What’s the most useful style (or styles) of knife?
“A good knife is the most important part of any kitchen,” says David Carter, the founder of London barbecue joint Smokestak. But that’s not to say you need many; as the inimitable Anthony Bourdain wrote in Kitchen Confidential: “Please believe me, here’s all you will ever need in the knife department: one good chef’s knife, as large as is comfortable for your hand.” A Japanese gyuto or santoku will fit the bill for “around 90% of kitchen tasks”, says Tom Saunders, co-founder of knife emporium Kitchen Provisions in London. “The santoku is 16cm or 18cm; the gyuto runs from 18cm to 21cm or 24cm, but I normally push people to the longer size.”
Chef John Chantarasak, whose book, Kin Thai: Modern Thai Recipes to Cook at Home, is released this month, also suggests a gyuto: “They tend to be strong and lightweight, with a multi-purpose blade that can be used for almost any task.” He recommends a 21cm blade, because it “hits the sweet spot for larger tasks while still having the necessary agility to perform more intricate cutting jobs”.
Then, Saunders adds, you might want a petty knife – “that is, a little knife for whipping the tops off tomatoes, strawberries, or cutting a lemon” – and a bread knife. “After that, let your heart take you where you want to go.” That might, Carter suggests, be towards a paring knife: “It’s a bit more delicate [than a chef’s knife] and has a more flexible blade.” But the good news, Kate, is that you don’t have to decide straight away: “What people think they need and what they actually need are two different things,” Saunders says. And he speaks from experience: “Most people come in [to the shop] and want to buy a set of knives, but I don’t think I’ve ever sold a set of knives.” Instead, save your pennies and buy a better version of that chef’s, petty or bread knife.
These things can, of course, be pricey. “Like anything, you pay for quality,” says Chantarasak, whose favourite knife (a 20cm Miyabi 500MCD 67) takes 10 weeks to make. “Saying that,” he counters, “I started out with a set of German Wüsthof knives, that will set you back around £80 just for a decent chef’s knife. I still use it at home nearly 10 years later, so I wouldn’t consider it the biggest expense”. If you want to spend less, Carter suggests Victorinox (“lots of chefs starting up will have those”), which start at about £24; Opinel are worth a look, too.
Whatever you go for, however, keep that knife on point. “The thing people completely neglect is sharpening,” Saunders says. “I spend a lot on whetstones, and they’re utterly boring things, but what they do is amazing.” How often you choose to sharpen your knife depends on how much you use it – and what you use it for. “As a rule of thumb, every five months is good.” And getting into the habit of sharpening on a stone comes with an added benefit, Carter adds. “There’s a real motion to it … it’s a bit like therapy.”