By Bert Beagley-Brown
A few times since starting TOG I’ve heard chefs say that a sharp knife can make your food taste better.
For somebody who designs very sharp knives, that’s a great thing to hear and I’ve repeated it enthusiastically to people.
But recently I’ve become more curious about the science behind it.
What’s really going on?
I reached out to my friend Paul Burton from Westcombe Dairy. If anyone knew, it was going to be him. Paul has been an artisan butcher, high-level chef, shop manager, charcutier and cheesemonger. He is a man driven to understand (in a lot of detail) how things work, in order to create the best products. I’m down with that.
Here’s what Paul said:
“In simple terms, a blunt or chipped knife will squash, crush and bruise the cells of food whereas a super sharp knife will slice cleanly and without damage. Food will deteriorate more rapidly because of this cell damage.
As well as the obvious damage to texture and appearance (which strongly influence how we perceive flavour), the single biggest problem with using blunt tools is oxidisation. Flavour compounds are highly volatile and are easily denatured by exposure to oxygen, causing ‘off’ flavours such as rancidity in fats. Using blunt knives not only increases the surface area exposed, but also causes more cell damage to the food. This causes the food to sit in its own juices, increasing the rate at which it starts to decompose.
The single biggest problem with using blunt tools is oxidisation.
Both these issues are further compounded by the extra time it takes to carry out the task, increased hand contact, warming the food and further increasing the rate at which it starts to break down. In the case of something like saucisson (that you may not eat in one session, but return to in a few days of even weeks time), not only are you ruining the eating experience at the first sitting, but every sitting thereafter, as you have had to grip the thing so firmly in order to hack off slices with a blunt knife. There are few things I find more professionally upsetting than seeing someone bludgeoning something that has taken months to prepare and an animal has given its life for. A bad craftsman blames his tools, a good and respectful one looks after his.
There is also the interesting, if not somewhat more esoteric, element of intent. Cooking and preparing food takes a high level of skill and we must be on our A-game if we are to prepare sublime food. Having your mise-en-place carefully prepared and organised, and tools well maintained, gives you the best possible opportunity to do that. It is also a clear statement to yourself that you intend to get the very best out of your ingredients. Focus, care and sensitivity are required.”
So thank you Paul, well said.
Cooking and preparing food takes a high level of skill and we must be on our A-game if we are to prepare sublime food.
I also found an article by David Tanis in the New York Times. David has had a long professional cooking career and is the author of several cook books. According to David,
“Fresh herbs will release more of their aromatic oils beneath a knife’s sharp blade. A tomato slice or wedge, instead of looking trod upon, will retain its luscious juices with elegance. Carefully hand-cut onions are easier to brown because they stay drier than onions that have been bludgeoned into slices. (A blunt instrument smashes cells, which causes moisture to accumulate, whereas a sharp blade glides through with ease.)
Steak tartare has superior texture and flavor if you use a sharp knife instead of a meat grinder. Instead of being sadly hacksawed, a roasted bird or loin of pork is a delight to carve.”
A tomato slice or wedge, instead of looking trod upon, will retain its luscious juices with elegance.
For me personally, the physical feeling that a super-sharp knife brings when it glides through food is why kitchen knives are my passion.
But on top of this (and sharp knives being safer), I now have even more reason to get sharp knives into every household in the UK.