Cutlery Class: A Lesson in Cheese Knives
As the cheese buyer for a very busy New York City food retailer, I give a lot of advice to customers about how best to serve a beautiful piece of cheese at home. That usually includes a bit of show-and-tell regarding the form and function of cheese knives, which come in a multitude of shapes and sizes.
When customers ask for a good starter set of cheese knives, either for their own kitchen or to give as a gift, I lead them to a basic three-piece set, which includes a knife for soft cheese, a cheese cleaver, and a planer. Nearly every cheese in the world, from the most unctuous Brie de Nangis to the firmest Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio, will yield to at least one of the tools in this set.
When cutting a fresh or moist cheese, such as Spanish Monte Enebro or Ireland’s Cashel Blue, a blade with minimal surface area works best because it has less area for the cheese to stick to and cause a messy slice. That’s why the knife for soft cheese is designed with holes cut in most of the surface of the blade; it also has a sharp edge and some heft to facilitate neater slices.
The cleaver-style knife looks just like the big tool butchers use to break down a side of beef, but it’s much smaller and far easier to handle. The cheese cleaver is perfect for tackling a dense wedge of Montgomery’s Cheddar. It also works well with nearly any semifirm cheese such as Manchego, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, or Appenzeller.
The third tool in the set, the planer for hard cheese, is a thin, truncated triangle of stainless steel with a sharpened edge punched out of the center. When scraped along a broad, flat edge of a semifirm or firm cheese, such as Idiazabal or Mimolette, the sharp edge creates slim slices of cheese. The thinness is important because in exposing more of the surface area of the cheese to the air, it releases the maximum amount of flavor.
If a customer is shopping for a gift for a cheese lover but doesn’t know which cheeses that person prefers, I recommend a good, all-purpose cheese knife, such as Swissmar’s Universal stainless-steel cheese knife. Its multifunctional design contains elements appropriate for nearly any type of cheese—the blade is relatively spare, so there’s less surface area to stick to that creamy Brillat-Savarin; it’s sharp enough to slice into a sturdy Provolone Valpadana Piccante with ease; and the blade turns upward at the opposite end of the handle so you can get leverage when cutting through Cantal (although make sure to keep your fingers clear of the sharp part of the knife). It’s affordable too—which means ultimately you can buy more cheese.
Let me know if you need some help with that … c
Written by Olga Dominguez. Olga Dominguez is the cheese buyer for Zabar’s, a legendary specialty food store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.