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An extension of a chef's hand

18 September 2008

There are two items of kitchen equipment that are vital to the whole cooking process, namely a pot and a knife.

Marco Pierre White once told me that "a saucepan is an extension of a chef's hand", the same for which could be said about a knife. Without either of these tools you'll find your culinary repertoire severely limited. And the importance of choosing the right pan or knife should not be underestimated.

But where do you start with pots and pans? Well, there's milk pans, frying pans, saucepans, casserole pots, stock pots, paella pans, skillets, sauteuse pans, woks, bains-marie, butter warmers, marmites - the list goes on and on.

But, more importantly, there are the different materials used - copper, cast iron, stainless steel, aluminium and non-stick - to be carefully considered.

Biggest advantage

The workhorse of many kitchens, aluminium's biggest advantage is that it is cheap, does not corrode and is a superb conductor of heat. This makes an aluminium pan good for boiling, and on cost grounds makes it suitable for very big pans such as stockpots.

There are, however, a number of disadvantages to using this material. It can react with both alkaline and acidic foods, giving them an awful tangy taste. Also, it cannot be used on induction hobs and is prone to sticking when food is fried. Lastly, it is very easily dented and buckled, especially around the base, which will affect even heat distribution.

Fast gaining in popularity is stainless steel. It won't tarnish, is easy to clean, hygienic, hard-wearing, less prone to sticking than other metals and looks good. Because it is so popular, there is a wide variation in quality on the market.

The base of the pan will be layered, which usually takes the form of a three-layer sandwich with stainless steel on the bottom, aluminium or copper in the middle to give good conductivity, and stainless steel on top. It's this base that will determine the price of the pan, with some pans having up to seven sandwiched layers. One last plus point is that stainless steel is magnetic, making it compatible with induction.

"With an increased focus on cost savings and energy efficiency, from an eco-friendly point of view as well as a cost perspective, induction cooking has become increasingly popular," says Peter Rigby, sales manager of Meyer Commercialware, which offers Induction-Ready as one of three key cookware ranges, in addition to two comprehensive ranges of knives.

"A sandwich-base construction with a fully encapsulated layer of aluminium, which provides even heat distribution, combines the need for a magnetic base to activate the heat source with all the advantages of aluminium as a heat conductor."

Enameled-iron saucepans are nowhere near as popular as their griddle or casserole counterparts but, it must be said, nothing retains heat better than cast iron. This makes it good for slow cooking or for quickly reducing sauces. The addition of the enamelware prevents ingredients from reacting with the metal, as well as preventing the cast iron core from rusting.

Non-stick cookware

Most professional kitchens have a small selection of non-stick cookware. It is perfect for frying delicate fish such as sole and plaice, omelettes never stick and using non-stick frying pans can be part of a low-fat style of cooking. The cheapest non-stick is coated on aluminium but because of the relative softness of aluminium, the non-stick layer will not last as long as it could when on steel.

The main cause of damage to the non-stick coating, apart from using metal utensils, is getting the temperature too high. While normal frying is done around 200°C, frying over a fierce heat can send the base temperature way over 250°C, causing splitting of the non-stick coating.

Alastair Little, owner of the Tavola Delicatessen in Notting Hill, London, and previously head chef at 192, L'Escargot and his own eponymous restaurant, uses Swiss Diamond non-stick pans which are coated in a diamond-reinforced non-stick cooking surface that contains real diamond crystals. Diamonds have the best thermal conductivity of any material and are the hardest material known to man.

"I can destroy most non-stick pans quite easily in a few months through normal day-to-day tasks. However, I have failed to make any impression on the Swiss Diamond pans," Little says.

"Chefs are great at trying to wreck things but these pans have held up very well. They also have fantastic heat conductivity, to ensure no hot spots, and a good, thick base that sits perfectly on the range."

Once the crème de la crème of the kitchen, copper's popularity is in decline owing to the improved quality of stainless steel. Copper itself is poisonous and its molecules will attach themselves to food during cooking. Therefore, the traditional construction would be copper, for conductivity, lined with tin to protect the food from contamination. Periodically, the tin would need to be refinished by a tinker, which is not a common trade these days. Copper lined with stainless steel is the modern alternative, although you will lose some of the conductivity benefits of the copper.

Personal thing

And now to that other kitchen essential, knives. A knife is probably the most personal thing a chef can buy. It's imperative to choose one that you are comfortable with. A quick look around my kitchen shows the sheer diversity of styles available. But what's good for one chef is bad for another - it's one of those chef arguments that even Larousse can't settle.

It pays in the long term to invest in quality kitchen knives and always buy from a reputable supplier.

"When it comes to the motivating factors around the purchase of knives, there are a number of elements that we repeatedly see," says Shad Williams, equipment specialist at non-food wholesaler Alliance Online, which supplies brands such as Global, Victorinox and Sabatier. "Yes, purchase can be driven by price, but for a master craftsman price is irrelevant. It's about the feel, weight and quality of the knife in question. Quality is defined by sharpness, precision, weight and empathy with its user."

The most common way of making a knife blade, bolster and tang is to drop-forge it, which means putting a piece of red-hot stainless steel in the lower half of a mould and stamping down on it with huge force to form the basis of the knife. Some manufacturers prefer to fuse together three different grades of metal for the three parts of the knife, believing that each part needs a different steel quality.

The blade is then tempered with heat to create extra hardness, polished, fitted with a handle and sharpened. The higher quality the steel, the sharper the edge will be and the longer it will remain without needing resharpening. Low-grade stainless steel kitchen knives are unable to hold an edge much beyond first using and hand-steeling will fail to bring back the edge.

The traditional way to fit a handle is to rivet a solid handle in two halves, but cheaper knives will come with a single-formed solid plastic handle. These days, all-in-one blade and handles are becoming more popular. A plastic handle is not always an indicator of poor-quality blade steel, any more than riveted handles are a signal of high quality.

Usually, the tang - the protrusion of the steel into the handle - is on the same plane as the blade, but an innovative new handle design on the Twin Cuisine knives from Zwilling JA Henckels is the horizontal tang. With this design, the tang has been turned by 90°, giving it a horizontal platform sandwiched by a high-composition synthetic handle material for comfort, weight and balance.

Balance is the key thing to look for in knife construction. There should be a good counter-balance between handle and blade so that the knife sits level in the hand for quick and comfortable working.

There are basically two styles of kitchen knives - Eastern and Western. Eastern-style knives, such as Japanese, are made from very hard steel. The blades are significantly thinner, producing a lighter knife, and the bevel angles are more acute. These knives will hold an edge for longer, but will also take longer to sharpen. They are good for cutting where accuracy is important, such as preparing Sushi or doing decorative work.

Chisel grind

The Japanese also make knives that incorporate a chisel grind. This is a bevel on one side with the other side flat. These are usually made from what is called sandwiched steels, where hard steel for edge retention is sandwiched between soft steel, or even iron, to provide better toughness. They do an excellent job with Eastern-style cooking where there is much fine chopping, but their sharpness is also a feature many Western chefs like, hence their popularity.

Western knives are made from tough steel, but slightly softer than Japanese knives, which makes it easier to maintain a sharp edge. They tend to be thicker and heavier, with a more obtuse bevel angle. These are perfect for chopping and for those jobs where a heavier knife is an advantage.

Steel types

There are three types of steel used in kitchen knives. High-carbon steel is an excellent material, providing toughness and the ability to take a very sharp edge. However, carbon steel is not stain resistant. It can rust and will discolour from use. After much use, high-carbon steel kitchen knife blades will actually become black. This discoloration is purely cosmetic and does not affect the performance of the knife.

Meanwhile, high-carbon stainless steel is the most popular steel for kitchen knives. It has a high content of carbon for hardness, but also includes chromium and nickel to keep it looking clean. High-carbon stainless will take a sharp edge and maintain it well.

Titanium-enhanced knife blades will hold an edge longer than most other steel alloys. The alloy mix allows the blades to be heat treated to a high level of hardness. The blades are more flexible than standard steel blades, so work well for boning and filleting.

Ceramic is not a steel at all, but a very hard ceramic material called zirconium oxide. These blades are so hard that they will maintain a sharp edge for months, or years, with no maintenance at all. On the negative side, they are more brittle and they require diamond sharpening tools to maintain.

So, whichever product you are choosing, be it a simple frying pan or a four-inch paring knife, think hard about the quality of material that it is made from - get it right and both will last you a lifetime. Remember, both items are an extension of your hand… apparently.

Contacts

Alliance Online, 0844 499 4300

Continental Chef Supplies, 0800 988 8981

Gilberts Food Equipment, 0845 230 0681

Meyer Commercialwear, 0151-482 8000

Nisbets, 0845 140 5555

Russums, 01709 372345

Zwilling, 01923 635440

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