A good knife can be a chef’s best friend, however a blunt, poorly-maintained tool can very quickly turn a pleasurable job into a chore. No matter how expensive or well-recommended a knife may be, unless it is cared for properly it is unlikely to perform to its full potential. Leading catering supplier Russums summoned some insider knowledge from three leading experts that work regularly with chefs’ knives — Robin Bailey at The Sharpening Service, former chef Andrew Green and the team from The Sharpeners — to provide the ultimate guide to keeping knives in the best possible condition.
Caring for your knives
One of the best ways for a chef to get the most out of a knife is to look after it properly. This might sound like common sense, but many restaurants actually provide their own knives for chefs to use, meaning the condition of communal knives can be severely compromised. A common theme raised by experts is the importance of chefs owning their own knives and maintaining their own equipment.
“It’s important for chefs to look after and take responsibility for their own knives,” says The Craft Guild of Chefs’ Andrew Green. “Chefs used to buy all of their own knives and if they left a job they’d take their knives with them to their new job. They were much more responsible because the knives were their own — it’s about ownership.”
Stabbing hard objects or dropping knives on the floor are the main causes of bent tips, while chopping against bones or other hard objects is a common way to cause knives to chip. To prevent this, chefs are advised to only chop down onto a wooden board or block.
“Always take your knives with you. When knives are left unattended other chefs can use them and potentially cause damage,” says Robin Bailey of The Sharpening Service.
A knife can still be damaged even when it is not in use. The main reason for this is incorrect storage. A lot of the kitchens that chefs work in tend to have stainless steel worktops and drawers. Knives are often thrown into these drawers, which can cause damage to the tip and blade.
“Many chefs store their knives in metal containers. I used to do this but soon found that knives rub up against each other and can easily become damaged,” says Andrew Green. It is far better to use a knife roll to transport knives to prevent this from happening. Magnetic wall strips and wooden blocks are also good solutions for ensuring that the blades don’t touch. And if these aren’t available then you can buy or make protective sleeves to cover the blades.
Sharpening, if not done correctly, can do more damage than good to a knife. Regularly taking your knives to be professionally sharpened is the best way to get the most out a knife and avoid costly mistakes. Knives get dented by being badly sharpened.
The Sharpeners says that it often receives knife sets that the owner has tried and failed to sharpen themselves, covering the blades with scratches. Additionally, knives are often damaged by not using a steel correctly. “I sharpen most knives at 15 degrees each side, most people use a steel at about 20-25 degrees, meaning that they very quickly remove the sharp edge I have put on,” he explains.
Once you have a professionally sharpened knife, you need to maintain it daily. This will just need a couple of swipes with the steel. Eventually it will wear and cannot be kept sharp, at which point it is time to go back to the sharpener to put the edge back. There are also health reasons for ensuring knives are kept sharp. Blunt knives can cause repetitive strain injury to the wrist due to the extra pressure needed to cut, and there’s a higher risk of cutting yourself.
Careful cleaning also goes a long way towards ensuring that a knife remains in optimum condition, although experts insist that washing them in a dishwasher is a sure-fire way of making them blunt very quickly.
“Chefs should always clean their own knives after use. In most kitchens, knives just get handed over to the pot washer who doesn’t really care about protecting them and they are often just chucked into the bottom of a sink,” says Andrew Green.
A knife that is used properly will also be easier to maintain. This is because scratches make knives hard to clean and can quickly become unhygienic.
Know your knives
More often than not, knives become damaged simply because they are not being used correctly. For example, when using a boning knife you are supposed to use the heel of the knife but many people don’t or they use the wrong knife completely, which causes a lot of damage to the blade.
A good-quality hard-steel knife is more likely to snap rather than bend as the steel is brittle. High-quality Japanese knives often have a hardened centre core that takes the edge, and this is surrounded by layers of softer steel to protect it and prevent snapping.
“Match the knife to the work — don’t use a fragile thin-bladed knife to cut through chicken bones. I see a lot of Global and Kai knives that have bits missing because of this kind of misuse,” says Robin Bailey.
Chefs that are using a chopping knife down onto a wooden block need to check the heel of the knife to ensure it does not protrude from the cutting blade. If it does protrude it will prevent the blade from making full contact with the wooden chopping block. If you observe this, take it to your local sharpener and they will grind the heel down just below the line on the blade.
“It is essential that knives are well looked after to ensure the blade remains sharp and undamaged,” concludes John-Paul Marsden, sales and marketing manager at Russums. “Even the finest knives won’t perform to their potential if they are poorly maintained. But, as these tips highlight, a good knife can serve a chef throughout their entire career if handled with care.”
Russums is a leading provider of clothing and equipment to the hospitality industry, supplying supply chefs and food service workers throughout the UK and Europe. www.russums-shop.com.uk