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Chop Chop
by Kate Whitfield
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.3

Imagine a world without knives. Pots would be enormous. You'd be gnawing at a whole watermelon and trying to spit-roast a cow. Let's face it: the situation would be dire. To have knives is, indeed, a blessing. But to have the right knives is empowering. Cast your mind back to student days, when you went to Safeway and bought the $3.59 knife; the one with the blade that bent when hacking at anything tougher than a zucchini. Well, it's graduation time!

The one problem when stumbling through the brave new world of real kitchen knives is that if you don't know what you're doing, you could end up with nothing more than sharp utensils and lots of lacerations. So before you head out with your fistful of cash and a burning desire to julienne, take a few minutes to find out the basics -- what to look for, what to do when you've finally taken the big plunge.

What You Need
"A kitchen's knife needs are as simple as they need to be," says Suzie Hawes of Scullerymade, Malvern, Victoria's paradise of culinary wares. "A few top-quality blades will set you up for a lifetime of dicing." According to Hawes, the star of the show is an eight-inch (20cm) blade commonly called a cook's or chef's knife. You can use this for just about anything -- from parsley to pumpkin.

Runner-up is a carving knife with either an eight-inch (20cm) or 10-inch (26cm) blade. But don't try to be too fancy and get both. "The length of the blade is a matter of either/or," Hawes says. "Try out both sizes, and see what's most comfortable for you. Feel the balance of the knife, and decide which suits your hand best."

After these two blades, go for a six-inch (16cm) utility knife, and a five-inch (13cm) or three-inch (8cm) paring knife. "Those four blades will get you through the entire spectrum of kitchen tasks," she says.

But if you've got lots of money and like to accumulate stuff, there's a range of extras that you can get, including filleting, boning and ham knives; a wavy-edged slicer; an oriental cleaver; and a carving fork, along with one essential -- a sharpening steel. Hawes recommends an oval-shaped steel, which gives more of a guide and is great for beginners.

What To Look For
There are criteria for buying a knife beyond pressing it on your finger to see if it hurts. Top-notch knives are made from fully forged steel. This means the steel has been tempered by heat and cold, and there are no joins between blade and handle. Hence, no weakness. The Germans are the best at this process, and the French are pretty good. "A fully forged steel knife is the easiest to sharpen and maintain, and, if properly looked after, will provide a lifetime's use," Hawes says. One of these fully forged beauties, say a cook's knife, should set you back between $50 and $100.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that you can get a cartful of knives at Safeway for that amount. Money should certainly be considered, Hawes admits, but not surprisingly, quality -- not quantity -- is the answer. Even those block sets that you can get for around $100 will leave you with inferior quality knives along with a couple that you'll never use in your life. The best idea is to buy one or two knives as you go. But buy the best you can afford, and build up a set gradually.

What To Do With Them
This is where that sharpening steel is important. And it's not a once-a-year thing when you need to vent some aggression. If you love your knives, sharpen them every night. Another very important tip: never put your knives in the dishwasher, no matter what the manufacturer says. Two reasons: "The extreme heat and cold that the steel experiences in the forging process tempers the blade and gives it great strength and durability. The extremely hot water of the dishwasher upsets this temper, and over time the blade becomes very brittle and hard to sharpen. So to clean your knives, simply wipe the blade under running water. That's it."

The second reason is that the rivets in the knives are made of aluminum, which oxidizes over time in the dishwasher. The handle will then become loose, and then the knife's pretty much had it.

The third important point is storage. Think of your knife edges like prima donnas, who wouldn't even think of staying in the show if they had to share a dressing room with the chorus. General utensil drawers are not the place for your knives. Your two options are a knife block or a strong wall magnet. Again, it's totally a matter of preference.

Hawes' best advice: "Do the market research and choose knives that have really stood the test of time. That's what it's all about."

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