Kitchen knives – Does size matter?

Kitchen knives - does size matter - Gyuto or Santoku
Kitchen knives - does size matter - Gyuto or Santoku

Kitchen knives – Does size matter?

Do you really need a long utility knife in your kit? What are the pros and cons and why do professionals usually choose longer Gyuto or Chef’s knives?

This was a question recently posed to me by a customer. The customer was not a professional chef and wanted a Gyuto for home use. This was going to be the main knife in the kitchen, the 90% knife. So, I gave him the same advice I give my friends and family, the same advice I am going to give you now.

With regard to utility knives, I have two 165mm Santoku’s and a 240mm Gyuto as well as a 90mm and 150mm Petty in my home kitchen.

This is a very personal subject from my perspective. I actually know many professional chefs that prefer to work with shorter blades, like a Santoku, Bunka or smaller Gyuto. You have to ask yourself, what do I use my knife for?

For me it’s like this. I need a large blade when it comes to cutting a large object. So, if I am cutting through a large melon or cabbage then the longer blade is great. I also prefer the longer blade for slicing terrines and large pieces of meat. When slicing these types of produce you want more length in order to achieve a single stroke as you want to avoid sawing and tearing. Just watch a sushi chef cut fish. They pull the long Yanagiba or Sujihiki blade towards themselves in a single slicing motion to avoid damaging the delicate flesh of the fish.

So, this is where it gets interesting. You might be saying to yourself, I don’t really cut melons and cabbages very often, what do I need such a big knife for?

Well, the thing is, I love my 240mm Tanaka Gyuto, it’s a beautiful knife to use and in the end, there is nothing I cannot do with it. The truth is I use my Santokus 90% of the time though. A Santoku has a good flat section with a nice amount of rock-ability. The 165mm length makes it nimble and easy to wield on a daily basis and the heal to spine height is substantial enough to give me a comfortable amount of clearance. I also find that when speaking with my customers many amateur cooks feel more comfortable with the smaller blade.

With regard to what I spend most of my time cutting, its onions, herbs, small vegetables and smaller pieces of meat. This is my 90%. Then a few times a year I cook a brisket or something else large in size and make coleslaw or something along those lines, then I pull out the Gyuto and use it to chop through the large cabbage. When the meat comes off the grill, I like to use my Sujihiki slicer to carve, but I could just as easily use the Gyuto.

For the above reasons, when I advise my friends and family what knives to buy, usually I suggest that buying a Santoku or a smaller Gyuto like a 180mm or 210mm is a good place to start. I also often suggest purchasing a petty as I would say that the petty is the second most commonly used knife in my kitchen. A smaller Gyuto, Santoku or Bunka plus a Petty are the perfect two knives to have on the work bench when cooking dinner.

To cover the professional perspective, it is true that the majority of professional chefs prefer a 240mm Gyuto. The reason is that, as per the above outlined use cases, a larger Gyuto somewhat covers all situations and so allows the chef to have only one knife out on the work bench. This is part of the training and reduces clutter, is safer and more hygienic in the professional kitchen. In the home kitchen you have more flexibility. You are not working in an environment filled with other chefs and you can have more of your knives out on the work bench without worrying about safety. You are in no rush and so you can work with knives that are directly suited to what you are doing.

As I said earlier in this post it’s a personal thing. I have also observed that taller, larger people are more comfortable with larger blades.

What do you think?

Kitchen Knives – Construction Part Two

Kitchen Knife Construction Part 2
Kitchen Knife Construction Part 2

Kitchen Knives – Kitchen knife construction part two

In part one of this two-part post on kitchen knife construction we covered balance, with a focus on the tang, and the two categories of steel that are used in kitchen knife construction. We also detailed a list of some of the more popular steels that are used in good quality kitchen knives with specifications on hardness, easy of sharpening and edge retention.

This is part three in our series on kitchen knives and concludes our two-part post on kitchen knife construction. In this post we will cover the various Cladding types, Grinds and Handles. If you have already read our posts on Kitchen knife basics, and part one of kitchen knife construction you will have a pretty good idea of what you are looking at when you pick up a knife. By the end of this post you should be able to, at a glance, visually discern how a knife is built, how well balanced a knife is and if that balance and design suites your needs.

Cladded or Core-less?

A couple of other terms that you might hear as you shop for kitchen knives are cladded and core-less or mono-steel. These two terms relate to the way the blade of a knife is forged. A vast majority of knives on the market are produced from a single sheet of flat steel, which has the blades of the knives punched out of it. The blade is then cleaned up on a grinder or sanding belt, heat treated and sharpened. This is a core-less knife and is a technique used by mass production knife makers.

Core-less knives are also made in the premium market. Sometimes this means that the steel has been forged into the shape of the knife via heat, hammer and anvil. Other times this means that the knife has still been cut from a sheet of metal. Either way the knife is formed from a single piece of steel.

Traditional Damascus knives are core-less knives. Two or more pieces of steel are forge welded together and folded many times to produce the beautiful and strong, multilayered effect. However, many modern blades, which have a Damascus finish are simply Damascus clad and another more pure and hardy steel is sandwiched into the core of the knife. Often this is visible if you look at the spine of the knife or cladding line.

In Japanese this technique is call San Mai and is a very popular technique for producing beautiful, strong and ultra-sharp blades. San Mai allows the blacksmith to forge the blade from a very hard steel, often a high carbon steel, and then add a protective stainless-steel cladding to the outside of the blade. These knives are often more expensive than straight high carbon steel blades, but they benefit from the advantages of both high carbon steel and stainless-steel.

Blacksmiths use Damascus for the cladding because it is so beautiful, hard and resists rust. However, there are several other steels used and often the blacksmith will finish the blade with some kind of decorative hammer work, which is called a Tsuchimi or hammered finish. Like the Damascus, Tsuchimi, looks very nice and actually both finishes also have another practical purpose other than to protect the core of the blade. The uneven texturised outer layer also helps to stop food sticking to the outside of the blade.

Blade Geometry (Grind)

Kitchen knives come in a myriad of blade geometries and, while there is a selection of more traditional or popular designs, knife designers are getting more and more experimental when it comes to blade geometry. Blade geometry will play a significant role in the way that the blade of a knife moves through a given material. Blade geometry can become quite complex, but basically comes down to two main elements. There is the bevel and the edge. The bevel is the angle of the knife and not to be confused with the angle of the edge. An easy way to differentiate between the two is to understand the bevel angle is not active in the cutting process, but more about pushing the already cut material away from the knife. The edge on the other hand is all about actively cutting through the material.

90% of all the mainstream branded knives you will find on the market will have a Double Bevel. However, some knives, especially those produced for the Japanese market come with a Single Bevel. Rarer still is an Asymmetrical or Differential Bevel, but this is becoming more popular in the hand forged and premium knife market. As described above the bevel plays a role in moving the cut material away from the knife.

A Double Bevel will part the material evenly. This is good for general purpose knives like a chef’s knife or Gyuto and isn’t really going to provide any extra advantage to a particular cutting task but works well for the more common kitchen tasks.

A Single Bevel is design to move material to one particular side, either the left or right depending on whether it is a left handed or right handed blade. Single bevel knives are typically designed for slicing and butchering meats and fish. Yanagiba or Yanagi (Japanese Sashimi knife), Deba (Japanese Fish Filleting Knife) and Nakiri or Nagiri (Japanese Vegetable knife) are common single bevel blades. In all three cases the single bevel is essential in performing the tasks the knives are produced for. As a side note all three of these knives often have a hollow grind (Urasuki) on the back side of the blade, we will discuss this a little more in the next section.

Like the Double Bevel an Asymmetrical or Differential Bevel is not really used on special purpose blades and is mostly found on more general-purpose knives. Often these knives have a larger angle bevel on the front side and a more acute angle on the back side of the blade. This design could be seen as some form of a compromise between the Double and Single bevel designs. Asymmetrical blades are often seen as more premium blades, but really it boils down to personal preference. You could argue that if you do a lot of slicing work in the kitchen then an Asymmetrical blade would benefit your needs, while those who do a lot of chopping would prefer a double bevel knife.

Flat and Convex

Once a blacksmith or knife designer has chosen double, single or asymmetrical grind they may wish to consider whether to simply give the knife a Flat edge or a Convex edge. This is a question of sharpness or rather what you consider sharpness and again it is probably also a question of how the knife will be used.

A Flat edge will be as described the surface of the edge is completely flat. This gives the knife a very acute angle but adds surface area to the blade and there for more drag. A convex grind is curved to the edge. This gives a far smaller surface area, but a wider cutting angle.

So, which is sharper? Technically you could argue that the flat grind with its more acute cutting angle is sharper, but because of the added drag that the greater surface area brings you might argue that the convex grind is sharper. So, once again it boils down to usage.

Note: The flat grind is much easier to sharpen.

Handles

Knife handles come in a myriad different shapes and sizes, they are made from almost every material imaginable. Knife handles play an important role in terms of ergonomics and fatigue reduction. Knife handles also help in terms of style and character and they provide a contact point, a tactile surface that allows us to wield and manipulate our kitchen knives.

Shapes

Although there are a lot of variations, kitchen knife handles come in two basic shapes. There is the traditional western style, which offers ergonomic contours designed to support and fit the fingers and palm of the user’s hand. Then there is the Japanese Wa handle, which is often a hexagonal, octagonal or “D” shaped cylindrical handle. The ridges of the Wa handle also serve to fit and support the user’s hand and the cylindrical form makes it easy to manipulate the blade as it can be rolled between the user’s fingers.

Materials

Kitchen knife handles come in an almost endless variety of woods, bones, bonded composite and plastic materials, as well as metals. There are only three main points to consider here.

Firstly, if you are a professional chef there may be some regulations on the types of material you are allowed to work with. Hygiene is of particular concern and should be considered before making your purchase, but don’t be too quick to rule out a wooden handle. Some woods contain natural antibacterial properties and could actually be better than plastics or composite materials. Additionally most wooden handles are coated and even impregnated with oils that provide an antibacterial seal.

Secondly, and this is important, is comfort and ergonomics. If you are purchasing a hand-forged blade or you are a professional chef, the last thing you want is a poorly designed handle that lacks the ergonomics needed to keep you comfortable.

Finally, is looks or style. This is not a major point in terms of practicality, but let’s face it, if you are looking to purchase a premium or hand-forged kitchen knife, which you might end up passing on to your kids, style is going to be meaningful.

Bolster/Ferrule

The bolster is mostly found on the western style handles and can be a quite nice feature. The bolster or in some cases bolsters can be found at the front of the handle and sometimes at the end of the handle (bolsters at the end of the handle are some times called a pommel). A bolster serves two purposes. Firstly, they help to reinforce the handle and secondly, they can help to balance the knife by increasing weight at the rear to offset the weight at the tip.

However, if a forward bolster extends into a finger guard, while this can be comforting for a hobby cook, as your knife skills improve you may find the finger guard reduces the versatility of the knife. This is particularly true in terms of long slicing cuts, where the finger guard reduces the length of the potential slicing movement.

The ferrule is a feature most commonly found on the Japanese Wa handle and is in almost the same position as a forward bolster. A ferrule is simply used to increase the strength of the handle at its most vulnerable point. Often a ferrule is used to give a Wa handle a unique feature and style and is often made out of rare woods, bone, and even coral or stone can be found on some artisan handles.

Western or Wa which is best?

Really, this comes down to taste, comfort and purpose.

More often than not western style knife handles are harder to make and harder to replace if they become damaged. Often a western handle is fastened with pins and glue and essentially this means that if it becomes damaged you will need to send it back to the manufacturer.

The handle on the Japanese Wa handle slides over the tang and is fastened with epoxy resin or some other bonding agent and so if it becomes damaged can even be replaced at home.

In terms of comfort the Wa handle is also more flexible. Some cooks may find that western style handles are too small or big in terms of the ergonomic ridges and general shape and length. Essentially, they are designed to fit a typical or statistical majority and don’t necessarily fit with every hand shape or size. The Wa handle on the other hand, while less focused on every contour of the hand is often a comfortable one size fits all shape and length.

Conclusion

So, by know if you have been following our series on kitchen knives you should have a fairly good understanding of how they are made and how the various design elements will affect their balance, ergonomics and usage. If you missed any of the previous chapters on the basics or the first half of this two part post on kitchen knife construction feel free to jump back at any time.

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Great gift ideas for foodies

Foodie Gifts
Foodie Gifts

Great gift ideas for foodies

Gifts for foodies can be a challenge, at Modern Cooking we are always looking for inspiration. We seek out new product that excite us and keep us cooking. So if you are looking for something for that special foodie in your life we have got you covered.

Kitchen knives (Free shipping to all EU/UK customer)

Some believe, that giving a knife as a gift brings bad luck and will cut the friendship. However, with a beautifully crafted Japanese knife I believe that’s not true. Whoever you will give one of these special knives to will think of you every time they easily slice up ingredients for a delicious meal.Knives come in different shapes and sizes. If you are looking for a multi-purpose knife, the Gyuto or chef’s knife is what you are looking for. This is also a great entry-level for anyone getting into cooking. For those adding to a collection, a paring knife for fine detail work or the slightly larger petty will be a good option.

These smaller knives can also be useful when travelling. If you want to learn more about knife shapes and features, check out Kitchen Knives – The Basics. If you love the idea of gifting knives, but are now worried about the bad luck part, there is a way around it. Attach a coin to the knife, which the recipient will give back to you as “payment”.

Molecule-R Cocktail Kits

If you are looking for a foodie gift for the cocktail lover or someone who likes to experiment, I recommend a cocktail making kit from Molecule-R. These molecular gastronomy sets let you experiment with the techniques used in professional kitchens around the world while creating delicious cocktails. This is especially great as a Christmas gift, since New Year’s will be just around the corner, time to impress friends with mojito bubbles or foam-topped margarita creations.

Konro Barbecue

If your foodie friend is not blessed with a big backyard, but loves to cook over coal, a Konro barbecue is the foodie gift to get. These tabletop barbecues are originally from Japan and can fit on any balcony. For a fun night with family or friends, instead of fondue or raclette, prepare some yakitori and grill them together at the table. However, be mindful of the open flame and smoke.

And you can easily take these portable barbecues with you to the park or a lake and enjoy some grilled meats with a cold beer in the sun.

Sharpening stones

For the home chef who already has every knife shape and size possible a sharpening stone will make a great gift.

All knives no matter how well-crafted will eventually need sharpening. The combination whetstone from King is a great starting point. It provides one side for sharpening the knife and another for polishing to finish. If you are buying for a friend with a big knife collection a set of stones will make him or her happy. Putting together a set of whetstones with 320 grit for repairing chipped knives, 1000 grit for sharpening and 6000 for polishing will keep their collection in great shape.

Kamado Ceramic Barbecue

Usually, when we think of barbecues, we think of long summer nights and a cold beer. However, barbecues are also great in winter. Gathering around a coal fire, cooking sausages and slurping mulled wine makes for great atmosphere rounded off by some hot cocoa and roasted marshmallows.

A kamado grill is the perfect gift for the foodie with a big backyard and will not only provide a place to grill the perfect steak, but also opens up new experiences like smoking your own meats or making pizza over hot coals.

Kitchen Knives – Construction Part One

Kitchen Knife Construction Part 1 SML
Kitchen Knife Construction Part 1

Kitchen Knives – Kitchen knife construction part one

Understanding quality in kitchen knives can be a challenge. In order to do this, you need to understand the techniques used to give a knife balance and how the various materials, used in their construction, come together in the forging process to create high performing knives.

After reading part one of our guide to kitchen knife construction you should be able to determine if a knife is well balanced and how that balance has been achieved. After briefly discussing kitchen knife steel in our previous post on the basics of kitchen knives we will also be discussing, in detail, kitchen knife steels in this post. We will cover how the steel a knife is made of will dictate how it will perform and how you must care for it.

Knives are the most important tool in the kitchen and regardless of whether you are a professional chef or a home cook you should have good quality and well-maintained knives. A sharp, good quality knife is much safer to work with and yields far better results than poor quality, blunt knives will.

We hope that this article is both useful and informative. This is part two in a series that so far has covered the basics of kitchen knives. Our goal with this series is not to create a guide to forging knives, but an extensive guide to purchasing, using, and caring for them. This guide is for home cooks and professional chefs alike and hopefully serves as a useful resource.

How kitchen knife construction will affect balance and comfort.

There are a number of elements in a kitchen knife which a blacksmith can adjust or manipulate in order to give a kitchen knife balance. The tang for example, which is the metal which extends from the heel end of the blade through the handle, can be made larger or smaller in order to offset the weight of the blade. Some terms you may have heard while shopping for knives are Full Tang, Half Tang and Through Tang. These terms describe how the tang of the knife has been designed. If it is a full tang it extends the full length of the handle and often exhibits the same profile as the handle. A half tang, as you would assume, only runs half the length of the handle. A through tang runs through the centre of the handle and is often not visible. The through tang is often found on Japanese style knives and is generally the smallest tang you will find.

What does all this tell you as a user of kitchen knives. Simply this, on a well-balanced knife the tang needs to offset the weight of the blade and a smaller tang means a thinner, lighter blade and vis-a-versa.

On a long blade, like a Gyuto or a Sujihiki (Slicer), the knife maker only has a limited amount of material at the tang, which can be added to offset the weight, and balance the blade. To overcome this the knife maker will reduce the amount of material at the spine of the blade to reduce the blades weight. Conversely, on smaller knives the blacksmith may remove less material.

Another technique, which is commonly used, is distal tapering. Distal tapering is characterised by a thinning of the blade or the tang or both from the desired balance point to the end of the blade or tang. Distal tapering can also help to create a more desirable and better performing blade geometry. We will discuss blade geometry in part two of our guide to kitchen knife construction.

Which steel is best for me?

In our previous post covering the basics of kitchen knives we introduced the topic of steel and the two main categories of steel, being high carbon steel and stainless steel. We briefly described how each of these two steels perform and the key characteristics that define them. A particular steel is going to perform differently depending on how the blacksmith treats it. Steel manufacturers will imprint a selection of characteristics on a given type of steel. They will then give a guideline, which will help a blacksmith to manipulate the metal to get the desired result they are looking for. Naturally, in factory conditions, each knife will be very similar. As will be the case with experienced blacksmiths. However, it cannot be simply said that a particular steel will perform in a certain way for every knife that is made out of it.

So, with that in mind we are going to follow a different course to that which many other writers have followed. We will still list off a few of our favourite steels and briefly describe their typical characteristics, but instead of focussing on creating a definitive list we will focus on describing the differences between High-Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel and why you might choose one over the other. From our perspective, as chefs and home cooks, all we need to be concerned with are two key points. What is the hardness of the steel and is it stainless steel or high carbon? These two points will define how we must care for a particular knife (cleaning and sharpening) and how we can expect it to perform in terms of sharpness and edge retention.

High carbon steels require regular cleaning during and after use. These steels are susceptible to rust and are particularly vulnerable to highly acidic produce, lemons for example will cause an almost immediate patina to form on the blade of a high carbon steel knife. Professionals who work with these knives often have two cleaning clothes on hand, one wet and one dry. The wet cloth is used intermittently to remove any acidic liquid or produce build up on the blade between slices and the dry cloth is used at the end of a task to ensure the knife is dry between uses. This is a good habit to form, both in terms of your knife’s health and in terms of hygiene and flavour cross contamination. Most professionals should be practicing this process regardless of which type of steel their knives contain.

If you plan on storing your high carbon steel knives for an extended period, you should coat them with some form of protective oil (Camellia Oil or Tsubaki Oil). Moisture in the air will eventually cause rust and an oil coating is a good way to protect them for longer periods. Although not as important, stainless steel knives (actually only stain resistant) could also benefit from this.

Regardless of how well you care for your high carbon steel knives they will eventually develop a patina and if you do not care for them properly, they will develop rust. The patina is not of concern and for some it is a mark of pride, but rust can cause long term, sever and permanent damage to the knife. Stainless steel knives still need to be cared for, but they do not require the same attention as described above.

Although it is not definitive, on average high carbon steels can be hardened to higher Rockwell ratings. Harder steels can hold significantly more acute edge angles and therefor can be much sharper and maintain that sharpness for much longer periods. While, softer steels are not capable of holding the same angles and sharpness, the edge they do hold is more durable. However, as you will discover as we go through some of the popular knife steels below many stainless steels can be hardened to just as high Rockwell ratings as their high carbon counterparts.

A couple of quick points about stainless steel before we list of some of the more popular types and their characteristics. High carbon steels if not properly used can tarnish food with a very slight metallic flavour and discoloration. This is not often discernible to most palates, but it is worth noting. This is not something that you should be concerned with in terms of health and really only occurs if the user does not follow a strict knife cleaning process like the one mentioned above. Stainless steel does not suffer from these issues. Stainless steels are also highly recyclable.

It’s really not worth mentioning all the different types of steel that are available, but below we have listed a few of the more popular types that you will see around as you shop for kitchen knives.

Steel Name Type Rockwell (HRC) Sharpness Edge Retention
White #1 (Shirogami) High Carbon 65+ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
White #2 (Shirogami) High Carbon 60-61 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Blue #1 High Carbon 65 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Blue #2 High Carbon 63-65 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Blue (Aogami) Super High Carbon 63-64 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
         
VG10 Stainless Steel 60-62 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
VG5 Stainless Steel 60-61 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
VG1 Stainless Steel 58+ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
R2/SG2 Stainless Steel 64+ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
ZDP189 Stainless Steel 66-67 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
AUS10 Stainless Steel 58-60 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
AUS8 Stainless Steel 58-60 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Silver 3 Stainless Steel 59-61 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Conclusion

That’s it for this post. We use kitchen knives that are constructed out of both high carbon and stainless steels in our kitchen and they are constructed using a variety of different methods. The purpose here is not to define a specific material or construction method and label it as best, but to educate you and help you develop an intuition for what suits you and your needs. In part three of our knife series we will continue to discuss knife construction and delve into the topics of cladding, geometry and handles.

Cooking with Charcoal

Cooking with Charcoal
Cooking with Charcoal

Cooking with charcoal

Cooking with charcoal simply offers more versatility, better flavour and a more enjoyable cooking experience. At Modern Cooking we consider every product and article on our site an opportunity to inspire our members and readers to try something new and different. When we considered the idea of offering BBQs on our site it was clear that we would only be offering charcoal grills. Cooking with charcoal is such a primal and rewarding experience and the results speak for themselves.

With that said its obvious that there is going to be a certain level of bias present in this article, but not in terms of shameful product promotion only in terms of a bias towards cooking with charcoal as a fuel source. We understand that a gas grill can be a convenient, clean and enjoyable way to cook. However, the results you can achieve in terms of flavour are no different to those that can be achieved in a pan or oven.

With superior quality charcoal you will experience flavours and textures that simply cannot be achieved with any other BBQ fuel source. In this article we will explain why that is, we will discuss several unique charcoal BBQs and their usage and historical origins.  

The flavour that charcoal BBQs impart is undeniably unique and delicious, but how does cooking with charcoal impart such an amazing flavour. The source of that salty, sweet and smoky, umami flavour is delivered through a variety of factors that only charcoal can deliver.

Firstly, heat plays a massive role. Unlike a gas grill a charcoal grill can reach extremely high temperatures. The high heat caramelises the meat that you are cooking. If you read our post on Umami you will know that this caramelisation transforms amino acids in meat and creates a strong umami flavour. Although a gas grill can caramelise meat it will often over cook the meat in the process due to the lower temperatures it produces.

Secondly, unlike a gas grill, which has isolated burners, charcoal can be manipulated to serve many different functions. This allows for a level of precision control and experimentation that cannot be achieved with a gas grill. You can create hot zones and cool zones as you see fit.

When cooking with charcoal it’s also possible to infuse flavourful materials like woods, herbs and spices into the charcoal, which will then impart unique flavours into the food you cook. This is also true of any fat drippings from meat that falls into the coals, which will then burn and produce oily, sticky, smoky flavoured particles, which will then rise and infuse with your food. All of this produces the smoky flavour that charcoal grills are famous for.

Charcoal Briquettes are traditionally formed out of compressed saw dust. Most professional chefs and pit masters will tell you that its much better to use pure wood charcoal and this is for a number of reasons.

While there are many manufactures producing decent quality charcoal briquettes, many use resinous soft woods and often use chemical binding agents, which impart undesirable aromas and remove all the flavour enhancing benefits of cooking with charcoal.

Charcoal briquettes burn a lot faster than pure wood charcoal and they cannot reach the same high temperatures. This coupled with common impurities found in the production process make briquettes a poor choice in terms of flavour and the environment.

Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is made from only natural hardwood, such as maple, oak, mesquite or even hickory. The wood is kiln baked which reduces it to charcoal. The wood remains in its original form except it is black all the way through from the kiln process. In fact, the best way to determine the quality of the charcoal is to look at it—if you can recognize the shapes of real wood, you’ve got the real thing.

Pure wood lump charcoal burns hotter (around 750°C), so you will require far less charcoal than you would with briquettes. This type of charcoal burns a lot slower than briquettes because it is much denser. Because it is not made from saw dust it also produces much less ash. You can also re-use lump charcoal and even put it out with water, dry it and re-use it.

This is far more natural and when farmed from sustainable sources is also environmentally friendly. The fact that it is not bonded with artificial bonding agents also makes it healthier. Pure wood charcoal maintains all the great flavour enhancing properties mentioned earlier.

Ubame Oak – Binchotan

Binchotan is a premium lump charcoal produced in south west Japan. The charcoal is made from a Japanese oak variety known as Ubame.

Produced in handmade clay kilns the ubame oak is first baked at low temperatures and then the temperature is rapidly increased before the embers are starved of oxygen by shutting the air in-take on the firebox, this process protects the carbon in the wood. This process of slowly drawing out the moisture at low temperatures before charring the wood is unique to the binchotan process. The resulting lumps burn longer and hotter than any other charcoal and are so pure that they are used in air and water purification.

Binchotan is the best charcoal money can buy, but it doesn’t come cheap. We recommend you only use Binchotan in a Konro or other small grills.

Japanese BBQs

The Kamado BBQ

In Japan, charcoal has been used for over 2000 years as a key household heat source and it was still popular up until around the 1950s. Kamado is essentially the Japanese word for hearth. In the traditional Japanese home, the Kamado was a clay or ceramic rectangular shaped cooking range. A fire would be built inside it and heat would rise through one or more holes in the top of it. Each hole could be used to place a pan for cooking.

The Kamado grill as we know it today comes from the Mushi Komado, which was designed specifically for cooking rice. The innovation for this came in the form of a separate fire box or charcoal box and cooking pot. However, it was American ingenuity that transformed this design into the modern-day grill that we know today.

There are quite a few interesting stories about how the Kamado made its journey into the west, but essentially it all began with American servicemen, whom, during the second world war would pack Mushi Kamado on to transport plans and ship them back home as souvenirs. Eventually, they became so popular in the US that a variety of companies began producing them state side.

The modern day Komado BBQ has received quite a bit of innovation and is now a truly versatile piece of cooking equipment, it’s an all in one grill, oven and smoker. You can really cook anything on a kamado, from a low and slow brisket or ribs to burgers, steaks and veggies and even pizza (with a pizza stone).

What sets the Kamado apart is its ceramic shell. The ceramic shell has extreme heat retention properties and can absorb temperatures up to 400 °C (750 °F) similar to a wood fire oven. The design also gives precise control of airflow (and thus temperature) afforded by the bottom up ventilation system, which makes it possible to roast and bake in your Kamado BBQ.

Modern Kamado Accessories

Although the standard air flow control on the Kamado BBQ allows for rapid temperature adjustment, through the addition of a little modern technology in the form of an electric air blower and a thermostat controller you can precisely control your Kamado BBQs temperature to within a few degrees. Famous among competition pit masters, professional chefs and BBQ aficionados the BBQ Guru temperature regulators make it easy to control and manage the temperature of a Kamado BBQ. The latest models can even be controlled via Wi-Fi enabled web applications and seriously make cooking with charcoal and breeze.

The Konro

If you have ever travelled to Japan, you would have seen one of these small BBQs on just about every street corner. Particularly as you walk around  the entertainment quarter of Osaka (Dontonbori near Namba station) you will find a konro at almost every restaurant with an expert operator twisting Yakitori skewers or some other delicious morsels.

The Konro is probably better known in the west as a Hibachi grill, but in Japan it is called shichirin or konro. It’s a bit complicated, but the shichirin and konro names probably evolved when these small clay or ceramic fire boxes started getting used for cooking instead of just heating.

Hibachi were originally developed in around the 8thcentury A.D. and their original purpose was to act as a small room heater. My guess is that they became a poor man’s Kamado or cooking range, like those cheap electric hot plates are today. Over time it was discovered that they were great for cooking Yakitori and other smaller food items and so they were rebranded or renamed Konro or Shichirin.

Originally Konro were made from volcanic diatomaceous earth, which has a natural capacity for retaining and dispersing heat. Modern Konro are long, slender, rectangular grills fabricated from firebrick or ceramic.

With decent quality lump charcoal or Binchotan a Konro produces a very hot source of heat (750°C). The compact size and shape and the firebrick/ceramic construction makes these grills perfect for cooking skews of meat or sliced vegetables. The food is inches away from the charcoal and the juice that drips down is instantly evaporated into a smoky cloud of deliciousness that infuses with the food on the grill. The hot temperature is also perfect for creating crisp caramelised skins on chicken and other meats.

With the onset of the molecular gastronomy revolution many professional chefs have begun using Konro and Kamado BBQs to capture the great flavours that can only be achieved by cooking with charcoal and wood smoke. The versatility of these BBQs is really what makes them great and, like Sous Vide immersion circulators, a charcoal BBQ is for many professionals now becoming a must have piece of cooking equipment. Like many other modernist cooking techniques, cooking with charcoal give the opportunity to add unique and delicious flavours and textures to the food.

Today a quick search for charcoal BBQ on google will turn up hundreds of options. We believe the ceramic options are best in terms of versatility, durability and value. You might pay more for a Kamado BBQ, but with a little care it will last you a life time.

Reviewing half a dozen YouTube videos will tell you that steel and cast iron grills have a much shorter life span. With that said we advise you to look at the kamado BBQs and Konros and buy a model that has rust resistant metals parts because it is those parts that will fail you first on a Ceramic BBQ. Look at the spring-loaded hinges, air intakes and metal frames on the Kamado BBQs. If you find a grill that has rust resistant parts you have a great grill.

At Modern Cooking we have a range of charcoal BBQs including the 33cm Ceramic Kamado BBQ as well as a selection of portable table top Konros (Comming Soon). You can follow the links to check them out, but there are many others out there and whether you choose to buy one through us or someone els we strongly suggest you check them out and start cooking with charcoal.

Umami – What you need to know

Umami rich ingredients
Umami Ingredients

Umami – What you need to know

It’s that taste that makes you smack your lips and gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, it’s a full-bodied sensation that spreads all over the tongue, it lingers and leaves us salivating for more. These are all key characteristics of umami and characteristics that we chase in our food, that is why chefs around the world have become obsessed with it.

Chef David Chang of Momofuku has dedicated his laboratory kitchen to discovering new and unique umami rich ingredients. With a focus on fermentation he is creating new versions of miso, which is a paste created from fermented soy beans and prominently used in Japanese cuisine. By substituting the soy beans for other legumes Chang’s team are creating new and unique versions of this umami rich ingredient.

Chef Yoshihiro Murata, of the three Michelin star Kikunoi in Kyoto, Japan, describes umami as the basis for all Japanese cooking. Chef Murata believes that umami helps to balance a meal, which would otherwise need increased fats and salts to bring balance. In other words, through proper usage, umami can help us to deliver delicious meals that are also healthier than those without it.

Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, of the world famous Nobu restaurant chain, has made it the basis for every dish he creates. He has even created a menu designed to educate the public and train his chefs in its usage.

Ok so what is it? Umami is essentially glutamate, an amino acid, and it is one of the 5 basic tastes along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But what’s the difference between a taste and a flavour? Each ingredient has a unique flavour, which is made up of potentially several tastes, and aromas. We use our nose to sense aroma and our tongue to sense taste, together they sense flavour. 

What is Umami? (the sciency stuff)

Umami is not some mystical, secret ingredient extracted from rare and endangered animal species. Umami is simply an amino acid or a combination of amino acids. Amino acids support the lives of all living organisms on earth and are a principal factor in the creation of taste in foods. Glutamate (monosodium glutamate) is the most abundant of all amino acids and it is found in a wide variety of natural ingredients.

Glutamate has a key characteristic of becoming stronger when combined with other amino acids like inosinate (inosine monophosphate) and guanylate (guanosine monophosphate), which are also found in many common natural ingredients. This is very important to understand from the perspective of cooking as it helps us to determine why certain ingredients produce certain flavours when combined.

Chef David Chang’s recipe for ramen broth, for example, contains Kombu (Glutamate), Speck (Inosinate) and Shiitake Mushrooms (Guanylate), not to mention roasted pork bones (Glutamate and Inosinate). He was obviously aiming to create an umami bomb.

MSG

At this point it’s important to mention Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) additives, which many readers will absolutely be familiar with. MSG has a long history, in fact it has been a popular food additive in both Chinese and Japanese cuisine since the discovery of umami in 1908. In the 1960s the additive developed a bad reputation in relation to “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. So, to lay this ugly and false aspect of umami’s history to rest it is important to mention that many studies have been conducted on the amino acid glutamate, and MSG additives and toxicologists have determined that MSG is completely safe and for most people even in large amounts. As Harold McGee points out in his book, On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen “the most unfortunate aspect of the MSG saga is how it has been exploited to provide a cheap, one dimensional substitute for real and remarkable foods.”

As previously stated, glutamate is an amino acid that can be found naturally in many ingredients. As chefs or home cooks we should only seek to substitute what nature has provided us as a last resort. More often than not, natural produce will give better results than any processed substitute. It is also worth mentioning that using naturally grown, seasonal produce will have a lower impact on the environment and your personal carbon foot print.

If you really want to nerd out on Umami and amino acids you can check out the Umami Information Centre’s list of academic papers and studies that have been written on the subject over the past 100 years.

Culinary Usage

Being creative with Umami

In every meal you create you are aiming to find a balance that satisfies the 5 senses (Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell and Touch). The environment you eat in, the people you eat with and the combination of flavours, textures and plating will all play a role in satisfying the senses. Umami simply plays a role in the creative process. How you use umami and the ingredients it is contained within is up to you, and like any ingredient, with experience you will become better at understanding it’s usages. However, knowing of its existence and the way Inosinate and Guanylate ingredients affect it, is an important first step in understanding how to use it.

Being creative in cooking is often compared to theatre, the person who is consuming the meal is treated to an experience that excites the senses. With regard to taste and aroma, or flavour this is all about creating harmony. Not every culinary creation must possess all five tastes, but the tastes you include should work together to deliver a satisfying sensation. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Understanding which ingredients contain umami and which ingredients amplify umami will help you to avoid over use and allow you to find the harmony you are looking for.

“What I always keep in mind when using umami in cooking is maintaining a balance with the other four tastes. Combining umami in a balanced way with other basic tastes such as sour and sweet gives flavours a well-rounded quality.” 

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa – Owner chef, Nobu

Seasoning Umami

Seasoning our food is something that chefs get drilled into them throughout their training. Salt and pepper, salt and pepper, salt and pepper. Seasoning helps to enhance and bring out the natural character of ingredients. It helps to highlight the various flavours in a dish and balance the taste.

Umami is not salty, but it has a savoury sensation that requires less salt to be enhanced. This is something to keep in mind when using umami rich ingredients and can help to balance and deliver a far more delicious result. For example, Chef Heston Blumenthal suggests utilising anchovies, an umami rich ingredient, in his sous vide lamb leg recipe. The simple combination of rosemary, garlic and anchovies is delicious, and the umami rich anchovies provide a broader more complex taste than monotone salt can. Salt is great at enhancing other flavours, but it lacks the complexity of the other 4 basic tastes, sweet, sour, bitter and umami tend to be able stand on their own quite comfortably, while salt needs the unique traits of the other four tastes.

Some well know, Umami rich, Ingredients

Ingredient Glutamate Inosinate Guanylate
Green Tea *    
Shell Fish *    
Miso *    
Anchovies *    
Shiitake Mushrooms *    
Parmesan Cheese *    
Emantal Cheese *    
Cheddar Cheese *    
Tomatoes *    
Kombu *    
Truffles *    
Kimchi *    
Oyster Sauce *    
Shimp/Prawns * *  
Scallops * *  
Green Peas *    
Garlic *    
Lotus Root *    
Cured and Dried Meats * *  
Other Meats * *  
Cured and Dried Seafood * *  
Other Seafood * *  
Katsuobushi (dashi) * *  
Nori * *  
Dried Mushrooms *   *
Dried Tomatoes *   *

Umami’s history and origin

For over 1000 years the Japanese have been using, umami rich, kombu as basis for their soup stocks. However, it wasn’t until 1908 when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that kombu was a particularly rich source of glutamate. Through continued study he discovered that glutamate had a rich, savoury taste that was altogether different from the other four tastes. He named the fifth taste Umami, which roughly translates to delicious. In Asia Umami was immediately incorporated into their understanding of cooking and their cuisine, but in the west, it was met with scepticism. Many food scientists believed that umami simply enhanced the other tastes and wasn’t a unique taste of its own.

It wasn’t until almost 100 years later (2001) that Californian scientist Charles Zuker and colleagues demonstrated conclusively that humans and other animals have specific taste receptors for Umami or glutamate.

The Future of Umami

Umami has become a hugely important discovery, especially now that it is catching on in the western world. Many chefs are integrating this new understanding into their culinary process and, as if understanding cooking for the first time, creating new and exciting Umami based flavours.

Perhaps at the forefront of this movement is chef David Chang who describes how, through fermentation experiments in his New York food lab, he is creating a distinct New York umami. These experiments have already yielded results in the form of two new seasonings, which Chef Chang has called hözon and bonji.

Hözon is a fermented, stone-ground seasoning made in the style of miso paste. Unlike traditional miso, hözon does not contain soybeans – instead, nuts, seeds, and legumes undergo fermentation with a koji cultivated with basmati rice. After fermentation, the grains are ground to a smooth, creamy texture. The name hözon is derived from the Japanese word for “preserved”.

Bonji is a fermented, cold-pressed liquid seasoning made in the style of tamari and soy sauce. Unlike traditional soy sauce, bonji does not contain soybeans but is made from fermented hearty grains. Taking cues from whiskey distillers, Chef Chang and his team ferment single-variety, single-origin grains from farms in the northeast united states. After fermentation, the grains are pressed to produce an umami-filled sauce rich in amino acids, sugars, and active enzymes. The name bonji is derived from the korean word for “essence” and alludes to the distinctive and unique flavours extracted from each type of grain.

If you would like to read more about Umami check out some of the sources, which we used in our research for this article.

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