Welcome to our new monthly food feature, in which local culinary professionals and home chefs weigh in with tips and techniques that can be put to use in the home kitchen on topics including, but not limited to, ingredients, dishes and cooking equipment.
Why have we chosen to christen this feature Chef’s Table? This is a nod to the practice of offering a table to VIP guests in the actual working kitchen of fine dining establishments. In the same flavor, you, the reader, are invited to a ringside seat as we unveil the magic of cooking tools and techniques to try in the comfort of your own kitchen. Bon Appetit!
In this debut article in our new Chef’s Table series, we talk about knives with culinary professional Chef Michael Solovey of Sur la Table Inc., and well-seasoned home cook, Kenosha resident Justin Weber. A second part to this story, caring for kitchen cutlery, will be published in the next Chef’s Table feature in two weeks.
Of all the equipment necessary to create fine food — pots, pans and processing machines — culinary professionals agree that the most mission-critical is a good knife — or three.
And in home kitchens, the right knife — and knowing how to wield it — can make the difference between making a meal or dining out, says Chef Michael Solovey.
“My business, my purpose in life, is to get people to cook more often,” Solovey said. “So if their knife skills are sharp (forgive the pun), they’re going to be more confident with their blade, faster with what they do and they might even have fun in the process!”
Solovey is resident chef and instructor at Sur la Table, a national kitchen equipment retailer and cooking school with a store located in Glendale. A career cook, Solovey’s professional food experience has spanned soups to sushi.
For home chef and Kenosha resident Justin Weber, knives are an integral component of his process. “Find the right knife that rocks it for you,” he advocates. In recent years, Weber has contributed to Kenosha News health and food pages, having shed a significant amount of weight by educating himself on healthy cooking.
Not surprisingly, one of the most important knives in a cook’s arsenal is called the “chef’s knife.” A chef’s knife is between eight and 10 inches long with a blade that curves and narrows to its tip.
“It has been called the most versatile knife and I completely agree with that,” Solovey said. “I use my chef’s knife for about 95 percent of the things I do personally.”
“However, the average consumer uses it for less than 40 percent of the things that they do,” he continued. “This is because they’re using utility blades such as paring knives. Why? Because they don’t want to use a knife that’s going to intimidate them.”
The way to overcome this fear of the chef’s knife is a combination of finding the right knife and building knife skills, say the experts.
So what goes into finding a good kitchen knife?
The short answer is that knife selection includes purpose of knife use, degrees of sharpness desired and size.
But knife choice is not a “one size fits all,” say Solovey and Weber. Because knives are used for everything from delicately paring fruit to filleting a chicken breast, different knives do different jobs.
There is also the matter of size. Not because bigger is better, but because total knife and blade length translate into leverage; the ability to guide a knife blade comfortably according to your height and arm length.
“The height of a person and his or her work surface are the first two factors we consider when sizing someone for a knife,” Solovey said.
In general, the taller a person is, the longer the blade is that works best; conversely shorter chefs may find knives with shorter blades most comfortable.
Width of the knife handle and balance between blade and handle are also important.
Hand size enters in when “considering the ergonomics of the instrument,” Solovey said. “For example, a wide, rounded handle might feel cumbersome in a smaller hand. A thin, delicate handle might make an individual with larger hands feel like there is not enough to hold onto.”
In Solovey’s opinion, the importance of sizing a person for a knife can’t be underestimated. “If you’re using the wrong equipment it’s tough to know, ‘Is it the recipe that’s wrong?’ ‘Am I wrong?’ Or are you wearing a pair of shoes that’s two sizes too big for you?”
Because knives are a personal choice, the best way to find the perfect kitchen knife is to “test drive” a few from a retailer with a wide selection.
To get a feel for knives on offer, the News traveled to Sur la Table. Here, we were faced with a dizzying display of potential candidates, from German to Japanese, with handles of single steel or birch wood, and blades that were hand-forged or even “folded,” with finishes that were mirrored, hammered or intricately etched.
“Consumers are faced with choice overload,” admits Solovey.
East and West
He began by breaking down knife wares into two general categories. “All knives are produced by one of two processes; either the Western (European/German) method or the Eastern (Asian/Japanese) method.”
In general, Western knives start in hot forges followed by cold water immersion, creating a lower carbon content and very hard steel blades. Asian blades are crafted into softer steel blades with higher carbon content that allows the blades to sharpen to a finer degree. However, because they are softer, they demand constant honing to keep their edges.
Both techniques result in quality blades crafted by master bladesmiths in all shapes, from chef’s knives and paring knives to weighty cleavers.
“I use mostly Asian blades because I was a sushi chef. I love the art behind knife skills and I want my knives to be as efficient as possible,” Solovey said. “But I have no qualms about sharpening my knife every day.”
The meaning of santoku
Solovey then demonstrated a knife with a turned-down point he referred to as a “toucan beak” shape, known as a “santoku” blade.
He explained that the word “santoku” comes from the Japanese and Chinese “san,” meaning three, and “toku,” the Japanese word for “virtue.” The knife’s three virtues are slicing, dicing and mincing.
Small indentations on the sides of some santoku blades keep wet and starchy foods like potatoes from sticking to the blade by creating air pockets that make food release from the blade as it slices.
The santoku blade is one of Weber’s personal favorite knives. “I use it more than any other knife; it keeps its sharpness and the length feels good for most things,” he said.
Weber’s personal stable of kitchen knives also includes several made by Chicago Cutlery, a handcrafted Japanese chef’s knife and an Appalachian bread saw his parents purchased for him at a farmer’s market. He says it works well on the hard-crusted breads he bakes. “It’s insanely sharp.”
As for blocks of knives sold by one maker, Solovey and Weber agree that consumers may end up spending extra money on knives in the set they don’t use often.
“Most people set up a kitchen with a block of knives, but this isn’t the most effective way to get what you really need,” Weber said. “For example, nobody knows how to use those random steak knives (that come with the set).”
An important thing to look for in any well-made knife is balance, said Solovey. “Every knife has its fulcrum point, where it’s as heavy on the blade end as it is at the handle. So when you release your fingers, the blade pulls back up.” A balanced knife will rock easily, allowing cooks to raise and lower the blade quickly and efficiently.
We asked Solovey, which, if he had to choose, would qualify as “must haves” for the home kitchen. “I would say, a chef’s knife, a good bread knife and a really small paring knife so you don’t have to pull out the Samurai sword every time you want to rock and roll.”
He also re-emphasized the importance of knife skills. “If you’re going to take one (cooking) class, it should be a knife skills class,” he said.
The biggest investment, of course, is the equipment itself. Quality crafted knives, whether European or Japanese, are not inexpensive, ranging from $150 for a block set of Wusthoffs to $400 for a Zwilling Bob Kramer chef’s knife with Damascus folding.
And yet, it’s all about perspective, says Solovey. “You might want to think about how many meals you’re going to make with that knife.”