The Makings of a Healthful Kitchen (Part 5)

The theme of my postings over the past few weeks has been getting back to basics with cooking. I’ve been inspired, in part, by the television show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, but also by much of the reading that I do. A few of my favorite magazines include Cooking Light, Cook’s Illustrated, and Real Simple.


Now, I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but like everyone else, I have days when I don’t feel like cooking or don’t (think) I have the time. So, I’m always on the lookout for easy, quick, and healthful recipes that don’t require hours slaving over a stove. And despite one of our reader’s comments that no one in her family appreciated her cooking, I do believe that a home-cooked meal (even a simple one) is more nourishing for the body, soul, and mind, even if it’s just your own!

I enjoy hearing and reading about people who, never having cooked before, buckled down, learned how to cook a few dishes, and became cooking converts. I especially enjoy hearing about how more and more children are taking to the kitchen. How about you? What or who inspires you to cook? And if you’re not a fan of cooking, what might encourage you to start?

Look Sharp!
Over the past three weeks, we’ve talked about the pots and pans that you need to prepare a decent meal. Now we’re ready to move on to the next essential, which is knives — and good knives, at that.

Yes, I realize that knives, like pots and pans, can seem quite costly. If you’re going to buy a whole set of quality knives, be prepared to plunk down hundreds of dollars. The good news? Most people don’t need a huge set of knives. In fact, you probably really only need about four knives. But make them count.

Knife Pointers
Point 1. Think of buying knives as an investment. A good knife can seem pretty pricey up front and you may be tempted to go for the cheaper one that’s sold in the grocery store. But having the best knives that you can afford offers the following benefits:

  • They will literally last a lifetime.
  • They make cooking much safer. (You’re more likely to injure yourself with cheap knives.)
  • They truly can make cooking more enjoyable. (How annoying is it to try to cut a tomato with a dull knife?)
  • They can help save you money. (If you like cooking, you’ll eat out less!)

Point 2. Sharpen up your knowledge about the parts of a knife. A quality knife should feel good in your hands. There are four basic parts to a knife:

  • Blade: Made of stainless steel, carbon steel, high-carbon steel, or ceramic. Metal blades are either stamped (pressed from a sheet of metal) or forged (molded under heat). Forged blades last longer. Stainless steel blades are inexpensive but are difficult to sharpen. Ceramic blades can break, but they do stay sharp. Most professional knives are made of high-carbon steel.
  • Handle: Plastic, wood, rubber, or metal — it’s an individual preference. Wood may not be as durable as other materials. Test out different knives and decide what feels best in your hand.
  • Bolster: The part of the knife that joins the blade with the handle. This helps strengthen the knife and gives it balance.
  • Tang: The part of the blade that extends into the knife handle, either all the way or part of the way. It provides balance and durability. Professional knives usually have a full tang.

Point 3. At a minimum, have four knives on hand:

  • A 7- to 9-inch chef’s knife (measure the blade from the tip of the knife to the beginning of the handle). A good chef’s knife can cost close to $100.
  • A paring knife. Choose one with a 3- or 4-inch blade. This makes it more versatile for not only peeling fruits and vegetables, but also for slicing.
  • A serrated knife. You’ll need this knife to cut through crusty loaves of bread…and to neatly slice your garden tomatoes.
  • A slicing knife. This is a knife with a long, slender blade that you’ll need for slicing that Thanksgiving turkey.

A few more knife “pointers” — and more! — next week

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  • tmana

    I can give good reasons for every single knife in the most expensive/complete sets of knives available in restaurant supply shops, but if I need to I can make do with a much smaller number. My go-to knives are:

    A 9″ Chef knife. This is a bit larger than most people are comfortable with (the 8″ is standard). It’s used for slicing and chopping veggies. Do not expect to spend any less than $100 for a Chef knife. (This is about what a Cutco Chef knife costs.) In stores, a reasonable Chef knife will generally cost closer to $200… but it’s worth every penny.
    A parer. The one with our Hoffritz set has a 4″ blade and is great for larger hand fruits (apples, oranges) — but the 3″ is standard and will handle most paring jobs.
    A boner. This has a bit of an odd blade: narrow and shallow at the tip, with a concave cutting surface that curves to meet a wider table near the base of the blade. (Note: not all knives have tables; most do not have bolsters either. This does not mean they are cheap.) I use the boner to prepare meats — removing skin and connective tissue, removing raw meet from the bones, and trimming fat.
    A butcher knife. (This one is actually on my “want” list.) This is a long blade with a convex curve near the tip. It’s used to trim fat from roasts and to cut down larger cuts of meat so they can be individually cooked, or frozen. (You can save a lot of money by buying roasts and cutting them down into steaks.) It can also be used to cut large, dense gourds such as watermelons and butternut squash.
    A bread knife (also called a sandwich knife or a ham slicer). This is a large knife with a big serrated edge used to cut loaves of bread, deli meats, and sandwiches.
    A slicer. (This is the common cookware term for “carving knife”.) I use the slicer to slice roasts, London broils, and poultry.

    Note that the only serrated-edge knife in this batch is the bread knife. A sharp-enough Chef knife can cut a tomato with ease. (The key is keeping the knives sharp.) I do have a 6″ serrated knife sold as a “tomato knife”, which I can — but rarely do — use for slicing tomatoes.

    If you’re ready to invest in a good set of kitchen knives, consider a budget of $500-$800 for a starter set (the basic knives Amy suggested), or $1000-$2000 for a more complete set. Take good care of them, and they will last a lifetime.

  • John

    Back in 1966 while I was stationed at Fort Eustis Virginia, with the US Army, I was attempting to make some extra cash.
    I started selling CUTCO knives. They were pretty pricey (even then), but I had to buy a set as a demonstration set. I sold several sets and then was sent to Viet Nam. I left my demo set with my wife.
    When I returned home from Viet Nam I was stationed at Fort Baker south of Los Angeles, CA.
    I said to my wife, I want to start sellinf CUTCO again and she said, you will have to buy a new demo set, as you are NOT taking mine.
    Long story short, she still has that set in her kitchen today, still sharp and working, (1966 to 2010 is a long time).
    SFC US Army Retired

  • John

    The CUTCO knives do NOT have serated edges, but a better and sharper double-D grind. We used to cut slices of bread in half as part of the demo.

  • acampbell

    Thanks tmana and John! Great information!

  • CC

    Awesome post! I’ve been using food to ward off my family’s history of diabetes. There’s a wonderful movie out called Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days at While I don’t go to that extreme, (how can you give up warm soups in the winter?) I know my diet has kept me from the needle and adding fresh raw fruits and vegetables to at least one meal a day helps.

    FYI – Diabetes Action Week is April 25-30 and the movie is 50% off for the week.

  • tmana

    John –

    As you will recall from your demo training, CUTCO still comes out pretty inexpensive when compared to the middle-of-the-line sets of name-brand cutlery. (I deliberately used CUTCO as a brand because it is less expensive than mid-range kitchen specialty shop “name brand” knives.)

    Fifteen years ago, my Hoffritz “Top of the Line” chef cost about $170. The Wüsthof chef on my comparison sheet is listed at about $170, and it’s the bottom of their top lines. About five years ago I invested in a Messermeister slicer (to carve turkey). It ran me about $130 and was one of the best knife investments I ever made.

    And to join your story, The Other Half’s parents have a few CUTCO knives of similar vintage, in similar condition, that they absolutely love…