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Sharpen Your Culinary Knowledge

The knife is the most used and indispensable item a chef has at his or her disposal. Selecting good knives and other types of cutlery is vital. What should a restaurant operator look for in good cutlery? Here are some of the basics.

Knives have developed over the years from iron to carbon steel, which is highly susceptible to corrosion, to forms of stainless steel, which are widely used today. The quality of a knife is greatly influenced by the grade of steel used.

The most important characteristics of the steel are the hardness and degree of corrosion-resistance in the blade. The exact mix of chromium, carbon and other elements in the steel, along with the heat treatment of the blade during manufacture, will determine these factors. Generally, more expensive cutlery from reputable manufacturers will use better quality raw materials, and in turn give the user more satisfactory performance over years of use.

Some things to look for in quality cutlery are as simple as how good a knife feels in your hand. The balanced weight and smooth-shaped handle of a quality knife are easy to recognize. The blade of the knife is an indicator of quality. An evenly tapered profile is usually indicative of a quality instrument as compared to a knife blade that has a hollow ground profile.

The tapered blade was shaped in the factory and can be easily resharpened to its original edge, while the hollow ground shape is easily damaged and quick to dull.

Another indicator of durability is the tang or end of the blade that is secured to the handle. A quality knife will have a full tang, which will run all the way through and be sandwiched by the handle. Some high-quality knives also may have a secured hidden tang in a plastic resin handle.

There are a wide variety of types of knives as varied as the products they are designed to cut. They differ in size, blade shape and type of cutting edge. Here are a few of the types of knives your kitchen may require.

  • Boning knife - A slim blade with a high tip to cut out bones and remove fat and sinew.
  • Bread knife - A long scalloped edge blade for cutting hard crusts easily and leaving clean slices.
  • Filleting knife - A wafer thin blade with flexibility for removing skin and stripping meats.
  • Peeling knife - A small light curved blade shaped to peel fruits and vegetables easily.
  • Chef's knife - An all-purpose sturdy heavy blade usually with a handle above the blade so a full cut can be made while fingers grasp the handle.
  • Meat slicer - Also called a Granton slicer, it has hollows along the side of the blade, making it especially suitable for wafer thin slices of ham or salmon.
  • Cleaver - A heavy rectangular blade allows this knife to chop through large cuts of meat. A Chinese knife may look similar but is usually lighter for more versatility.
  • Santoku knife - An all-around knife for the Asian kitchen, which has a specially made, razor-sharp blade.
  • Paring knife - A relatively small blade with a straight edge gives it versatility to peel and cut.

Keeping cutlery sharp is very important. A sharp knife is safer than a blunt one because you use less pressure while cutting. Your hand does not tire easily and the knife has much more grip in the product being cut. All straight-edged knives should be regularly sharpened with a sharpening steel, which should be an essential part of any chef's knife kit.

Follow instructions when using a sharpening machine or stone because over-sharpening could damage and wear out your cutlery prematurely. Some manufacturers make ceramic sharpeners that, when used with steel, can put a final smooth sharpness on your knife.

One last but very important item is to ensure that your cutlery is always cleaned properly. It's important to remember that "stain resistant" or even stainless-steel knives are never totally rustproof. Knives will come in contact with many food acids like tomatoes or juices of fruits so it will be important to rinse the blades immediately after use. The best way to clean quality knives is by hand with mild soap and warm water. Dishwasher cleaning is usually safe but can cause damage to some items either by exposure to chemicals or as a result of their hitting other items in the load.

Always remember: if you take care of your cutlery, it will give you many years of satisfactory service.

Knife Care

Whether old and trusted kitchen friends, or a new and shiny set, all knives should be treated with respect and care.

The following tips will help you prolong the life of your knives and ensure the final food product is at its best in texture and flavor.

  • Remember: sharp knives are the most efficient knives. They are also the safest as they require less pressure to cut through food and are less apt to slip and injure the user. Further, a cut from a sharp knife is less apt to get infected and heals quicker than a cut from a dull or ragged-edged knife.
  • When using a knife, make sure that the blade cuts through to a relatively soft surface, such as wood or plastic, rather than metal, marble, glass or ceramic. Constant striking on a hard surface will dull the blade.
  • Knives should be washed by hand and dried immediately. Because wood tends to swell, it is not a good idea to immerse wood handled knives in water for a prolonged period of time.
  • Rub mineral oil on wood handles to maintain their luster.
  • Acidic foods (lemon, vinegar, mustard) should not remain on a blade after use, as they can cause discoloration, particularly on blades made of carbon steel (not to be confused with high-carbon stainless steel, the choice for most knife blades made today). All knives should be cleaned as soon as the cutting job is completed.
  • If a knife does happen to stain, clean with a mild scouring powder, or with a mildly abrasive scouring pad using a light touch.
  • To avoid cross contamination of bacteria and flavors, handles, bolsters and blades should be cleaned before they are used for another project. (A bolster is the "collar" where a blade meets the handle. The bolster should be part of the blade rather than a separate piece, which can pull apart.)
  • For employee safety, dirty knives should never be placed in washing sinks, either alone or with other dishes. Someone is likely to stick a hand into the soapy water and get cut. Cooks and chefs should be held responsible for the daily cleaning and maintenance of the knives they use, keeping them in open sight at all times when in use.
  • Knives should be stored, sheathed, in a drawer or in a knife roll case once they are cleaned and dried. Other alternatives for storage include solid oak blocks or magnetic wall strips. To keep knives in top condition, they should not be stacked or thrown into a designated "knife" bus pan for storage.
    –Diane Ridge

Dan Bendall is a principal of Food-Strategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultant's Society International. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.

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