Beginners Guide: What Equipment Do I Buy? Part 1: Knives

One of the things I love about cooking is that everyone has their own style. Cooking is an art which means people tend to bring in their own vision, culture, and experiences into every dish they make. I truly love this. I’ve said it once and I will say it again, you can learn a lot about someone based on what they do in the kitchen. Even though this essentially means that everyone brings something different to the kitchen, there is one thing everyone cooking has in common – you need quality tools to get the job done. All chefs need knives, pots/pans, and accessories to bring their food to life.

Which brings me to Zatorrius. Zatorrius (I just call him Z) is one of my best friends that I met at the nationally ranked amazing Florida State University. Z, a fellow foodie, was often my best taste tester. He’s hard to please and has a very specific 3-point scale. “Eh” means its needs work or scrap the recipe. “Meh, its ok” means it’s pretty good, I’m onto something, keep tweaking. “It’s pretty good” means wow, you knocked it out of the park, make me more right now. He’s also one of my go to people for southern food. To this day, his mom made me one of the best southern meals I have ever had. I will often travel with Z and one of my other best friends (Michael) and we try to eat everything on the menu at the restaurants we pass through. Foodie trips are the best trips, especially with these guys.

zName: Zatorrius
Rating: Pretty Good

Z is a decent cook eater and a below average cook (his words, not mine). He has been looking to take his cooking to the next level. When I first started this blog (way back when), he told me he wasn’t sure he owned the cooking equipment he needed for all of your basic cooking needs, likewise, he wasn’t sure what he had was of the right quality or brand. He asked me to do a series on the blog of what every basic or beginner cook should own to produce quality meals. It was a great idea and I should have done it sooner, but I digress. It may be three years too late, but the time has finally come – Z, this one goes out to you.

This series will be broken into three parts. This is part one, Knives. The second part will be for Pots and Pans. Finally, part three will be for Kitchen Accessories and Extras.

In general, this can be a difficult topic to tackle for two reasons. First, everyone has a different budget. Buying kitchen equipment can be expensive. I believe that everyone should be able to make a quality meal for themselves and their family no matter what their budget. Second, one must take into account the level at which you enjoying cooking. Although I consider myself an enthusiast, not everyone that cooks is. However, others really don’t like cooking. Like politicians, cooking is more a necessary evil for some people. Because of these two reasons, I have decided to separate my recommendations into three categories for all three parts of this article:

Minimalist/Starter: This category will contain the least amount of equipment needed to be successful in the kitchen. This is also the cheapest option. Although it may make your life easier to have a few extra things, you will be able to get by in the kitchen with at least these items.
Home Cook/Essentials:
This category will contain what I recommend all beginner cooks have in their kitchen. This is the moderate price option. You will have everything you need to get by in the kitchen without all the extras.
Enthusiast/Professional Amateur:
This category will contain everything you need to be successful in the kitchen (and then some). This is the most expensive option and only recommended for people where budget isn’t a concern and for people who truly love cooking. You won’t need everything in this option to cook, but you will have fun with it. You will feel like Elzar. Or Bobby Flay.

Who would win this epic culinary battle?

Elzar

Elzar

VS

Sunday Pulse - MY NY - Bobby Flay - photo credit: Food Network

Sunday Pulse – MY NY – Bobby Flay – photo credit: Food Network

Please keep in mind that these are just my recommendations. I don’t know your financial situation, how often you cook, or if you even enjoy cooking. Read the categories, think about yourself, and determine your own needs. You could always pick and choose things (based on your own needs) from each category and make your own category. Likewise, if you have specific questions leave a comment, send me a tweet, or an email. I’m happy to help. Before we talk about what to buy, let’s talk about what to look for when shopping for your kitchen knives.

Buying Guide

Personally, I used to feel like an idiot when I approach a salesman in a store and have to ask for help. Usually, I don’t even know what kind of questions to ask, which would make me feel worse. I always assumed the employee is thinking this:

Are_You_SeriousAt this point in my life, I have realized most people don’t think that way. Most people are nice and just want to help. For the employees who do think that way, I don’t really care anymore. I am who I am and I don’t have time to worry about if you think I asked a stupid question. With that in mind, I designed this buying guide to help you understand what makes a good knife and what to look for. You won’t be an expert, you may still need to ask for help, but you will know what kind of questions to ask, which I think is half the battle.
Let’s start by discussing what to look for when purchasing your knives.

Forged vs. Stamped

The most important thing you need to look for when making a knife purchase is whether the knives are stamped or forged.

A forged knife is handmade from a single piece of metal (often stainless steel). This means that the metal which makes up the blade continues into the base of the blade and extends all the way through the handle. This doesn’t seem like much of a distinction, but it is. When the metal goes through the whole handle, it keeps the balance of the knife consistent by adding weight to the back of the knife. The extra weight makes handling the knife much easier and safer. Also, since the knife is handmade, extra care is taken while creating the blade. The end result is sharper. Forged knifes tend to be more expensive than a stamped knife because they cost more material to make. Also, since each knife is handmade, it takes longer to produce forged knives.

A stamped knife is mass produced by a machine. The machine essentially uses a knife cookie cutter to press the metal into a blade shape. The metal is then inserted into the handle, which means the metal does not extend all the way through the handle. These knives tend to be lighter and less balanced, which makes them harder to use and more dangerous. Likewise, since they are mass produced, they tend to be duller knives. However, stamped knives tend to be much cheaper than a forged knife.

Thankfully, this is an easy choice. You want a forged knife. The extra balance and attention to detail during construction makes all the difference in a knife. They are safer, last longer, and make chopping, slicing, dicing, and deboning easier. It’s true that a forged knife is more expensive, but it’s worth it. If you are on a budget, I suggest buying less knives, even if it means you can only afford one, in order to get a forged knife. Remember, most knife accidents in a kitchen happen because a knife is dull. A dull knife can slip in an unexpected direction and cause you to easily cut yourself.
Brand

People get really caught up on what brand to buy. The truth is, as long as the knife has what you want from it (such as forged vs stamped, size, etc), the brand isn’t that important. On that note, if you are looking for a brand recommendation, I can recommend two brands: Wusthof and Henckels. These are the two brands I personally own. Keep in mind though, you shouldn’t buy either of these brands blindly. For example, both brands make forged and stamped knives (the latter of which I cannot recommend). Make sure you know the facts about the knives you choose before you purchase.

There are many other knife brands out there that I would love to recommend. For example, I have heard good things about other brands such as Global, Kanetsune, Shun, Victorinox. However, since I have never tried any of these knives, I cannot recommend them. Maybe in the future if I have a chance to try some other brands, I can update this post to reflect more brands I recommend.

The only brand I personally DO NOT recommend is Cutco. There are two reasons I do not recommend Cutco. First, they do not sharpen easily. The company will sharpen them for you (for free), but they will try to sell you more knives in the process. It’s a pain in the ass (pardon my French). Second, I find their handles to be uncomfortable to hold. You may find yourself cutting for an extended period of time. If you find the knife uncomfortable to hold, this will make that process harder.

Size

Knives often come in different lengths. For example, if you are looking for a chef’s knife, it may come in an 8 inch blade, 9 inch blade, 10 inch blade, etc. There is no secret here. The length of your knife should be proportional to the size of your hand. For example, I am not a tall man. Being short, I have small hands and use a smaller chef’s knife (8 inch). For Zatorrius, who is over 6 feet tall, I would suggest the larger (10 inch) chef’s knife.

So how do you know which size is right for you? Go to a store and hold a few different sized knives in your hand. While you are at it, try out different brands and see which handle you find comfortable. Pick the size and handle that works best for you.
Type of Metal

There are many times of metal (and some non-metal materials) that are used to produce knives. In the end though, for a beginner, it isn’t worth it to explain each type of knife material. The best option for beginners (and most home chefs) is stainless steel. It’s sharp, easy to clean/sharpen, and a good value price wise. Just be sure to clean your knife by hand rather than throwing it into the dish washer.


Knife Descriptions

Chef’s Knife

IMG_5233The Chef’s knife will be your most used knife in the kitchen. It’s great for cutting both meat and vegetables into just about any shape or size. It could even be used to debone meat. This knife is built to be an all-around tool. Although it can be used for just about anything, it does have two weaknesses. The first is its size. If you are trying to cut something small into a specific shape, it can be difficult due to its large size. Its second weakness is for cutting bread. It can cut bread, but you have a high chance the bread won’t retain its shape. Despite these two weaknesses, this knife can do just about anything else in the kitchen. If you only buy one knife, this is the one to get.

Bread Knife

IMG_5235Also known as a serrated knife, the main use you will get out of this knife is for cutting bread. The serrated edges will allow you to cut bread without damaging its shape. In addition to cutting bread, this knife is your best option for cutting fruits or vegetables that have a waxy outside and a soft inside (such as a tomato).

Paring Knife

IMG_5240The paring knife I sometimes refer to as a detail knife. It can be used to cut small vegetables, fruits, meats, and cheeses. Likewise, it could be used to debone something small (like a chicken wing) or to peel fruit/vegetables (like an apple). If you only use this knife for those things, you aren’t getting the most out of it. After all, you could do almost all of that with a Chef’s knife. Since this knife is small, you have more control over the knife. For this reason, it is often used to create presentation details. For example, cutting a strawberry into a flower shape for dessert.

Santoku Knife

IMG_5234A Santoku Knife is a variation on a Chef’s Knife. The indentations on the side of this knife help fruits and vegetables fall off the knife when cut (rather than stick to the side). The other difference is the overall shape vs a traditional Chef’s Knife. The blade itself is much straighter than a Chef’s knife. It also features a pointer edge which allows for some detail work. The big negative to this knife compared to a Chef’s knife is its speed. The extra curves on a traditional Chef’s Knife allow you to cut in a fast rocking motion. Although a Santoku Knife is capable of this, it’s more efficient when used in an up and down motion.

Flexible Boning Knife

IMG_5237This knife has two purposes. It’s either used to debone an animal or fillet a fish. The knife is skinny and is bendable in order to maneuver as needed while butchering an animal. It has a think base to provide a place for your fingers to give extra control.

Kitchen Shears

IMG_5239These are basically scissors you can use on food. These can be used in a similar fashion as a paring knife when you are looking for speed over precision. For example, I tend to use this to separate the wing from the drumstick on chicken. These things encourage creativity. I’ve seen people come up with interesting uses for these. I saw a guy on Food Network who used these to cut basil for pizza at his restaurant in New York. It wasn’t necessary, but that was the way he did it.

Carving Knife

IMG_5236A carving knife really only has one use – to carve a big piece of meat, usually on a holiday. This knife could be used for turkey, ham, chicken, or even a brisket (among many other foods). Realistically, you would probably only use this knife once or twice a year. However, I can only image how quickly your turkey on Thanksgiving, which took 6 hours to cook, could be ruined if your knife isn’t sharp enough and you can’t cut it properly. I’m sure your family will understand…


Utility Knife

IMG_5238Much like the paring knife, a Utility Knife is similar to a Chef’s knife. Its main difference (like a paring knife) it’s the knifes size and shape compared to a Chef’s Knife. Use a Utility knife for vegetables or meats which are too large for a paring knife, but too small for a Chef’s Knife (this is subjective), such as celery. Honestly, it’s nice to have, but not needed. You can do 99% of the work this knife can do with a Chef’s Knife.

 

What to Buy

Minimalist/Starter

For the Minimalist/Starter, I am only suggesting two knives, the Chef’s Knife and a Bread (serrated) Knife. With these two knives, you can do 99% of everything you would need to do in a kitchen. The major things you would be missing is easily being able to debone an animal or detail work on your food for presentation. If you prefer a Santoku Knife, you could switch this knife for a Chef’s knife.

Home Cook/Essentials

For the Home Cook/Essentials category, I recommended the following knives:

  • Chef’s Knife
  • Bread Knife
  • Paring Knife
  • Flexible Boning Knife

This way, you have all your bases covered. You can easily chop, slice, julienne, debone, fillet, and detail just about anything. You won’t be missing anything essential if you buy these four knives.

Enthusiast/Professional Amateur

For the Home Enthusiast/Professional Amateur category, I recommended the following knives:

  • Chef’s Knife
  • Bread Knife
  • Paring Knife
  • Santoku Knife
  • Flexible Boning Knife
  • Kitchen Shears
  • Carving Knife
  • Utility Knife

By buying these knives, you will be able to do anything. Is it overkill? Of course it is. Do you need all these knives? Probably not. But, you will be prepared for any dish at any time. You will be able to make just about any recipe no matter how impractical or unlikely it is. You might as well start challenging yourself to breaking down obscure animals. Might I suggest starting with a fish the rest of your family has never heard of?

 

Cutting boards, Sharpeners, and honers

Now that you have your knives, you need a few extras. The first thing you need is a cutting board. Please, please (I beg you) buy a wood cutting board. I know some people think they trap bacteria (I’m looking at you mom). They don’t. End of story. In fact, wood cutting boards are MORE sanitary then the alternatives. Likewise, its one of the few surfaces you can cut on that won’t damage your knives. As far as size goes, get the biggest cutting board that will fit the area in your kitchen that you will be using for cutting.

Now, take a look at the tool below:

Honer

If you buy a set of knives, they usually come with this thing. It’s often called a sharpener. It’s not. This is a honer. You use a honer to straigthen the edge of your blade. Most of the time, you use a honer right after you sharpen your blade. Buy one of these if you can, just know what it is actually used for.

On that note, your knife will need to be sharpened every one to two months (depending on use). You can use a sharpening stone or a pull through sharpener. (pictured below).

Sharpenershaprestone

I suggest the pull through sharpener as it doesn’t require any special training to use.

Final Thoughts

I believe that about wraps it up. Thanks for sticking with me the whole way. If you have specific questions, feel free to send an email, tweet, or leave a comment below. Look for part 2 in the future, where I will discuss pots and pans.