Sharp knives are a home cook's greatest tools
The metal-on-metal swoosh-swoosh sound of cooks honing their knife blades on steel rods keeps a near-constant rhythm in Tom Azar's kitchen at the Lauderdale Yacht Club in Fort Lauderdale.
Keeping knives sharp, straight and nick-free is a smarter way to cook than using dull blades, Azar said.
"You'll work twice as hard with a dull knife," said Azar, executive chef of the private Fort Lauderdale club who formerly cooked at Emeril's in Miami Beach and City Hall the Restaurant in Miami. "A sharp knife gives you cleaner cuts," making you work more efficiently.
Plus, he said, a blunted blade can lead to injury-causing slips.
"A dull knife will hack up everything," Azar said.
While cutlery experts, restaurant chefs and experienced home cooks suggest routine DIY touchups with a honing steel and sharpener, they also recommend periodic professional sharpenings.
For most at-home cooks, twice-a-year visits to the sharpening shop will leave blades so fresh and fine-tuned that they remind us what a joy it is to chop, cube, slice and dice.
In the market for new knives?
German and Japanese brands known for their quality, value and reliability include Wusthof, Shun, Zwilling J.A. Henckels and Global.
And four kinds of blades that should be in any set are a chef's knife, a serrated knife, a paring knife and santoku knife.
No matter whether you have a new set of knives or ones just back from a sharpening, proper storage can greatly extend their lives. Keep in mind:
Keep them out of the dishwasher. The harsh detergent and heavy jostling can damage and dull knife blades. Instead, carefully wash with a sponge using warm, soapy water.
Don't leave them soaking. Someone could get cut by a knife hidden at the bottom of a murky pool of dishwater. Or other utensils and dishes could blunt the blade.
Use the right board. Wooden cutting boards are most forgiving on knife edges; acrylic and ceramic dull blades faster.
Store separately. Don't crowd knives in a drawer with other utensils; they'll get damaged. Keep knives in a wooden block holder or a wall-mounted magnetic strip.
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Four essential knives
A small, all-purpose knife designed for intricate work, such as deveining shrimp or skinning a small fruit or vegetable. The blades are thin and short, about 2 to 4 inches long. Use this knife for paring (of course), peeling, coring and pitting or removing the tops of strawberries, or any small slicing jobs like garlic cloves.
Price: $5 to $100
A utility knife useful for everything from cutting meat to dicing vegetables. It's considered the most important, go-to and versatile knife to have in the kitchen. It comes in several lengths, but an 8-inch blade is a good standard size. ("Anything bigger than 9 inches is hard to control," chef Tom Azar said.) The blade should be wide at the heel end (near the handle) and taper to a point at the tip end.
Price: $20 to $200
Designed with "teeth" that cut bread without crushing it, a serrated knife is great for baked goods. It also works like a charm for cutting fruits and vegetables that have a firm skin but a soft interior, like tomatoes. Use it in a sawing motion, without applying much downward pressure.
Price: $10 to $90
Similar to a chef's knife, and just as versatile, a santoku knife features a flat blade with grooves near the sharp edge to prevent food from sticking to it. Excellent for cutting vegetables into even cubes or matchsticks.
Price: $40 to $200-plus
Practice your chiffonade and fine chopping skills with the herbs and vegetables in this recipe. This quintessential garden pasta includes lots of fresh herbs, as well as leafy greens. The specific vegetables and herbs used are up to you; choose what looks best at the market.
1 pound fettuccine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups very thinly sliced mixed vegetables (asparagus, baby carrots, baby leeks, baby zucchini, green onions and sugar snap peas)
1 cup whole, shelled fresh or thawed frozen peas or baby lima beans, or mix of both
1 cup heavy whipping cream or 1 cup milk mixed with 1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon thinly sliced lemon zest
2 cups loosely packed baby arugula
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
½ cup roughly chopped or chiffonade of mixed fresh herbs such as basil, chervil, chives, mint, parsley and tarragon, divided
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the fettuccine and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 6 minutes. While pasta is cooking, scoop out 1 ½ cups of pasta cooking water; set aside.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until softened and fragrant, but not browned, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup of reserved pasta water. Add the sliced vegetables and peas or lima beans (if using fresh). Cover and simmer until the vegetables are just tender, about 3 minutes. Add the milk or cream and lemon zest. Bring to a simmer.
Drain the fettuccine and return to its cooking pot. Toss with the vegetables and cream sauce, arugula, Parmesan, all but 1 tablespoon of the herbs, and the pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If necessary, adjust the consistency of the sauce with the reserved ½ cup pasta water; the sauce should generously coat the vegetables and pasta. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the remaining fresh herbs and the pine nuts.
Source: Adapted from Fine Cooking Fresh: 350 Recipes That Celebrate the Season by the editors and contributors of Fine Cooking magazine (Taunton Press, $19.95)