The Compleat Baker: Tools of the Trade Part 1-Knives and Sharps

Good evening, friends and neighbors! Sorry about the long silence- things have been in a state of upheaval for the last month, but seem to be settling down now. Miss me?

‘Course ya did. Because we’re going to talk about pointy things.

A good knife is one of the Swiss Army… well… knives of the kitchen. In the picture above, you might notice that the only actual “knives” I keep on me are paring knives, a serrated knife, and a chef’s knife. All the rest of my sharps have particular uses, but with those three kinds of knives- with some good knife skills- you could be just fine in a bakeshop without most of the others. 
Kitchen stores will be happy to sell your four-figure matching sets of 15 different kinds of knives with 18 different uses. Better to save your money and just get a few good ones.

Let’s go in order:

The Serrated Slicer
Meet an honest-to-God workhorse for your knife roll. I use this bad boy for BIG jobs- if I need to slice bread, or a whole cake, the teeth on this fella make short work of it. This is also invaluable when I need to reduce a giant slab of chocolate to shaves, or chunked chocolate to sand for smoothest-possible ganache.

The one I use is a stainless steel blade from Sani-Safe, a good commerical brand. Whatever it is you have, as long as it’s a strong blade with good sharp teeth, you’re in business.

The Chef’s Knife
Here it is- the main attraction. The ultimate multi-tasker. Chefs treat their knives like prized heirlooms, and God help you if you handle them without permission. I remember first picking this knife up- it was like a meeting with destiny.
What do I use this knife for?

  • Cutting sheets of pastry.
  • Chopping
  • Smashing
  • Pitting fruit
  • De-ribbing peppers
  • Mincing lobster
  • Slicing fruit
  • Segmenting citrus.

You get the idea.
As much as you will be using this knife, this is NOT one you want to cheap out on. Look for high-carbon steel (good and strong), full tang construction that balances well and feels good in your hand. 
This is your Old Faithful. Your sidearm. Get a good one, take care of it, and you will be giving it to you great-grandchildren one day.

The Sharpening Steel
Not a knife, per se, but necessary and worthy of a place in your knife roll. Most knife sets come with one, or you can get them separately- a long, thin spike of steel with fine ridges. Despite what you have seen in cartoons and on TV, this is NOT for sharpening your knives exactly. Sharpening should be done on a stone or a strop, if not by you then by a professional. Some knives have a warranty where you can send them back to the manufacturer for sharpening.
What running your blade along the steel does is ALIGN the edge. Look under a microscope at the edge of any blade- even a razor blade,- and you’ll see that there are ultra-fine grooves that act like a serrated blade’s teeth. Through use, these grooves can be warped or bent, slightly dulling your blade.
Using a steel properly (such as in this video) re-aligns the edge, along your knife to be as sharp as possible. 
Paring Knives
These little guys are ideal for small jobs- scraping a vanilla bean, seeding a pepper, etc. They are also most likely the knives you will lose track of the easiest. Paring knives, in general, are cheap and you can get a decent one for very little cash. They come in various sizes, shapes, weights, colors- some specialized for different jobs, and others more versatile. Don’t sweat these too much.

Special Tools
There are some jobs in the bake shop that can’t be done by your actual knives. Others CAN be done, but these will just make it easier. We’ll just breeze through these real quick, top to bottom:

  • Rotary Cutter (a.k.a. pizza wheel) Ideal for cutting through sheets of dough for making lattice work, or petit fours. You can get them straight, or in a crinkly-shape especially for pastry- whichever you like. Generally pretty cheap.
  • Pocket Scissors- Because sometimes you need to cut something and only have one hand free. Just make sure they are sharp, easy to clean, and fit in your box.
  • Razor Blades- For cutting vents in pies or trimming crust, even your sharpest knife can drag and tear the dough. For the cleanest cut possible, use razor blades. Don’t saw at the dough with them- just push them in and along for a perfectly clean slice. Absurdly cheap- get them in the grooming section of your drug store or supermarket.
  •  Microplane Zester– For zesting or fine grating, you need one of these guys. Other companies make similar graters, but in my opinion Microplane are the sharpest and best. Just keep them clean! Should run you no more than $15.
  • Box Cutter- Whether it’s slicing open packaging or removing your piping tip from a disposable bag, the heavy-duty razor of a boxcutter is incredibly useful. Find one you like at the hardware or home improvement store near you.
  • Sharpening Stone– The one I have is a portable one of steel with two grains to it, coarse and fine. This is for quicky sharpening jobs. You can get one of these, or actual sharpening stones and honing oil if you have the space and desire. If you don’t feel comfortable working on your knives, take them to a professional sharpener.

Before we wrap things up, just a few words of wisdom to take with you into the kitchen-

  1. KEEP YOUR BLADES SHARP. A sharp blade is easier to control and will cut into what you want it to cut. A dull blade can skip and slide, making you use more force- which can lead to slicing YOURSELF up.
  2. KEEP YOUR BLADES CLEAN. Beyond sanitation reasons, keeping your knives clean improves their function so cuts are cleaner and food is less likely to stick.
  3. RESPECT THE BLADES. These are your tools- they let you do your job. Treat them with respect, and don’t let others fool around or mishandle them.

By the same token, DO NOT TOUCH ANOTHER CHEFS KNIVES WITHOUT PERMISSION. Seriously, professional chefs are REALLY friggin’ territorial about their tools. In the immortal words of Anthony Bourdain: 

Next week, we move on to the next two groups of tools- Mixers and Movers, and Dough Management. As always- and despite the language in that last graphic-

Stay Classy,