Everything You Need to Know to Buy Your First Knife

Located in the heart of the diverse, local food culture of San Francisco is the San Francisco Cooking School, a culinary arts academy for aspiring food professionals. In this private school setting, within huge state-of-the-art kitchens, students are able to learn from and cook with some of the best chefs in the industry.

101 Guide: Getting Started with Kitchen Knives
Chef David Groff (R). Photo courtesy of SFCS.

One of these chefs is David Groff, a graduate from the California Culinary Academy and Tante Marie’s Cooking School. Since graduating, David has worked as a line cook at Zuni Café and Gioia, spent time cooking as a personal chef, and, of course, employed his cooking skills to feed his family and friends at home. David is now the lead recreational cooking instructor at SFCS.

His expertise: knife skills. In his three-hour long class – aptly named, Knife Skills – David teaches everyone from novices to amateurs how to handle knives in the kitchen. His class equips you with the skills, proper knife, and ingredients to make a classic Minestrone Soup at home after class.


We recently chatted with Chef David Groff to learn how to buy, use, and maintain our own knives in our tiny kitchens.


GETTING STARTED

WHAT TYPE OF KNIFE SHOULD A BEGINNER COOK BUY FIRST?
A good chef’s knife. 90% of what you cut, you can cut with a chef’s knife. It’s an important investment to make for any kitchen.

SO YOU WOULDN’T SUGGEST BUYING ONE OF THOSE KNIFE BLOCK SETS?
No – the knives included in those sets have been chosen by the manufacturers. While you might get a chef’s knife, you’ll also get three other knives that you only occasionally use or two sets of kitchen shears. I personally don’t agree with their knife choices…and I don’t have any counter space in my tiny apartment to fit a block set. It’s best to buy them individually and start your own collection.

WHICH OTHER KNIVES SHOULD A NEW COOK BUY?
Beyond a chef’s knife, I would suggest a paring knife, serrated knife, a second chef’s knife…and then a steel.


CK Tip: Use a paring knife for peeling small fruits and veggies. A serrated knife is perfect for slicing bread — use a sawing motion to cut through even the crustiest of loaves!


WHAT’S A STEEL?
A blade steel is an approximately 12-inch long rod with ridge and grooves along its edges. It’s not a knife, but a tool that helps you keep the blades aligned. Along the end of every knife is tiny saw teeth that gradually slip out of alignment with each use. Using the blade steel brings these teeth back into alignment, allowing you to make better cuts. You should use the blade steel every time before you chop anything.

101 Guide: Getting Started with Kitchen Knives

SHOPPING

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO FIND A GOOD KNIFE?
Shopping for a knife is a lot like shopping for a car. You have to test drive it, put it in your hands and use it. Everyone prefers a different feel and weight to their knives, so it’s important that you find one that best suits your personal taste. There are stores that have vegetables on hand for you to test out knives before you purchase them. Sur La Table definitely lets you try out them in the store.


Shopping for a knife is a lot like shopping for a car. You have to test drive it, put it in your hands, and use it.


LET’S TALK MONEY. DO WE HAVE TO BUY A KNIFE WITH A THREE-DIGIT PRICE TAG OR CAN WE GET AWAY WITH SOMETHING CHEAPER?
Yes and no. Expensive and less-expensive knives can be used interchangeably; what’s more important is how the knife feels and cuts for you. I have some very expensive knives, and I also have some $20 ones.

More expensive knives can cut and feel better than cheaper knives, but the more noticeable difference is how well they last. Pricier knives are made with more care than are cheaper knives. The $20 knives were probably hammered together by a machine. But the knives that can sell for up to $1,000 were handmade with better quality metal and will definitely last you many years, if you take good care of it.

MAINTENANCE

HOW SHOULD WE TAKE CARE OF OUR KNIVES?
Don’t wash them in the dishwasher. The dishwasher detergent is often too harsh. Wash them by hand with mild soap and water and dry them well to avoid having them rust. Invest in knife sleeves or cases to protect the blades before you put them away in a drawer.

SHOULD WE SHARPEN OUR OWN KNIVES?
Don’t ever sharpen your own knives. The tools they sell online for you to sharpen them at home only shaves off parts of your knives and screws them up. Take your knives to a professional knife sharpener every year, or year and a half, depending on how often you cook. Town Cutler in San Francisco charges you $1 per inch of blade you sharpen, so if you have a 10-inch blade, it would only cost you about $10 a year to keep your knife in good shape. It’s a worthwhile investment.


CK Tip: A sharp knife = no onion tears. A dull blade crushes the onion’s tear-inducing enzymes vs. a sharp blade which cuts through cleanly, minimizing the enzyme’s release.


ONCE WE’VE GOT OUR KNIVES, WHICH CUTS SHOULD WE LEARN FIRST?
The most important part of learning to use a knife is just picking one up, getting it in your hands, and using it. Using a chef’s knife first helps take some of the initial apprehension away.

Start with common, easy to cut vegetables, like onion or celery. From there, learn how to dice, slice, julienne, and mince. There’s a lot that can be taught and learned in a class with a professional chef, but my advice is to not watch just any YouTube tutorial or chef on TV. Some of the chefs – of course, not Gordon Ramsey or James Oliver – don’t hold their knives correctly, and I end up screaming at the TV.

SO WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ALL OF US FIRST-TIMERS IN THE KITCHEN?
Just go for it…but be careful. Don’t walk around the kitchen with your knife in your hand. If you have to, always hold it down at your side. Don’t leave your knife hanging over the edge of the counter, and if it falls, don’t try to catch it. And do try to move your feet if you can.


Ready to try your knife skills on a recipe? Dice up a red bell pepper, and mince some garlic and ginger to make our Asian Chicken Lettuce Cups. If you’re not feeling quite that adventurous yet, start with our simple 30-minute Shakshuka instead. Be sure to check out our short video tutorials too!

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