There are plenty of articles on food in the media these days, but I have rarely seen anything written about knives even though it’s a subject most cooks would appreciate more information on.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of good quality knives; it’s far better to have 5-6 quality knives than a kitchen drawer full of mediocre blunt knives. Don’t be bamboozled by slick-talking sales people who want to sell you a knife that can cut through a tin can. These types of knives tear food rather like a saw tears through the wood. A good knife can last you 20 or more years so don’t buy on the spur of the moment when you see a sale price unless you’re already familiar with that make and know its normal retail price.
Here is my essential list of knives your kitchen should have.
A 21-24 cm Cook’s Knife for chopping
A small paring knife 8-10 cm (veg knife)
A good quality speed peeler
Sharpening steel or Ceramic Stone
Fish filleting knife
Is probably the knife you will use for most jobs, chopping, slicing or dicing, so try to choose one that feels comfortable and well balanced (the weight of the handle should be approximately the same as the blade). Heavy does not always mean quality.
Usually has an 8-10 cm blade and is often called a vegetable knife. This knife is great for segmenting citrus fruits, peeling potatoes or apples if you don’t like using peelers and is also good for slicing small items such as button mushrooms.
Believe me when you’re peeling 15 kg of carrots you come to appreciate the qualities of a sturdy, sharp peeler. Either a traditional design or the more modern Y or U-shaped ones sometimes called Swiss peelers. Don’t buy one for £1 that will last for a week or two; remember good equipment can making doing a dinner party a lot less stressful. You can even buy left-handed peelers these days.
Can be a coarse (butcher’s steel) or fine grain but more important is the length. You’re less likely to cut yourself if the steel’s overall length is 30 cm or more. It’s also a good idea to buy one with a guard on (a handle that is wider at the top) to help protect your hands. You should hold the knife at approximately a 15-degree angle when sharpening it.
If you can afford one a ceramic stone is the best type of sharpening stone you can buy. They are used dry instead of wet or with oil. These days you can buy stainless steel guide rails that clip onto a knife, which helps ensure the correct angle when sharpening.
Fish Filleting Knife
If you’re a confident cook and like filleting your own fish then a fish filleting knife is a must. It usually has a 15-18 cm flexible pointed blade, which makes it easier to keep the knife pressed against the bone to ensure a clean looking fillet.
Since more & more people are baking their own bread a good quality bread knife is very important. It should be serrated, not too heavy in weight or it may tend to squash the bread rather than cut it. Sharpening a serrated knife is difficult, but just like any other knife a sharp one will make the job quicker and easier.
These come in many shapes & sizes but for home use I usually recommend a 26 cm pointed non-serrated carving knife. Being non-serrated it will be easier to keep sharp and a 26 cm blade should be long enough for most jobs.
Knives & Small Utensils
How often you sharpen your knives really depends on how often they are used. You can pay to have them sharpened at some old fashioned ironmongers, but try to learn how to sharpen them yourself because a blunt knife is really more dangerous than a sharp one.
For most people, a meat cleaver isn’t necessary, but if you have and use one I would suggest you use
a thicker wooden cutting board. I prefer wooden cutting boards over plastic, but when using a plastic cutting board put a damp tea towel or wet paper towel underneath it to help stop it sliding around on your worktop.
One good place to shop for knives can be at a food show like the BBC’s Good Food Show, where the sales people are often more knowledgeable. There are also usually one or two companies demonstrating knife sharpening at the show. I don’t normally recommend a particular brand of knives because there are many good brands. But late last year while cooking at BBC’s Good Food Show I bought a Japanese Cook’s Knife made by Kin, which is not very well known in this country yet.
They use an ancient samurai sword technique of folding the molten steel, which creates harder steel thus a better edge. Now I love my Kin knife and guard it jealously!
Besides knives if you cook often you will find it useful to have a few small gadgets, but some people go a bit overboard. In my kitchen I have
Also called a Parisienne spoon. The one I use has two different sizes, which can be useful.
Can be quicker than grating the peel of a lemon, for example.
I prefer metal ones though I’m not sure why! The set consists of 1/4 teaspoon,1/2 teaspoon,1 teaspoon, 1 dessertspoon & 1 tablespoon.
Try to find a stainless steel grater with 3or 4 different sizes on it. A box grater might take a little more room when it comes to storage, but at least you a stand it on the worktop and grate the food against it rather than holding the grater in the air. Only a minor point but it becomes more important when you are grating large quantities.
Usually 15-20 cm in length will be fine for most uses. Can be used of course for kebabs, but also for checking if the food is cooked or hold the wrapping (such as bacon) on a chicken leg when you’re out of butcher’s twine.
So you see I don’t bother with a garlic press, or a grapefruit knife or even a tomato knife…save your money for something else.
The subject of cutting boards these days is quite controversial and contradictory.
20 years ago chefs were told by health departments that wooden cutting boards were unhygienic and that we must all now use plastic ones. Recent University studies found that bacteria grows quicker on a plastic board than a wooden one. Scientists suspect that wood has a natural antibacterial quality to it!
Properly scrubbed and cleaned, I believe wooden boards to be more hygienic, and that is the key whatever type of cutting board you own. Cutting boards need to be scubbed not just washed through the dishwasher. Equally important is for the clean cutting board to be propped up on its edge to air dry, rather than dried with a tea towel. In my kitchen the cutting boards are also stored in this manner. You should always change your cutting board after cutting raw meat or fish & wash or change your knife too. In my home kitchen I have 4 cutting boards so I always have a clean one at hand.
Pair of tongs
For many reasons a good pair of tongs has a multitude of functions when you think about it but so many of the domestic versions are poorly designed. Besides being used to turn food over in a pan, on a tray or even on a barbecue, they have many other uses such as serving long types of pasta (they’re great for curling the pasta into an attractive “nest” on the pasta bowl. Whenever you are transfering a lamb shank or a braised steak to the plate, don’t let it roll around on a slotted spoon that often can’t take the weight, use tongs. Look for a pair that in effect is an extension of your hand, in other words lightweight yet sturdy, made of stainless steel and between 18-24 cm long.If they are too long or too heavy, they will sit in the drawer rather than be used. Even for a barbecue they don’t need to be long just easy to use, thus making it quick and easy to turn the food over. Commercially you can buy tongs for £2-3, so shop around on the web.
Rolling pins come in all shapes and sizes from the expensive wooden ones with ball bearings inside the cylinder to milk bottles, yes milk bottles! When I was a young lad my mum would wash a milk bottle and use that as a makeshift rolling pin and it did the job! Recently I have grown to like the hollow plastic rolling pin my sister uses; you fill it full of cold water and screw on the cap. It’s hygienic and easy to clean, the cold water inside helps to keep the pastry cool and at 38 cm in approximate total length it’s long enough for most jobs.
Plastic scraper/bowl scraper
You don’t tend to see domestic versions of these handy little scrapers. It is basically a rectangular piece of plastic with curved edges at two of its four corners. They usually measure about 14 cm in length and about 10 cm in height. As the name suggests they are very handy for scraping out bowls but also useful for scraping down a work surface after rolling out pastry, and being plastic you can scrap the worktop down without scratching it.
When shopping around for a new food processor, I look for models that have the sturdiest bowl; usually the clear plastic bowls break before anything else so try to find one with as few fussy bits that can break off as possible.
Look for a decent bowl size capacity of say 2kg dry weight and a large powerful motor of not less than 600 watts. I prefer to have a separate wand type hand blender rather than a blender that is part of the food processor. Keeping the blender separate give you maximum flexibility to move the blender to the pot of hot soup or various sizes of mixing bowls.
Electric hand mixers
These days you can buy even well known make for under £15. At that kind of price if they last for 3-4 years you’ve had your money’s worth, as my mum would say.
The downside though is you can’t leave them mixing whilst you get on with another part of preparation, which you can do with a tabletop version.
The quality of domestic mixers has greatly improved in the last 5-10 years. A brand called Kitchen Aid led the way with a model that was a miny version of commercial mixers. These mixers are so well made they are often now seen in small professional kitchens. The only problem is the price which is around £250-£400. This has caused a rethink by other domestic mixer makers and you can now buy a pretty good model for around £100. If you can afford it, look for mixers with a 4 plus litre bowl capacity, a stainless steel bowl is a plus when whipping cream and staying cold; or you can also use it over boiling water. Again I would look for a powerful motor, but also compare the quality of the whisks, dough hooks & beater blades.