Saturday, December 30, 2017

Knives and other food prep - a starter set & beyond

The last few years I have much expanded my understanding of knives. I really started to get into it by watching Ryky Tran on YouTube (Burrfection). After a lot of experimenting, I decided to compile a list to sort of logically build up a beginners outfit of kitchen knives, which can then be expanded and grow over time. Based on all of that, if I were to start over again, here's how I would like to set myself up today. For some alternative info, I recommend the "Best Kitchen Knives of 2017" from Burrfection 

A serious starter set of knives 

Rada Paring knives galore from 2.5"to 3.25"
Rada "granny paring knife"


  1. A set of paring knives, like the Rada Cutlery Paring Knives Galore Gift Set.  I prefer the aluminum handles for visibility. I think I lost one with the black handle, because of that color, by inadvertently throwing it out with the cuttings.
  2. A bird's beak paring knife, such as the Rada Cutlery "Granny Paring Knife."
    The birds beak design is better for close in peeling tasks, including digging out sprouts from a potato, for you can operate it with your thumb opposing the tip, because of its short length. Bird's beak knives are also better for the slalom and things like tourné cuts.
  3. Don't forget to get a sharpener with it, I would just use Rada's own Quick Edge Knife Sharpener.
  4. A Gefu, or similar potato peelers. A serrated peeler is good for peeling various fruit with thick skins.
  5. A starter set of MAC Original Series Again don't forget a sharpener, probably at least the MAC 8 1/2" White Ceramic Honing Rod (about 1000 grit), or the MAC 8 1/2" Black Ceramic Honing Rod (about 2000 grit). The MAC knives are excellent for your plant-based kitchen, they are very thin, very sharp and slice easily through all plant materials, but you don't want to risk chipping them with overly woody parts or other hard things.
  6. A traditional European 8" Chef Knife, examples are in the budget category the KUMA 8"Chef Knife, or the Imarku 8" Chef Knife, or the Cozi life 8" Chef Knife. Notice that the Kuma and the Cozilife have a softer steel, which is still easy to maintain. You need to have at least one knife like that because the harder knives chip more easily if you ever have to cut hard things, like even peeling a pineapple, or hacking the top off a cassava root. See my notes below... I might go for the Kuma, and its accompanying honing rod. Having said that, I like the Imarku a lot too, but you don't want it as your ONLY chef knife if you already have a set of MAC knives. Burrfection likes the Mercer Culinary M20608 Genesis 8" knife best in the budget category.
  7. You might want to get a decent sharpening stone, a 1000/3000 stone is a good range to have for knives that are not seriously damaged, just dull. A leather strop and stropping compound are no luxury either, it is THE best finishing touch for any knife sharpening job.

The low down on knife maintenance

Knives like Rada are of a softer, stainless steel and will need regular maintenance. Fortunately the company provides a very convenient little sharpening tool. Harder knives like MAC will keep their edges a long time if you don't abuse them, but will need periodic touching up. Fortunately the company provides these ceramic honing rods that are a perfect match for their knives. If you need serious sharpening, you can either send them back to the manufacturer, or get a more serious sharpening setup yourself. The chef knives will need some regular maintenance and periodic sharpening.

Here by the way is a good video to explain why harder knives are worth it, but you will also understand why you need to have some softer knives as well. The bottom line is, harder knives are worth having, but you need to treat them with care, and you should simply let no-one else use them, unless they understand and are coachable about the proper use.

Specialized knives

We're now getting into the dream knives category. As you expand your cooking, this is worthwhile. Knives generally are easier to clean and maintain than fancy kitchen tools, so the more time I spend in the kitchen, the more I prefer knives over other tools in the kitchen, if I can help it at all.
With vegetables the difference between cutting and crushing is very important in general, and even more so if you are serving things fresh. Delicate things such as tomatoes and strawberries will show you the difference. But even slicing celery for a salad is very telling.
It is most important to realize that Nakiri or Usuba knives are not choppers. Their very sharp, delicate edges could be damaged. You want to use them in a locomotive fashion, pushing forward and down and pulling backward and up. The mass of these knives, combined with that gentle rhythm make cutting vegetables almost effortless, and very precise. The design of the blade gives you firm control. Speed comes with practice, but you want to learn proper hand techniques so your fingers never end up under the blade. For the most part it seems the single bevel, or kataba, knives are typically called usuba, and the dual bevel are nakiri. Here is a good intro to single bevel knives. The Usuba are also slightly hollow ground on the back side, enabling thinner slicing. That is where Usuba shines.
Dalstrong Shogun 6" Nakiri knife

Shun Premier 5.5" Nakiri knife

  • An Usuba and/or Nakiri knife, also known as a Japanese Vegetable knife. They range in length from about 5 to about 7". Examples are: the Shun Premier 5.5" Nakiri knife, or a Dalstrong 6" Nakiri knife, both of these are dual bevel, i.e. European style. I also have a Kamikoto 7" Nakiri knife and I love it. Interestingly, Kamikoto calls theirs a Nakiri knife even though it is single bevel, probably because it is not hollow ground on the back. Kamikoto advises me: "You are correct in observing that our Nakiri vegetable knife indeed shares many similarities with an Usuba, including the single bevel sharpening or kataba. However, as Usuba can come in multiple different variations, and as other features of our knife - such as its dimensions, weight, and blade tip - correspond better with traditional Nakiri, we consider our vegetable knife Nakiri rather than Usuba."
  • If you are into thin slicing, you might want to get into a single bevel (kataba-style) or Usuba knife, like the Shun Classic Pro 6.5"Usuba.
    Learning proper technique with an usuba is quite interesting.
  • A stainless Chinese vegetable cleaver is a better option for serious hacking like my example above of chopping the top off a cassava root. For this I love any budget stainless steel Chines vegetable cleaver, or a large chef knife.
  • Ceramic knives are not my favorite for most tasks, I do not like the light weight. The exception is for cleaning fruits, which is delicate work. I like the Kyocera Revolution fruit knife, or the paring knife for that. The downside of ceramic is that it is brittle, so you want to baby these knives, but for the right task they are unbeatable.
  • A high end paring knife/utility knife is a useful addition at some point. My favorite has become the Dalstrong Shogun Paring Knife, but I consider it to be a transition to a small utility knife, just like the MAC paring knife. The MAC paring knife even more so than the Dalstrong is almost designed for small cutting tasks on the board. For both of them the blade is too wide and too long to work effectively with the tip for peeling, etc. that's why I recommended the Rada paring knives. To put things in perspective, you can have a basic set of 3 straight paring knives, a birds beak paring/peeling knife and a sharpener from Rada cutlery for the price of a MAC paring knife, and you can have two MACs for one Dalstrong Shogun. I have had some of my MAC knives for over 30 years and they continue to perform.
In terms of paring knives, my conclusion is that they range from 2.5" to 3.5" in length, and I want them with a narrow blade. The important thing is that they are easy to control in the hand for peeling, etc. The wider, longer paring knives are really small utility knives, and the larger utility knives are small chef knives. In my view, over 4.0" up to 5.5" is the range of utility knives, and so-called paring knives over 3.5" tend to the low end of that range. In short, I agree with the folks from Rada, their paring knives run from 2.5" to 3.25," 3.5" is about the limit for comfortable hand operation.

Other means of slicing and dicing, chopping and blending

For some tasks, other tools do help, although, if you have a good knife collection, you will generally prefer a knife if you can help it. Examples of other useful tools:
  • Mandolin (V-Slicer), for a mandolin, the Swissmar Boerner V-slicer is my favorite. Personally, I prefer the original model, the V-1001 V-Slicer Plus,  the newer version, VPower or V-7000WH is supposedly a bit more compact to pack up, but in my view not necessarily more convenient.
  • Both a Magic Bullet and a Nutribullet are your best options for other blending tasks that are beyond the reach of knives.
  • A good immersion blender, like Braun, is another powerful option. A good one is the Breville BSB510XL, according to Consumer Reports. It is a great way of blending a soup or a sauce right in the pan, and these units have such a small footprint, you can find room for them in any kitchen.
  • Although I used to have larger food processors, my kitchen nowadays is simply too small for them, but I am not so sure that I would have one again if I had all the space in the world. The set of "power tools" listed here is really all you need.
And for the rest, it is whatever makes you happy, but a lot of fancy tools will quickly disappoint. I have owned a ton of garlic presses and crushers, but crushing garlic with the flat of a chef knife and chopping it up by hand is still the hands down winner. Sometimes I crush the cloves in my mortar and pestle. Endless gadgets have been produced to slice herbs. Forget them all. A super sharp Nakiri knife, or even a large paring knife or a utility knife on a good cutting board beats them all and is a hell of a lot easier to clean. Sometimes I think that many of those gadgets come up only because people don't know how to maintain their knives. Go watch some Burrfection and others on YouTube. On and on. Happy slicing and dicing.

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