As a proponent of cooking and eating in, I got to thinking about my kitchen essentials last week as my husbanders and I were shopping online for wedding gifts. We like to purchase gifts that will be enjoyed by both bride AND the groom and this can be difficult because registries often have items that seem to be selected only by the bride. Does the groom really want a $250 Vera Wang picture frame? Does he even know who Vera Wang is?
Other than a budget, we have three basic criteria for wedding gifts:
(1) Usefulness – the item must have a significant likelihood that both the bride and the groom will use it, hopefully they’ll use it frequently;
(2) Longevity – the item should be built for long-term use; and
(3) Promote eating in – this is my preference, but Omar humors me.
This leads me back to my own kitchen essentials and an item that is often missing from wedding registries. Only a few of my kitchen items made the move from Washington, DC to Rabat. If I had to, I could narrow it down to just one kitchen item. My chef’s knife – an 8-inch Zwilling J.A. Henckels Five Star.
I don’t think I’ve made a meal in the last eight years that didn’t involve this knife. I am lost in the kitchen without it. This knife gave me the confidence to explore new recipes, and it continues to serve as my primary kitchen workhorse. It’s not the “best” one on the market, but this knife guided and grew with me as I learned to cook. It chopped the onions in my first lasagna and continues to slice, dice, and chop for almost all of the recipes I’ve posted here.
Whether you are setting up a new kitchen, mustering the confidence to enter the kitchen, or in the market for new knives, please, forgo the fancy knife set that comes with filler knives you’ll hardly use. Instead focus on a few high quality knives. First on the list is a solid chef’s knife. When selecting a chef’s knife, consider the following:
Blade Material. This in and of itself can be its own article. Stainless steel, high-carbon steel, ceramic, and more. Personally, I recommend stainless steel as the most practical and cost-effective.
- Carbon steel may be easier to sharpen, but this material is more prone to rust and discoloration after coming into contact with acidic foods. With the number of tomatoes I chop, this is a no-go for me. Carbon steel also requires more care to maintain.
- Ceramic knives are resistant to staining and corrosion so they hold a sharp edge for a longer time, but they are more brittle and prone to chipping and breaking.
- Stainless steel is also more resistant to rust and corrosion than carbon steel, but stainless steel is sturdier than ceramic. Stainless steel will not hold an edge as long as a ceramic knife, but I think what is gained in cost-effectiveness and practicality, is worth it. Now, within stainless steel, consider forged v.stamped and Japanese v. German steel.
Forged v. Stamped Steel – Forged knives are made by heating and molding the steel rather than stamping from a sheet. Go with forged, they might be more expensive, but generally forged knives are sturdier and will perform better over time.
Japanese v. German – Japanese steel is generally sharpened to a steeper angle and work better for delicate slicing, but also will loose their edge faster than the German knives. German knives are sturdier and heavier, will hold an edge longer, but the thicker edge makes it more difficult to take on delicate knife work.
Blade shape and size. For a chef’s knife, 8-10 inches is the most common. German knives tend to have more of a curve at the front of the blade, which is conducive to a rocking motion and good for chopping. French knives are usually straighter while Japanese knives often have small indentations on the blade to prevent sticking. Blade shape and size are a matter of personal preference.
A good handle. A comfortable grip is key. This is one of the reasons I love my Five Star, the ergonomic grip is ideal for my hand. Grip the knife, try it out, and make sure it feels comfortable in your hand. Some higher end stores will let you try out the knife in the store. Don’t make the mistake of focusing so much on the blade, that you overlook the handle.
Balance. Ok, I’m cheating a little bit here. A lot goes into the balance. The bolster, the heel, the tang, all affect the balance of the knife. Lighter is not always better. Good balance affects how much control you have over the knife and whether your hand will tire as you use it. You can only get a sense of the balance if you hold the knife and try it out. Does the handle feel too heavy? Is it easy to control the tip of the knife as well as the heel?
There are other factors that go into a good knife, but if you consider these factors, you should be on the right track to selecting a good chef’s knife that works for you. Please don’t buy the knife set with the knife block. Matching knives don’t matter, but a durable and utilitarian chef’s knife will make all the difference in your cooking experience. In my book, it’s the most important tool in the kitchen. What is your kitchen essential?