Essential Skills: How to buy a knife
This is the first post in what I hope will become a prolific and useful set to a new series I’m calling “Essential Skills” where I’m taking everything I’ve learned from personal experience in the kitchen, culinary school, and my time working at Sur la Table and putting it into useful tips, tricks, tools, and ideas for you. My hope is that through this series you will save time, effort, money, and hassle in the kitchen whether you are a busy mom trying to feed her family or an enthusiastic home cook. I’d love to see what you think of this first post and what you’d like to see in the future so leave a comment below, email me, or tweet me.
Whether shopping for your first great Chef’s knife or registering for a set for your wedding, purchasing knives and knife sets can be a confusing and overwhelming experience. There are so many styles, sizes, materials, and brands. Santoku, what? Pakkawood, huh? When I was first trained on knives at Sur la Table I was completely dumbfounded by the amount of facts about each and every knife. You may see some of your favorite chefs on television using one brand while your friend swears by a different brand. When purchasing a knife, I believe the most important thing you can do is “test drive” the knife. Go to a store that offers display knives and hold as many different knives in your hand as you can. Try different brands, styles, and sizes. Even if your favorite chef uses one brand or style, that knife may not feel right in your hand. Once you find something that feels right, check the characteristics that are listed below to ensure it is of high quality and will last your lifetime.
Once you think you’ve found a brand or set of features you like (you don’t have to swear your life to one brand of knives; having multiple brands and styles in your kitchen is fine) it is important to do your research. Look online at what people have to say about the integrity of the knives and the customer service of the company (some companies offer free annual professional knife sharpening). Don’t let the high prices of some brands scare you away, if you treat it with proper care a good knife or entire set should last for a very long time. Also, it makes cooking and getting through prep work not such a chore when you have the proper tools. I’ll never forget the first time I glided my high quality chef’s knife into an onion and was amazed at how much easier chopping and dicing can be with a great knife. I actually wanted to chop up vegetables and managed to get through peeling and dicing two onions so quickly I managed to avoid staining my cheeks with mascara-tinted tears.
If you don’t want to invest in a high quality full knife set just yet, you can instead slowly build your collection (see How to Build Your Knife Set below). I promise you that once you fork out (ignore that pun, please) the money for your first high-quality chef’s knife (if you haven’t already), you’ll appreciate its value in the kitchen.
Anatomy of a knife
Handle Material:One type of handle isn’t necessarily better than another but there are disadvantages and advantages to each. Ultimately, what feels the best in your hand and what is important to you should dictate the material of the handle of the knife you purchase.
- Rubber or plastic
- Advantages: hygienic, can be ergonomic and textured to provide a nice grip
- Disadvantages: can appear cheap and unattractive in appearance, may be too lightweight, may crack over time
- Advantages: Strong and sturdy, sanitary, attractive
- Disadvantages: May feel cold, may feel slippery if not textured, increases the weight of the knife
- Advantages: attractive, traditional
- Disadvantages: requires most care, may become unhygienic, may become water-damaged
- Composite (such as Pakkawood, Dymondwood, etc., see photo below for example)
- Advantages: easy to care for, comfortable, attractive, sanitary, durable
- Disadvantages: can result in higher expense
Heel:the rear part of the blade. It is also the widest part of the blade. If your knife skills are average you will probably want a rounded heel because sharp heels can pose a danger to your fingers and hand.
Bolster: the portion of metal that connects the blade to the handle. It can provide balance and act as a guard to your hand. The bolster can sometimes be an indicator of whether the knife was forged or stamped (more on that below).
Spine: the spine runs along the top of the knife, opposite the blade edge.
Tang: unfortunately this doesn’t refer to the artificially neon orange drink from the 60s but to the strip of metal that protrudes from the blade and sometimes into the handle. It can provide balance and stability. Most consumers are under the impression that a “full tang” (when the metal strip runs from the blade all the way through the handle) is superior but in actuality whether the knife has a full tang or half tang will not always indicate the overall quality.
Cutting Edge: When purchasing a knife in store, the sharpness of the display knife is irrelevant. Instead, judge a knife by the characteristics that cannot be altered such as those listed above and below, especially the blade material. Another important aspect to consider when examining the cutting edge is the blade curvature. Some blades curve up towards the tip while some remain straight (such as Santoku-styleknives). This is important because some people have different chopping styles than others; for those of you who utilize a rocking style chop may be better suited with a curved blade while those who use a straight up-and-down chop may like the Santoku-style better.
Other things to consider
- Carbon Steel:
- Advantages: inexpensive material, holds a sharp edge
- Disadvantages: may give off a “metallic” taste to food, may rust or stain
- Stainless Steel:
- Advantages: won’t rust
- Disadvantages: won’t hold a sharp edge well, must be sharpened frequently
- High Carbon Stainless Steel:
- Advantages: combines the advantages of both carbon steel and stainless steel; won’t discolor, maintains a sharp edge well, strong and durable
- Disadvantages: more expensive
- Advantages: won’t impart flavor to food, durable, lightweight, flexible (good for fillet and boning knives)
- Disadvantages: expensive, doesn’t hold a sharp edge well
- Advantages: lightweight, maintains a sharp edge for a very long time, won’t rust or impart flavor to food
- Disadvantages: requires specific sharpening equipment, brittle; will chip, crack, and break easily
Weight: most of the time the weight of the knife does not indicate quality and is a matter of preference. Some users enjoy lightweight knives because they feel they are easier to handle and maneuver whereas some users prefer heavier knives because they feel sturdier. This is why it is important to “test drive” a knife in the store before you purchase.
Balance: high quality knives should be well balanced, meaning that the weight of the handle should not outweigh the blade and visa versa.
Flexibility: the flexibility of the knife should relate to its use. Boning and fillet knives should be flexible whereas Chef’s knives should be sturdy.
Blade Manufacturing: The notion that forged knives are better than stamped knives can often be true but thanks to modern technology the stamping process has improved dramatically, producing high quality less expensive stamped knives.
- Stamped: blade is cut from a piece of steel then heated for durability then ground and sharpened.
- Advantages: less expensive, easier to sharpen, lightweight
- Disadvantages: less sturdy and durable, not as well-balanced, won’t hold sharp edge for a long period
- Forged: a fully forged knife is made from a complicated craftsmanship process where a piece of steel is heated then pounded to form the blade, tang, and bolster then tempered to a specific hardness, ground and sharpened.
- Advantages: thicker, heavier, sturdier, well-balanced
- Disadvantages: more expensive
How to Build Your Knife Set:
The 3 essential knives to every kitchen:
- 8-inch chef’s knife
- popular length, used for everyday tasks such as slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing
- 3 1/2-inch paring knife
- used for tasks that require precision such as coring, peeling, de-veining, seeding, and trimming
- 9-inch serrated bread knife
- this knife is serrated so instead of applying downward pressure, the user can apply horizontal pressure (sawing motion) preventing the bread from being squished; offset bread knives are preferable.
- 10-inch chef’s knife
- one of the longest lengths of chef’s knives, sometimes preferred by users with big hands or who tackle lots of prep chopping or large pieces of food
- 5 1/2-inch ceramic Santoku
- the ceramic material will make this one of the sharpest knives in your collection. Santoku style includes a granton edge which are evenly spaced indentations on the blade created to reduce fiction and keep food from sticking. This knife is best used for chopping vegetables.
- kitchen shears
- used for everyday tasks like cutting herbs, twine, wrapping, parchment, etc. Durable stainless steel shears can be used for cutting lobster or poultry.
- 5-inch utility knife
- shorter, lighter version of a chef’s knife, used for cutting jobs such as slicing small pieces of meat
- 10-inch carver or slicer
- used to cut through large pieces of meats and roasts
- serrated tomato knife
- the serrated blade of this knife helps to cut through the soft flesh of tomatoes without squishing them. Also useful for cutting sandwiches, bagels, etc.
- skeleton cheese knife
- used to cut though soft, sticky, mushy foods (not only soft cheeses)
- boning knife
- this knife is usually narrow and slightly curved so it can easily work between meat, bone, tendons, and cartilage.
- 6-inch chef’s knife
- smallest of the chef’s knives, sometimes preferred by users with smaller hands
What are your favorite knife brands, materials, and styles? I love my Miyabi Fusion by Henckles 8-inch Chef’s knife and I also love all my Wusthof knives. If there’s one thing I hope you learned from this post it is the importance of holding a knife in your hand and seeing if you like it before buying it. I’ve been known to go to a store to inspect a knife only to drive back home to review and purchase it online for cheaper. Stay tuned for upcoming Essential Skills posts about how to maintain and care for your knives!