By Jessica Applestone
Illustrations By Danielle Mulcahy
Anyone who knows me knows I wear a tiny gold cleaver around my neck. It was a gift from my husband, Josh, who had it made by a friend of ours who is an extraordinary goldsmith. It’s an incredible piece of jewelry—its blade is beveled, its handle wood-grained and has probably elicited more comments than any other piece of jewelry I own. The irony is that though the cleaver has come to represent butchers and butcher shops, a cleaver is just not a good knife for a butcher.
It’s true that the cleaver is the tool everyone associates with a butcher, with its defining heft and suggested brutality, but it isn’t actually used much in a modern butcher shop. It’s archaic, not as functional as the band saw that’s used to buzz through bone. Still, a cleaver has a time and a place—it’s good for breaking up cooked and raw foods, especially chickens.
But since you are literally chopping, and not cleanly slicing, with a cleaver (often accompanied by a satisfying little grunt), it’s the heft that matters and not the sharpness of the blade. However, when you are cutting meat, “sharpness” absolutely counts. So, do I even own a cleaver, aside from the one that hangs prettily around my neck? Sure I do, in fact I own two. One is a heavy chopper that I will occasionally cut up a raw chicken with or more delicately crush a bulb of garlic using its flat side. The other is a Chinese vegetable cleaver, which is a more slender and graceful tool, that is perfect for what it was designed to do, cleanly dispatching lots of vegetables, but it rarely emerges from our knife drawer.
What do I actually use most often at home? I have a Shun 6-inch utility knife and a Shun classic hollowground santoku knife that I love. If it sounds like I fetishize expensive Japanese knives, I don’t. I like a good knife, one that works for me and one that I am comfortable with, and these two do the job—well.
What is a good knife? A good knife is a knife that feels comfortable in your hand. I’m a fairly averaged-size woman with small hands and chef ’s knives feel too large for me. I prefer a lighter to a heavier knife (again small hands) and I like a wooden handle. There’s less slipping, and though knife brands like chefs’ darling Global are beautiful to look at, their full-metal tang handle inevitably ends up cutting my palm.
I like a knife that has a full tang—that sounds so sexy, but what it really means is that the metal runs through the handle. Why? Because it gives the knife more solidity and strength, and though it’s always going to be more expensive to get a knife that has that inner core, it’s worth the cost.
And finally I like, and need, a knife that keeps a good edge. I want my knife to be sharp without having to sharpen it all the time, so I look for blades that are made from a high-carbon stainless steel, as highcarbon steel stays sharper longer and is easy to sharpen once it is time.
A good knife doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to have certain key components. The first is that it is doing the job it was designed for. You wouldn’t bring a hammer to a job that requires a screwdriver, and the things you use to chop vegetables don’t work for raw meat. As you can well imagine, we have many knives in our house, but the knives I return to over and over are my utility knife, which has a six-inch blade and is perfect for slicing vegetables or cutting up pieces of chicken or fish. Small knives give you less steel to focus on, however the length of the knife shouldn’t hinder your ability to cut.
Some folks like a paring knife for small jobs, and unlike utility or chef ’s knives, these knives can be used to cut something in your hands rather than a cutting board (think peeling an apple, and please think when peeling an apple in this fashion). And it’s true that these knives are very useful, and I do own a very, very cheap little knife (two inch) that I use to hull strawberries and devein shrimp, but for me it’s not a necessary item. As I previously stated I also like my seven-inch santoku, which has a shorter, more rounded, blunted shape, a much wider blade and a scalloped, dimpled pattern on the blade that helps make it stick resistant.
My final choice is a serrated knife, and my favorite is oddly a relatively cheap and utilitarian Cutco that we inherited from my parents. With its plastic, old-fashioned “sure grip” handle, this is probably the least appealing tool in my knife block, but it tears through bread, delicately slices tomatoes and stays sharp. It’s the perfect BLT knife.
People really like to fetishize knives, but most people are not looking for Japanese precision. Something basic, competitively priced, that feels good in your hand and has a blade that can hold a decent edge and be honed quickly on a steel is what you are looking for. Our personal knives range from $20 to over $200, but you can get away with far less than that. Look for one that fits your pocketbook and your lifestyle.
However, don’t really keep your knives banging around in your drawers with your other culinary “equipment,” give them a nice block to rest in or a magnetic strip to lounge on. They serve you well, and you want them to be sharp and shiny when you reach for them, not dinged up and dull. What’s the point of a knife if it isn’t sharp?
You don’t have to be a genius to learn how to sharpen a knife, there are lots of great informational videos on the Internet on how to use a sharpening steel or even a stone, or you can do like I do and get them professionally sharpened two to three times a year. As with knives, you don’t have to spend a huge amount of money on a honing steel, that rod used, not to sharpen but to realign the edge of the knife.
Whatever you’re using—round ridged, round smooth, flat—you are aiming for a nice straight angle, and long fluid consistent movement. If you don’t hone your knife it will be like using a chainsaw to cut meat versus a polished sword.
And please, don’t put your knives in the dishwasher, don’t throw them in the sink, don’t dry them in the dish rack, don’t store them in a sheath or guard as moisture may build up and cause the blade to rust, ALWAYS cut on a cutting board (I like bamboo), and never, ever cut anything but meat, fish, fruit and vegetables with them (that’s what box cutters are for, baby!)—and they will last a long, long time.