The most essential piece of kitchen equipment is the knife. Actually, it's a toss up between knives and fire. You could tear food apart with your fingers, or leave it whole to cook it, but who'd want to? Then again, some things are great eaten raw. I don't want to do either of them all the time.
Just as with other equipment, buy a few knives at first, and then add to them as the need arises. Fortunately, you won't need all that many. Buy the best knives you can afford but, if you can, test them out first. Most kitchen specialty shops will let you do this.
Keeping your knives sharp is important, too. A sharp knife if much safer than a dull one. Dull knives can slip and cut you fingers. Sharp knives do what you want them to. They cut the food. They'll only cut you if you're careless.
Most serrated knives can't be sharpened, but straight edge knives can. Buy a good knife sharpener and use it or, if you're willing to practice a little, a sharpening steel.
Every year or two you'll want to send your knives out to a professional to hone them. These days it can be hard to find a “knife sharpener” under that name, though. Look for companies that sharpen lawn mower blades and such, and you'll be fine.
Store you knives in a knife block or use a wall-mounted magnetic strip. Keeping knives in drawers, without special knife holders, is the fastest way to make them dull. Your fingers will also thank you.
With knives more than any other tool, price isn't an indication of reliability. You can spend over $400.00 for a hand-forged chef's knife if you want to, but why? Perfectly good ones are available for much less.
Ceramic knives look cool, and I know people who swear by them. I've never tried them out so I can't say. Two things that turn me off of them are that you can't sharpen them yourself (in most cases you have to mail them back to the manufacturer) and the hefty price tag.
The first knife you'll want to spend money on is a chef's knife. They're normally sold in 8” or 9” lengths, but I've seen longer ones. I prefer the 8” knife.
Oddly enough, I've got three of them. And I only paid money for one.
My wife and I received an 8” Cutlery World chef's knife as a wedding present 18 years ago, and it's going strong. To this day I think it's the best wedding gift we received. I also got an 8” serrated knife as part of an inexpensive knife set made by Regent Sheffield. These aren't the best knives, but they fit my budget at the time I bought them.
The third one is a Slitzer. I got it for listening to a sales presentation on fire and smoke alarms. Slitzers are German designs, manufactured in China. It's becoming my new favorite. It's heavy enough to stand up to tough jobs, and incredibly sharp. It retails for about $20.00 and outperforms many of the more expensive knives I've tried out in specialty shops.
Both my Slitzer and Cutlery World knives have wooden handles, so they don't get washed with the regular dishes. Instead, I clean them by hand, dry then thoroughly, and put them away as soon as I'm done using them.
The next kind of knife you buy depends on what kinds of cooking you like to do most.
I prefer a 4” serrated knife to the 3” ones. These are great for making short work of veggies like tomatoes or peppers (firm skins, soft insides). To be honest, I find myself reaching for my steak knives for this kind of work more often than I do my 4” serrated one.
Here my feelings are reversed. I like a short 3” paring knife more than the longer 4” ones. These are useful for fine work such as peeling (or 'paring') fruit, coring apples, and the like. They're also great for making decorative vegetable cuts.
A large, flat serrated blade ranging from 8 1/2” to 9” or so are wonderful if you're cutting your own bread. A good one will cleanly cut through crusts and leave more delicate crumbs undamaged. (In this case “crumb” refers to the insides of the bread, not the dried crumbly variety.) You can see mine in use making Tomato Peanut-Butter Canapes.
If you like roasts of any variety, a carving knife is best. You probably guessed that from the name, though. Ranging between 8” and 9” they have a thin, flexible blade, with slight curve upward, toward the tip. With practice, you can achieve quite thin slices of meat using this kind of knife.
A thinner, and more flexible cousin to the carving knife, a fillet knife is good for just what it says it is, filleting stuff. I use them to deal with smaller cuts of meat, poultry, or fish – anywhere a carving knife is too heavy, or too large, for the job. I turn to my fillet knife anytime I need to butterfly a chicken breast or cut a pocket into a pork chop.
I'd be remiss if I didn't talk a little about cutting boards. Wooden boards are said to be kinder than plastic ones to your knives. I've got one of each, though. The point of having them both is to eliminate the potential for contaminating cooked foods with raw foods. I use the plastic one for raw meats, and the wooden one for vegetables. Clean then thoroughly after each use to keep down bacteria growth. Salmonella is not your friend.
If you think I missed anything, let me know. Then again, maybe you've got other ideas about which knives are best for what job. I'm always up for suggestions.
Picture by Chris Howell