A gift for the cook

Knive block with knivesYou don’t need a lot of equipment to cook for one or for many, but good knives are  necessary if you are going to cook efficiently and pleasurably.  Whether you’re purchasing for yourself or looking for a gift for the cook in your life, knives make a gift that keeps on giving over and over and over. Many times, especially for small quantities, a knife is better than the food processor–especially since it’s so much easier and faster to clean.  (But remember that knives are very personal in terms of how they feel to the user, so keep that receipt even if you’re giving the knives as a gift so that they can be exchanged if necessary).

When you’re buying knives, you should know that the “set” of knives in a storage block may not be the best way to go.  As with pots and pans, the sets are most likely devised by the vendor to get the most money out of your pocket and into theirs, without serious consideration of actual utility in the kitchen.  Just as with your basic pots and pans, I would advocate purchasing knives à la carte rather than in a set since most sets do not have the most useful selection of knives and can be expensive.

The knives that you see here are ones that I’ve collected over many years of cooking, both at home and in restaurants.  As you can see, it’s not a matched set!

The latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated (November & December 2011, pp. 25-27) evaluated knife sets for quality and usefulness.  If you’re thinking of buying knives (for yourself or as a gift) I’d recommend taking a look at this article. You shouldn’t just shop the “celebrity” knives  since (just like celebrity cookware)  many of those just aren’t really the best knives you can get. This article covers the basic knives that make up a functional set for most kitchen jobs.   I’ve collected mine independently but I find that my selections are very close to those in this article.

Chef’s knives are the workhorses of the kitchen–the knife that you’ll reach for most often.  I have two:  an 8-inch and a 6-inch.  The 8-inch is large enough to handle that butternut squash or head of cabbage, and the six-inch handles smaller jobs.  The eight-inch is a Wüsthof classic model.  I like this for tougher jobs as it’s a heavy knife.  The 6-inch is a Zwilling J.A. Henckels knife.  It’s lighter than the Wüsthof and works well for lighter chopping jobs.  I don’t use these (even the heavier Wüsthof for dismembering poultry or attacking bones as that’s hard on the edges and I want these to stay sharp–I use heavy duty scissors or a cleaver.

Straight-blad and bird's beak paring knives

Paring knives

Another real necessity for the kitchen is a good paring (peeling) knife with a 3-1/2- to 4-inch blade.  I’ve also added a Wüsthof bird’s beak paring knife that I find very comfortable for peeling jobs where an Oxo vegetable peeler won’t do the job.  The bird’s beak is light and very comfortable to use for shaping, or peeling small curvy things.

Carbon steel slicing knife

Slicing knife

A slicing knife has a thinner blade that is more flexible for carving that bird or roast, or smoked salmon or salami.  This is a carbon steel one that has been with me for many years.  I use it for tomatoes and  bread as well.  Were I to replace it now, I would get a 10- or 12-inch blade as this is just a bit too short to easily use on a free-form boule.

OXO bread knife

Bread knife

If you buy unsliced bread (or bake your own) you might want a bread knife–I do have one, although the slicing knife is often the one that gets used even for artisan style breads.  While the Cook’s Illustrated  tests recommended the Wüsthof classic 10-inch bread knife, I have an Oxo bread knife that I’m satisfied with–not that I wouldn’t love to have the Wüsthof bread knife, but my budget doesn’t stretch that far for a bread knife (but did for the chef’s knives and paring knives since they get used so much).

With almost all knife sets you find something called a “utility” knife–sometimes serrated, sometimes not.  These are not the kitchen workhorses that the chef’s and paring knives are.  Over the years, I’ve acquired two–one Victorinox/Forschner and one Henckels Friodur cutlery.  They don’t get used very often though they are nice to have around, but by no means essentials.  I’ll sometimes reach for these when I’m slicing smaller tomatoes, or meats since they also have thin blades similar to the slicing knife.

The other knives that I’ve added are a boning and fillet knives.  The 6-inch and the 4-inch boning knives, with the sturdy blade, and pointed tip let you work around joints and bones easily.  The 4-inch one gets a lot of use for boning chicken thighs (a staple in my chicken use).  The fillet knife (Sabatier) with the slender, flexible blade makes taking the skin off a piece of fish a breeze.

A steel is good to have, so long as you learn to use it properly, and realize that it does not sharpen your knives…it merely hones or realigns the edges.  For sharpening you can use a stone if you’re comfortable with that, or a knife sharpener if you want to do it yourself…or have your knives sharpened by a professional.  You do need to keep knives sharp–otherwise they are frustrating, and dangerous.

With proper care, your knives will last a lifetime:  they should NOT be put in the dishwasher, but hand washed, rinsed with very hot water, and dried immediately after use.  You should store them in a block or on a magnetic holder to protect the blades (and fingers).

Cook’s Illustrated testing recommendation was an à la carte set, including a storage block, which resembles what I’ve described above (without the fillet and second boning knife) which can ring in at about $334.  If you want to do less searching and pick up a set, then the Victorinox 7-piece set is a good bet–for around $189.  I’ve used the Victorinox knives and given price and functionality, they would be my choice for a set or as “best buy” in terms of the most bang for the buck.  Whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone else, I’d recommend checking that review keeping in mind that Cook’s Illustrated does not accept advertising, and they do not accept products for review from manufacturers, nor do manufacturers get any notice that their products are being  tested until the results are published.

Kitchen equipment for small-time cooking

One of the most important things in doing “small-time” cooking is to have the right equipment.  You don’t need a lot, just the best that you can afford.  Good equipment makes cooking easier and thus, more enjoyable.

It’s interesting what other serious cooks feel are the basics for cooking.  When so many kitchen gadgets are promoted, it’s easy to pick up things that sound great but really are not necessary, and may not even work well.  I had not really though about the bare essentials until I read what Michael Ruhlman gave as his five basic items: “my truly minimalist kitchen would have a chef’s knife, cutting board, large sauté pan, flat-edged wood spoon and a large Pyrex bowl”.  For the purposes of cooking for one, I might suggest that a smaller sauté pan might be in order, but otherwise those things would give you basic cooking tools.  You can certainly start minimalist and add as you find your cooking style.

One of the most important things in you kitchen is your knives.  Have knives that are comfortable to use–go to a store where you can actually pick them up and feel the weight and the balance.  I like heavy knives; I have a mix of brands chosen because I like the feel, the heft and balance of a particular knife.  You frequently see Wüsthoff, Henkles and, more recently, a number of Japanese knives, in the “gourmet” stores and catalogs, but there are good serviceable knives available that are less  expensive.    You need to buy the best knives you can afford that are comfortable in your hand and fit your cutting style.   If you feel clueless about knives, Consumersearch offers a report on various brands of knives that may be useful. You don’t need a lot of knives; buy the knives that do the things that you do in the kitchen.  You can always add specialty knives as your cooking repertoire expands.  For basic kitchen tasks, a chef’s knife, a slicer and a utility paring knife are good starters.  If you use lots of bread, then you might also want a bread knife but a good, sharp slicer can handle bread.  If you filet fish, then you may well want a specific knife for that–buy only what you need.  There is no point in having a huge set of knives, but using only a couple.  Your money would be better spent in other ways.

A French (chef’s) knife is the real workhorse of the kitchen:  it cuts vegetables, chops, minces; it’s broad tapered blade lets you perform a “rocking” motion for chopping.   A slicer  or slicing knife, with its long, thin blade can slice meats, breads, and tomatoes.  A utility paring knife of 3-1/2 to 4 inches–looking a bit like a small chef’s knife, is good for coring, taking eyes out of potatoes, peeling, et cetera.  These form a sound base of kitchen work.  I also like a “bird’s beak” paring knife that has a short, thin, curved blade makes quick work of shaping and peeling.

I’d consider a cutting board as a necessity even for a minimalist kitchen since I want to treat my knives well.  Cutting boards can be made of so many different things and in such different prices that it can be hard to make a decision.  I would recommend looking at some product reviews, such as Cook’s Illustrated where the testing done is unbiased, and where they are not selling a product.  One of the things that’s important to me is the feel of the board while chopping–it’s hard to beat wood for chopping comfort.  The down side of wood is the necessity of hand washing, and conditioning them; but it takes only seconds, so that’s not the deciding factor for me.  I also have plastic cutting boards in my kitchen; the feel is different from wood, but I still find it comfortable.  I like my cutting boards to be light enough that I can pick them up to move ingredients, rather than having to scrape them up in order to transfer them to their destination.

Another important item for your “small-time” cooking are pots and pans of the appropriate size for the quantity of food that you are cooking.  Quality of these in important too: heavy enough for good even heat transfer.   A 12-inch skillet is just not going to work the same when cooking one chop as when cooking four chops.  The appropriate size pan controls evaporation.  Cooking that single chop in a large skillet will get you burned fond.  Cooking that same chop in a smaller pan will give you that wonderful, browned base for a pan sauce.  Don’t be tempted to buy that set of pots and pans that is suitable for cooking for four or more; if that’s what you have now, your cooking for one will improve when you invest in some smaller pans suited to the size of servings that you are cooking.  Almost all of my cookware is All-Clad, with the occasional piece of Calphalon mixed in.

A food processor is nice, but not by any means a necessity; I have a Krups blender/food processor–the same base works for blender and for the food processor as well.  It’s a very basic food processor–it does not shred, or really do much but chop things.  For a lot of things I won’t use it because I need such a small quantity that it is easier to use a knife which is much quicker to clean than the food processor.  There are times when I would not want to be without the food processor though: when I want to make up mirepoix or soffrito (sofrito) to put in the freezer, or when I want to make a huge pot of chili and need bunches of onions chopped.  Mostly for cooking for one, I use knives or a mortar and pestle for chopping or mincing.

There is one kitchen gadget that I’m in love with:  my immersion blender which comes with a small “processor”, a whisk, and tall container that lets you make mayonnaise or vinaigrette quickly and easily in small quantities, with much less cleanup than the standard food processor.

If you’re serious about cooking for one, get some good knives that fit your hand, and some good pots and pans that are small enough for a single serving–or maybe two servings!