Paul Hogan, who not only knows how to slip another shrimp on the barbie, but undoubtedly knows how to neatly devein that little sucker, tapped into every amateur cook's collective unconscious when, in the movie "Crocodile Dundee," he was challenged by a New York thug with a rather puny knife.
"That's no knife," says Hogan, reaching for the back of his belt. " This is a knife."
And out comes something that looks like a combination of Bowie knife and scimitar. Only a lot bigger. The punk flees.
At that moment, every home-grown cook in the audience makes plans to head down to the local cutlery shop in the morning and thumb a few blades.
This is not the same sort of carnivorous reaction that one sees at "Rambo" pictures, where the audience is wearing camouflage fatigues and dreams of defoliating rain forests with wicked titanium-bladed weapons. No, the cook sees the knife as a passport to big fun in the kitchen, not simply an assertion of independence from whirling electronic gadgets, but an opportunity to show off, to be D'Artagnan in a striped apron.
There is true, visceral pleasure in the simple act of dicing an onion--if you do it with a really wonderful knife, one that is balanced like a $150 putter and tapers down to an edge you could pound through a railroad tie. An old friend you could shave with if you were inclined, a superb instrument that makes almost all other kitchen gadgets seem redundant.
Go ahead, take away my food processor, my blender, my citrus juicer, my cherry pitter, my melon baller, my lemon zester. But make a move toward my 8-inch French chef's knife and you risk the mark of Zorro. It is the weapon I use to subdue food in its unruly natural state and transform it into obedient cuisine. And I believe everyone who cooks deserves at least one really fine knife.
This will cost you a bit of money, but let's face that later. First, let's get to the nature of the tool itself.
A fine knife is not just supposed to be able to cut, but to cut easily and precisely. It therefore must be sharp. This seems like an obvious point until one watches someone in the kitchen who is manhandling food with a dull knife, making, for instance, lumpy red puree out of tomatoes that were supposed to be crisply sliced.
The best knives are made from high-carbon stainless steel, said Dan Delavan, the co-owner of Plaza Cutlery in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. The metal won't rust or tarnish and is hard enough to hold a keen edge for years with proper maintenance. It can be highly heat-tempered and finely ground. Non-stainless carbon steel is considered today to be "from the old school," said Delavan, although some cooks still resolutely prefer them, tarnish or no tarnish. (They discolor when they come in contact with acid.)
The thinness of the blade just behind the cutting edge helps determine how sharp the knife can be, Delavan said. If the area is thin, the blade can cut more easily. A thicker, chisel-type blade can be dull, however, and the entire blade can be more difficult to push through the object being cut.
Good knives also just feel good in your hands. They have a certain heft and a balance that makes it easier to wield them when slicing or chopping. Anyone who has tried to chop up bell peppers with a dime-store knife knows this (and generally wears a perpetual grin when doing the same thing with a top-of-the-line model).
The most common kitchen knives are French-style tools, with the tang (handle end) of the blade running inside the handle and usually held in place by rivets. Between the handle and the blade is the bolster, which protects the fingers and reinforces the blade. The blades are usually sharply pointed.
The types of French knives Delavan said he sells most are paring knives, utility knives of 5 to 6 inches (generally used for smaller slicing jobs) and chef's knives (for chopping and general use). Also available are boning and filleting knives, carving knives (often serrated) and both French and Chinese cleavers (watch Martin Yan cook on PBS if you think the Chinese cleaver looks unwieldy).
Get a sharpening steel and use it at least a couple of times a week if you cook every day. If you don't, even the best of your knives will eventually become dull. They'll also need to be professionally sharpened every six months to three years depending on how much they're used, Delavan said.
Don't use an electric sharpener. They work, but they tend to wear the blade down.
And don't sling them in a drawer after you're done with them. Keeping them in a wooden block will protect the edges. For the same reason, do your cutting on a wooden or plastic block.
So, let's say you've just seen an old Errol Flynn movie and you feel like you can't get to the cutlery store fast enough. Bring money. If you can forgo the urge to buy an entire set, which can run into the hundreds of dollars, you can pick up a pretty good Chicago 8-inch chef's knife for around $35. A Gerber Balance Plus of the same size will cost around $45.