Skills for the cutting edge
“Knife skills” is one of those phrases designed to separate everyday cooks like me from people who measure their onion-chopping powers against those of the last guy Gordon Ramsay wiped the floor with.
For several decades I’ve managed all cutting-chopping tasks reasonably well with an inexpensive Dexter-Russell Chinese cleaver and an odd-shaped little $5 Chinatown find. And I’ve never had any trouble keeping them sharp enough for my own purposes. So the sight of six shiny new knife-skills books had me getting into serious- denunciation mode about the newest culinary dream world.
Problem is, all six turned out to be good enough, in one way or another, to earn my respect, if not to banish my reservations about the genre. If you’re looking for a book on the subject, you should try to glance at them all because each represents a teaching and learning approach suited to a particular target audience.
For example, people eager to look up things in a hurry will be impatient with a book structured like a methodical cooking-school course -- for instance, “Mastering Knife Skills” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35) by the veteran instructor Norman Weinstein.
System rules everywhere in this ambitious volume and companion 30-minute DVD. Everything has its proper place and function in both the text and the many handsome color photographs by Mark Thomas. Weinstein marshals all cutting tasks into precise numbered-step sequences and examines in lucid detail all aspects of knife care, including sharpening, honing and storing, and maintaining the cutting board. He also provides the clearest explanations of knife anatomy in any of these books.
Weinstein’s own attitudes are prominently on display. He’s somewhat cool toward the Japanese knife vogue (most high-end exemplars here are German and French). He tends to present punctiliously determined methods with little wiggle room for alternatives. Implements that might replace knives for common purposes -- say, swivel-bladed peelers -- are conspicuous by their absence. Any seasoned cook will see latitude for approaches that go unmentioned here; still, this would be my first recommendation for people who aspire to semi-pro (or higher) proficiency.
At the opposite extreme, “Knife Skills” (DK Adult, $20) (the work of four authors; color photographs uncredited) would be my pick for cooks with wider curiosity and shorter attention spans. The authors decently but tersely cover fundamentals that Weinstein dissects more rigorously. They also briefly deal with other tools, such as scissors, poultry shears, mandolines, graters and peelers.
The instructional photo sequences in Weinstein are usually clearer and better-lighted. But those here address a bigger range of jobs, including ones ignored in all the other books -- for instance, gutting fish, cleaning crab or lobster, splitting lobster in the shell, cutting up a whole rabbit, splitting and seeding a vanilla bean.
The slightly British emphasis of the book may be a minor drawback for some users. More unfortunate is the omission of any information on cutting-board use and sanitation.
Peter Hertzmann’s “Knife Skills Illustrated” (W.W. Norton, $29.95) speaks to my undimmed conviction that line drawings (here, by Alan Witschonke) can compete with the spiffiest instructional photographs.
The ideal user of this meticulously planned book would be somebody who wants to skip a lot of technical palaver and go straight to clear, practical, self-contained entries for dealing with particular items -- “Cutting Carrots and Other Conical Vegetables,” “Cutting Asparagus” and so forth. These are the almost-exclusive focus of the book, as opposed to knives per se.
Hertzmann and the “Knife Skills” team are the only authors to discuss some things I’d have expected all to cover, like shucking scallops or boning leg of lamb. Still more surprising to me, this book is one of only two to deal adequately with precautions against food-borne pathogens.
The other, Chad Ward’s feisty “An Edge in the Kitchen,” (William Morrow, $34.95) is engaging for completely opposite reasons. It’s more of a knife maven’s book than the rest and the one that most repays reading rather than consulting piecemeal. It has about 90 pages on understanding what you’re getting in a knife and an additional 75 on maintaining a good edge, sandwiched around a shorter center section on cutting and prepping that contains six recipes meant to put your new knowledge to use.
Many dozens of black-and-white photographs (by Ward) and uncredited line drawings punctuate the text; there’s also a 48-page section of instructional color photographs by Bryan Regan (best used in a strong light).
This is the book that explains Rockwell C scores (indicating hardness) and different proprietary steel alloys, deeply considers many kinds of honing steels and sharpening stones, and gives the most helpful information on the main Japanese and Japanese-Western knife types. If your priorities lie elsewhere, you’ll be disappointed. I couldn’t put it down.
To say that “Knives Cooks Love” (Andrews McNeel, $25) by Sur la Table with Sarah Jay is hardly the heavyweight of the bunch isn’t meant as a sneer. Assorted reader-users will find good value in this sleekly designed work. It’s a visual feast, with Ben Fink’s color photographs and much else laid out in an opulent brown-toned color scheme. Expect a certain amount of window dressing, in which category I count the roughly 20 recipes (Ward’s are better connected with any learning process).
More to the point, Jay and the Sur la Table team manage to deftly fit in surprising amounts of instruction on knife basics, selection criteria and honing/sharpening tools, together with standard cutting techniques and some nonstandard insights (I never knew you could peel ginger with a teaspoon, but I know now). You’ll need time to search out much useful information squirreled away all over the place in supposedly handy little boxes. But with patience and purpose, you can learn a lot here.
I’m troubled by an elephant in the room here: the general attunement of all these books to a model of ethnic America that seems stuck in the Ford administration. Even the sixth and most beautiful work of the bunch, the soon-to-be-published “Japanese Kitchen Knives” (Kodansha International, $29.95), by Hiromitsu Nozaki with Kate Klippensteen, occupies an awfully narrow world, though one in which many cooks will find true enchantment. The authors, with photographer Yasuo Konishi, invite you to contemplate the knife as ravishing artifact -- and instrument for producing edible ravishing artifacts.
More precisely, they present the three general types of knives used by Japanese professionals to make certain vegetable presentations and garnishes; trim, dissect and fillet whole fish; and execute the principal sashimi cuts. )
A cadre of aficionados will be grateful for the focused intelligence behind this exquisite production and understand that it demands not only high-end hardware purchases but something like consecrated commitment. The rest of us will also understand that it’s even less connected with that yuca or green papaya on the cutting board than the other five.