and wash and dry them by hand.

So, that's my take on knives. I know this post was lengthy, but I really think these are the most important tools in the kitchen.

Finally, when you get some favorite quality knives, don't be afraid to give 'em a kiss now and then. They deserve it.


1 comment:

Mrs. Murf said...

I hear you on the knives. Mike and I received a set of Anolon knives as a wedding gift - carbon steel, forged, an easy-grip handle, the whole bit and I love love love using them daily. Good knives are a good investment.