This semester, Beth Sterling, Chris Carrick, and I are doing a Passionate Pursuit in cooking and food chemistry by taking weekend Basics classes at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and reading food science books like the classic McGee On Food And Cooking. Both the classes and the book come highly recommended. I have never cooked so efficiently, eaten so well, or liked chemistry this much before.

It goes without saying that knives are important in cooking. I'm still deciding whether to buy a set and what to get if I do, but here's what I've found so far.

Olin student recs

According to Krystin Stafford's informal poll, Olin students suggest:

Alton Brown recs

Alton Brown is a celebrity chef to win a geek's heart, and for good reason. Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen is his witty walkthrough of sharp and shiny things, two adjectives which corresponds to the stuff engineers find appealing. His take?

  • What to look for
    • Metal: Carbon steel is the most easily sharpened material and holds the sharpest edge, but is prone to rust. High-carbon stainless steel blades trade rust-freeness for less sharp edges. Insert Jon Stolk's matsci lectures here.
    • Tang: Alton doesn't think tang's all that important, what with the advances in materials and manufacturing. Any decent knife should hold together, no matter the tang, so full-tang knives are still nice, but no longer an absolute must.
    • Handle: There's no material that's better than the rest. Usually handles will be of hard wood, plastic, metal, or some combination thereof.
    • Feel: The most important thing to check. Go with what feels comfortable in your hand, whatever that means.
  • What to get
    • Individual knives: Buy them one at a time; only buy a set if you'd buy each knife alone. You'll get a better selection of knives this way and end up saving money because you'll use every blade you purchase. Alton goes on to list the top three knives he couldn't do without, and being a minimalist and a cheap student, I stopped reading the list there. His list and mine follows.
    • 8-10 in. chef's knife - French style is good for everything, including hacking through bone. Alternatively, a slightly smaller (7in) Asian-style vegetable knife like a Santoku is also good, but can't do the hack-slash-bone thing.
    • Straight 2 in. paring knife - peeling, slicing, small vegetables.
    • Serrated bread knife
    • Kitchen shears - the two-piece kind for ease of cleaning. Shears were not technically on Alton's "gotta get 'em" list, but I use my mother's so often that I can't imagine a kitchen without them.
  • How to store them
    • Knife blocks: No. They collect dirt and germs, and having a finite number of fixed-width slots restricts the knives you can buy. You want to be able to buy the shiny sharp things you want, right?
    • Magnetic strips: Aside from satisfying the primal geek urge to make all functional parts visible, it's - well, magnetic. Infinitely flexible. Knives stay clean and dry. People get to see you have many shiny sharp things. General awesome ensues.

Beth Sterling's knives

As stated before, I'm a cheap college student. Wusthof is beautiful, but a single knife sets me a month back in spending money. That's why I was psyched when Beth showed me her lovely Rada knife set.

These things are cheap. Really cheap. We're talking less than $4 for the small knives. At first glance, they seem somewhat sketchy; they offer their "amazing kitchen knives" to groups that need fundraisers, promising that raising cash "is EASY!"

But boy, can they slice! They're sleek, silver, and high-carbon stainless steel. For folks with small hands such as myself, their shape is a boon; they're a tad shorter and slimmer than most knives I've tried, meaning that I actually feel in control of a chef's knife for the first time (as opposed to "Yikes, I'm waving around a pointed object on a stick that's too big for me to hold!").

You can buy them online, too. I've got my eye on a few in particular (prices current as of the 19th of Feb. 2006).

  • R101: regular paring knife and their most popular item, $4.40
  • R141: deluxe vegetable peeler (beautiful!), $7.20
  • R138: serrated slicer (smallish), $7.50.
  • R131: French chef's knife (8in), $12.90

The best part? Total cost of these four is exactly $32 before shipping. This is less than half the price of what I might spend for a professional quality chef's knife alone. I'm going to ask Beth if I can take her knives for a few more spins, but Rada (and their prices) are awfully attractive.