In Gear: Knives and Tools for Bird Carving

part of a Serious ThanksgivingOne of the highlights of the holiday season, at least for me, is the prevalence of big, carnal, bone-in masses of meat: whole roasted turkeys and geese, racks of lamb, standing rib roasts…..raaaaoooarrrrr! But what is the best tool for bringing these unwieldy beasts into submission, breaking them down readily into tidy bits and pieces fit for consumption at a civilized holiday table?

Carving knives are nice. Their length allows for long, smooth passes through large pieces of meat, their relatively narrow blades facilitate maneuverability in between and around rib cages and breast bones, and, when paired with a carving fork, they smack of wholesome tradition—Bob Cratchit presiding over the Christmas table.

ingear-knives.jpgCarving knives are, however, no necessity. Not only are they expensive, but with their long blades and lack of knuckle clearance, they're awkward for doing just about anything other than carving. If you don't have one already, certainly there's no need to run out to get one in time for Thanksgiving.

While you might find some difficulty in dissecting the turkey with a Champagne saber or a paring knife, anything in between should do just fine—as long as it feels comfortable to you and it's sharp. So, the first place to start with selecting the best knife for carving up beasts and birds is in your own kitchen.

Which knife do you find yourself using the most? Which have you had the longest? Chances are, one of those will be the best choice for dealing with holiday meats. It makes no significant difference what the handle is made out of, how much the knife cost, whether it's full bolster or double bolster, or whether it was made in Germany or Japan; what is significant is that your movements with a familiar, time-tested blade will naturally be more nimble and precise than they would be with a long, cumbersome one that gets trotted out once a year.

Beyond that, sharp knives just work better, allowing you to exercise greater control with less effort than with a dull knife. To keep your favorite knife sharp, first of all, forget about diamond steels and V-shaped sharpeners; what they save you in time and effort you pay for in blade loss. Use these for sharpening too often, and you'll notice the substance of your blade diminishing rather quickly.

ingear-sharpeningstone.jpgNow, there are two basic procedures necessary for maintaining sharp knives: honing and sharpening. Although it may not make the most sense semantically, honing is most important for maintaining sharp knives on a day-to-day basis. A very sharp blade is only a few molecules thick along its business edge, and no matter the strength or quality of a blade's composition, that delicate edge will warp out of true with little prodding, resulting in more labor-intensive cutting and the general sense that your blade is dull. A few simple, careful strokes (be sure to hold your knife at about 20 degrees to the line of motion) along a standard honing steel between every usage are all that is required to realign the edge and keep your knife respectably sharp for months at a time.

Actual sharpening is usually only necessary once or twice a year to amend any slight nicks and to redefine a razor-sharp edge. The best tool for this job is a wet stone—many of which can be had for $35 or less—but with a dizzying range of styles and grits available, and the very real possibility of accidentally dulling your knife through improper sharpening technique, it's best to consult the professionals at a trusted kitchen shop before proceeding to sharpen at home. And after that, if you're insecure about your ability to maintain a consistent angle or you just don't want to be bothered, there's no shame in taking your knives to a professional sharpening. Many kitchen stores offer the service for $5 to $15 dollars a knife—definitely more expensive over time than doing it yourself, but relative to the cost of most new knives, not so bad.

A few final precautions for maintaining sharp knives: Always cut against forgiving surfaces (wood and self-healing rubber boards are best), and after every use clean knives in warm soapy water, dry them immediately with a soft kitchen towel, and store them properly in a knife block, on a magnetic strip, or inside a protective sleeve. Glass, hard plastics, and ceramic cutting surfaces are the kiss of death for fine blades. The harsh detergents used in dishwashers will etch and pit a knife's surface over time, and chances are that blades will get knocked around and dulled inside the machine—a fate that will also befall them if they're just thrown into a kitchen drawer or tool canister unprotected.

"But, what about an electric knife?" you ask. "I don't need to fuss over sharpening or maintaining one of those, and it'll do a lot of the carving work for me."

If you have space in a drawer somewhere, a little spare cash on hand, and a conveniently located outlet, knock yourself out. Electric knives do make quick work of carving with little effort (though they do also make quick work of shredding a little bone in with the meat if you're not careful), and because the blades move quickly, working their way swiftly and gently through materials, with very little applied force, they're also excellent for cutting delicate and fragile foods without deforming their shapes or shattering delicate layers and crusts. In restaurants, for instance, I've seen them used to great effect to slice deftly through brittle fried shells like those on spring rolls and through soft, sticky, and easily misshapen items like angel food cake, where, in both cases, a traditional knife would probably have yielded a less than perfect result.

But, in my case, having limited storage space, a paucity of electrical outlets, and greater priorities for my extra cash (ahem, whiskey, chocolate, shoes...), I will be taming this year's holiday beasts with the assistance of my much used and adored 9-inch chef's knife.