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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Five Rules Of Basic Knife Care

It's Not The Sharp Knives You Should Be Afraid Of, It's The Dull Ones

I'll be the first to admit that I have way more knives in my home kitchen than I actually need. In my restaurants, I had multiples of just three knives: a chef's knife, a utility knife, and a paring knife. The only “specialty” knife I kept around was a serrated bread knife because you could use it for more than just slicing bread. For instance, it's also great for tomatoes.

At home, I've got every knife under the sun. I have chef knives in 12-, 10-, and 8-inch varieties. I have three or four (or six) different styles of utility knife and at least four paring knives. There are two serrated bread knives on my racks and I also have carving knives, cheese knives, boning knives and numerous other assorted pieces of cutlery, including a butcher knife and a Chinese cleaver I picked up somewhere. I have four mezzaluna knives; two large ones for cutting pizza and two small double- and single-bladed ones for chopping herbs and such. Oh yeah.....there's also a mandoline slicer tucked away in a drawer. A visitor looking over the naked steel hanging on two 18-inch magnetic knife strips mounted on my kitchen wall once remarked that she was “afraid of all those sharp knives.”

Thing is, it's not the sharp knives you should be afraid of, it's the dull ones.

Offering to help a friend cut up some vegetables, I was directed to the “knife drawer” and immediately knew I was in trouble. I opened the drawer and found a jumble of knives all thrown in together. I figured that finding a sharp one was going to be next to impossible and I was right. The chef's knife I wound up with was only slightly sharper than a common table knife. I had to practically stand on it to get it to cut through a raw potato. The work it took to chop up a carrot was ridiculous. And dangerous. When you have to exert that much effort and apply that much force and pressure to get a knife to perform, one slip can be a trip to the emergency room. My knives pass through the toughest of vegetables with the same ease as they do through soft butter and the reason is twofold: first, I buy quality knives and second, I take meticulous care of them.

Now, when I say “quality,” I don't necessarily mean expensive. I love to go into the fancy kitchen stores and drool over the Wusthofs and the Shuns and the Henckels and the Globals. It's not uncommon to drop hundreds of dollars on these cutlery Cadillacs. A 3-inch Henckels paring knife can run you thirty bucks. Nice if you can do it, but I can't do it. Maybe high-dollar chefs in high-dollar restaurants wield such impressive and expensive tools, but in most professional kitchens, you're far more likely to see knives by Victorinox or Dexter-Russell. You buy them at restaurant supply stores, where a Victorinox 8-inch chef's knife might cost you $30 or $40 and a Dexter 3.5-inch paring knife will go for about eight bucks.

The trick is to stay far, far away from the “bargains” you find at the big box stores. A friend went to Walmart and came home proudly displaying a brand new twenty-three piece set of Mainstays (Walmart's store brand) in a “natural” block. He had shelled out twenty bucks for the whole set. Seriously? Half the “23-piece” set was knives. The remainder were spatulas and measuring cups and such. So, allowing that the “natural” block and the cheap plastic accessories might have been worth four dollars, he paid about sixteen bucks for twelve knives. That's a buck-thirty-three per knife. I ask you, what kind of quality do you really think you're getting?

The point is to buy a good knife and to take good care of it. Knife care can be broken down into five simple rules:

Rule #1: Proper storage

Banish the idea of a “knife drawer” from your thought process. One of the quickest ways to damage and dull a knife is to store it unprotected in a drawer full of other knives or utensils. Every time you open and close that drawer, you're banging the edge of your knife blade against the blade of another knife or the handle of a spoon or even the side of the drawer itself. How long do you think the sharp edge is going to last? A knife is a precision tool. It's not like a hammer or a screwdriver or a pair of pliers: you can't just throw it in a box and let it rattle around.

The best way to store your knives is on a magnetic strip. Inexpensive and simple to mount, strips offer the maximum protection for your knives by keeping them separated while still providing easy access. Just be careful in the way you place and remove your knife from the strip. Don't angle it or drag it; place it firmly and cleanly and remove it the same way and you'll never have a problem.

Knife blocks are okay, but they pose their own set of issues. For one thing, it's hard to slide a knife into a slot and pull it out cleanly without occasionally dragging the edge. And there's the issue of sanitation: you probably don't want to know what's lurking deep in the recesses of those nice, dark slots. Oh, you can turn the block upside down, shake out all the obvious crud, get a can of compressed air and squirt it down in the slots, dip a baby bottle brush in hot soapy water and work it around in there, then rinse it all out and hope it dries sometime this year or you've just opened up a whole new bacteria breeding farm.

If you absolutely must store your knives in a drawer, invest in blade guards. These plastic sheaths come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles. Some slide on and some snap on, but whatever style you choose, they are essential to keeping your sharp knives safe, protected, and sharp. I have blade guards for all my knives when I carry them in a knife roll. You can find them in restaurant supply stores or buy them online.

Rule #2: Hand Wash and Dry

The dishwasher is no place for a knife. I don't care if it's technically “dishwasher safe,” there's no safety for a knife in a dishwasher. The same conditions exist in a dishwasher as are present in a “knife drawer,” only worse because in a dishwasher the agitation is hydro-powered. Knives jostle and jam and rattle against each other and everything else around them, damaging blades and chipping away at delicately honed edges. The intense heat of a dishwasher is no good for them, either, especially not for wood or plastic handles.

Always wash and dry your knives by hand. I know it's “easier” to just throw them in the dishwasher, but, c'mon! Wash them with hot soapy water and dry them immediately. And don't toss them in the sink with a bunch of other stuff. A knife edge is delicate and doesn't need to be bounced around roughly among the dishes, pots, and pans. And besides, you don't want to risk your pinkies in a sink full of soapy water with a sharp knife hiding in there somewhere, right?

Rule #3: Use The Right Cutting Surface

Wow, that colorful glass cutting board that Aunt Mavis gave you for Christmas last year sure is pretty, isn't it? And you know what? That rascal will dull your knives in a skinny minute. So will anything made out of marble, granite, or hard plastic. Believe it or not, good ol' wood is still the best material for a cutting board. “Eeewwww!” you shriek. “Wood is so nasty and germy!” Actually, no, it's not.

Numerous studies have shown that wood cutting boards are more sanitary than their plastic counterparts. Wood is naturally anti-microbial. When you wipe down a wood board with hot, soapy water, the wood fibers absorb, trap, and hold residual food-borne bacteria deep inside where they cannot multiply and they eventually die.

Shiny, modern plastic surfaces, on the other hand, can only be disinfected when they’re shiny and new. As soon as you make a few cuts in them, you can't effectively clean them anymore because they trap the nasties in those hard-to-reach crevices and don't possess any of wood's natural antimicrobial qualities to kill them. Researchers at the University of California Davis found they could still recover bacteria from grooves in plastic even after hand washing it. Sticking it in the dishwasher was no good; the bacteria didn't croak, they just went swimming and landed on other surfaces. Even treating plastic boards with chlorine beach yielded unacceptable levels of residual bacteria hiding out in cuts and grooves.

Some restaurants rely on hard rubber cutting boards. Hard rubber boards, like Sani-Tuff®, are big in the food industry because they are as durable as wooden boards, they won’t trap bacteria like plastic boards, they are easy on knives, and, like wood, they can be resurfaced by sanding. But they're ugly, oversized and heavy for home use, and they're expensive.

Bamboo is all the rage these days. It's a good natural material, but it's harder than wood so it's also harder on your knives. Just stick with a good quality hardwood board and it will stick with you for many, many years.

Rule #4: Employ Proper Technique

What you cut and how you cut it are very important when it comes to the condition and longevity of your knives. For example, I don't care how many times you've seen some showy chef do it on TV, don't try to open a can with the point of your knife. How does the nickname “Four Fingers” sound to you? Assuming you don't just snap your blade, at the very least you'll dull the living hell out of it. It's possible to open a can with the heel of a decent chef's knife, but.......just.......don't, okay? Can openers are a lot cheaper and easier.

Use the right knife for the job. Don't try to slice potatoes with a paring knife and don't use a chef's knife to peel an apple.

Learn how to properly hold your knife. Don't grip it like a hammer or an offensive weapon. The most efficient grip is called the “pinch grip” or “blade grip.” Your thumb and forefinger should rest in front of the bolster directly on either side of the blade. It's a little tricky at first, but once you master it, it offers much better control and balance and is the preferred knife grip for more experienced cooks. Another grip is the “handle grip,” wherein you grasp the knife by the handle with all your fingers tucked behind the bolster. This is most comfortable and intuitive for beginners, but it really lacks control and precision.

For most slicing and dicing purposes, you should work with what is called “the rolling technique.” You don't hack up and down with the blade. Instead, keep the tip of the blade in constant contact with the cutting board and move your knife in a smooth “rolling” or “rocking” motion, starting at the tip and rolling to the heel; smoothly cutting down and through whatever you're cutting. There are other basic techniques, but I'm not going to do “Cutting 101” here: look them up online or take a class somewhere. Bottom line: how and what you cut matters in terms of torque, pressure, and contact. Bad habits and bad technique can ruin a knife.

Rule #5: Maintain A Sharp Edge

If you have to ask why this is important, reread the fourth paragraph about cutting vegetables and remember the nickname “Four Fingers.”

There are a lot of options available for keeping your knives sharp and safe. The best one is to have them professionally sharpened on a regular basis. But you're not going to do that, are you? So at least look for a good quality DIY sharpener.

Seasoned pros use a special sharpening stone to maintain a razor edge. And clumsy amateurs use that same stone to completely ruin a knife. You've got to know all about the metallurgical compound of your knife and angles and pressure and other arcane stuff. Just go buy a decent sharpener. Either a manual “pull-through” variety or an electric one. Chef's Choice makes good ones of each type.

Don't fall for gimmicks. I looked up reviews for one of those “As Seen On TV” things: “Trash.” “This piece of crap is a joke.” “It sucks.” “Pure junk.” “Absolute garbage.” “Rip off.” A good rule of thumb is to not trust anything where they'll “double your offer if you order now.” Just sayin'.

Finally, don't try to use an often misnamed “sharpening steel” to sharpen your dull knives. Those are actually honing steels, intended to maintain sharpness longer by realigning the knife's edge. If you've got a sharp knife, a steel, when used regularly – like every time you use your knife – will help keep it sharp. But you can stroke a dull knife with one of those things all day and you'll still have a dull knife.

Be good to your knives and they'll be good to you. As I said before, a knife is a precision tool; probably the most important one in any cook's kitchen. When properly maintained, an expensive high-quality knife will likely last a lifetime. A less expensive but still good quality knife will serve you well for many years. A cheap knife will end up being an expensive knife after you replace it ten times or after it sends you to a hospital. Remembering that you get what you pay for, spend the money and then take proper care of your knives. The dividends will pay off in a long and useful life for your investment.  

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