Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The truth about paring knives

Periodically, I get excited about kitchen tools, everything to make life easier in the kitchen. Using the appropriate tools really does make a difference.

A good shopper can find excellent tools for a reasonable price, the trick is to know what tools you need to really make your life easier.

For the most part, a paring knife is about tasks you can do by hand, i.e. off the board. There are however two main varieties and it pays to know the difference.

Some of the best knives I've owned in my life were no-name knives, and others I picked up at street fairs. One of my favorites for an easy to maintain paring knife is Rada Cutlery. Besides a regular full length paring knife, they offer what they call a "granny paring knife," which has a curved "beak-like" bladed, like this:

Rada "Granny Paring" Knife
That type of a paring knife, or it's close equivalent, a peeling-paring knife, which typically has a short blade (like 2.5") are great for peeling apples or potatoes, because of the short blade and the long handle, they offer great control of the tip when you have to cut out the sprouts from a potato, or cut out the seeds from an apple, or simply in peeling fruit. In those jobs, I find myself controlling the action with my thumb, and if the paring knife is too long, you end up gripping the blade, and that's not a comfortable situation, and outright dangerous with some of the wider blades.
In other words, these curved paring knives are especially good in the curves, or when you want to do a tourné cut. The other solution for the peeling problem is is the "peeling paring" knife from Rada:

Rada Cutlery's 2-1/2 "peeling paring" knife
Again, these little paring knives are good in the curves, and offer a sharp tip, for coring fruit or the sprouts of a potato, and ideal for situations where you have to oppose the tip with your thumb.

Regular paring knives typically have blade lengths of 3.5" to 4" and the emphasis for these is more on cutting or slicing, mostly off the board, but sometimes on. There are some of these with a straight edge, which are really a compromise between the super short peelers, and a paring knife, for they offer the sharp point that is good for paring. I have a Sabatier 3.75" paring knife like that. It came with my original Sabatier set, and it remains a favorite. In my view, if you're going to have just one paring knife, this is the type you want. The blade is not too wide at the base.
Sabatier set with 3.5"straight edge paring knife
Many paring knives are more for cutting and slicing various finicky small items. The general idea of a paring knife is in the hand, off the board.

At the high end, Dalstrong offers a knife like that, which has become a favorite of mine. Besides super sharpness and long edge retention, these Dalstrong paring knives have superb handles, which give you a lot of comfort and control. They also have a weight that I actually appreciate when cutting. However, because of the type of steel and the shape of the blade (long, and fairly wide), this is for the straightaway, and not for the slalom course. It is unsurpassed for a task like preparing scallions, where you will really appreciate the difference between cutting and crushing. However, the wide, flat and fairly straight blade means you need another paring knife to handle the curves...
Dalstrong Shogun series 3.75" paring knife.
 Fortunately, Dalstrong also offers a peeling knife, as in here:
Dalstrong Shogun 3" peeling knife
These types of bird's beak knives are also ideal for a "tourné"- cut, where you cut in a slightly rounded fashion. This video makes the point whey the "bird's beak" design makes it easier, although you can actually do it with any decent paring knife if you have to. But you can see the attraction of having some different paring knives.

Some other paring knives, such as the Kyocera Revolution, and the MAC original series, have rounded tips, and are really purely for slicing and less so for peeling, or even small jobs on the board. These also often have wide blades, so besides not having a tip, they are awkward to control if you need to control the tip. You don't want to be gripping a wide blade like that. For the rest, the lightness of ceramic knives is actually a feature that I don't generally, like except for delicate tasks like quartering strawberries and then the lightness is an asset.

Kyocera Revolution, 3.7" paring knife
Another example is the MAC 4" paring knife, which besides not having a tip and a wide blade, has a handle shaped for on-board cutting, so it is really a transition between a true paring knife and a small utility knife. I have had one in my kitchen for 30 years. And it's another favorite for the right tasks.
MAC Original Series 4" Paring Knife.

All the usual precautions apply. The harder the steel, the longer it keeps its edge, but also the more brittle it is. That applies especially also to ceramic, which is super sharp, and keeps its edge a long time, but it is no good for twisting and turning, for they will snap. The best compromise approach at the high end are knives like the Dalstrong Shogun, where the central core is a high carbon steel with 62+ Hardness on the Rockwell Scale, while the outer layers of the steel are stainless. This layered method of knife construction (Damascus steel) is the best of both worlds in a lot of ways, but you should remember very strongly not to leave it wet for the super sharp edge is also more prone to corrosion. So you want to use it, wash it, and dry it and put it away safely for the next time. Typically knives are in the range of HRC 55-66 on the Rockwell scale, where 66 is really extremely brittle, so that harder may not be better. It is really a matter of compromise. Softer knives don't keep their edge as long, but they are also easier to sharpen.

The conclusion is, you can find excellent paring knives from $6 to $60, and anywhere in between, but what you want to watch for is the appropriate tool for the task, so that with experience, I found myself liking the two separate types, both a regular 3.5" to 4.0" paring knife and a 2.5" to 3.0" peeler to navigate the curves.

As I wrote in my previous post, if you want to know about knives, Ryky Tran is your man, his channel is Burrfection on Youtube. I find him fun to watch and he really motivated me to restore some old knives that I had neglected for a while. It remains true that dull knives are really dangerous, because they are harder to control. That applies in spades to paring knives, because you often use them for finicky little tasks and tight corners, so if you lose control, you can easily hurt yourself, whereas if you maintain them well, all your tasks are easier.

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