You want to see a chef cut a bitch? Touch his or her knives.
For reasons I can’t fully comprehend, when you have an excellent knife, you become very attached to it, and the knives begin to take on some of your cutting style. It’s the same principle that dictates you can never use another player’s baseball glove, or drive his/her stick-shift sports car. .
Good knives are mission critical in any kitchen, but the real challenge is making sure they are actually “good knives.” If there’s anything in the kitchen that you should splurge on, it’s your knives. They are not cheap, but once you get the hang of using high-quality steel, you can never go back.
And that’s where we start.
It’s all about the steel
There are more types of steel than you can shake a stick at, but the best knives are made of high-carbon stainless. The country where the steel is made is also a factor. Generally, the best steels in the world are forged in the United States, Japan and Germany. These countries all offer steels at different price points, but knives are the quintessential “you get what you pay for” item.
But you don’t want to be a metallurgist, right? You want to cut stuff up. There are many high-carbon stainless knives out there that aren’t that great. So how can you tell what is a good knife?
Many people, including myself, go with brands, and there definitely are brands that offer consistent levels of high quality. Wüsthof and J.A. Henckels are two excellent German brands, but beware, they offer relatively inexpensive lines that are not worth it. Shun is a United States brand whose knives are made in the Japanese style, and these are amongst the most expensive on the market. There are many, many brands out there. These are a few of the best.
Personal note: Every Wüsthof knife I have owned was worth more than the price I paid. The steel is among the finest in the world, and the knives are beautifully constructed. While the steel itself figures prominently in a knife’s price, construction may have a larger impact on what you pay.
Anatomy of a Great Knife
There are two types of knife construction: stamped and forged. You can tell a stamped knife by looking at the handle. Is the blade a flat sheet of steel from tip to handle? That’s a stamped knife. Stamped knives are cheap to make and I do not recommend them for your most important knives. There is one exception, which I will cover in the bevel section.
You want your knives to be “forged.”
The most obvious difference between a stamped and forged knife is the bolster, the flare of metal above the black handle. The bolsters do something critically important: they balance the weight of the knife. It is also important that they have a “full tang,” which simply means the steel of the knife goes all the way through the handle.
The effect is a knife that will balance on the tip of your finger at the bolsters. Without the extra steel, the center of gravity would be further up. You would have to place your finger onto the blade to balance it, and this is really not a good idea.
Why is balance important? Because knife work is often, if not the majority of the time, a rocking motion, and you definitely want the pivot of that motion to be at the top of the handle. A forged knife places the fulcrum of your super sharp level precisely where you want it: safely at the bolster, not the blade. Equal weight at the ends makes for fast, stable, and safe knife movement The rocking motion needed for most cutting (its really more orbital) takes maximum advantage of the whole reason we have knives, and why the best ones are so expensive: the bevel.
The Cutting Edge
If you put a knife blade under a microscope, you will see the edge has thousands of tiny teeth. So long as those teeth are aligned in the same direction and nothing has chipped the edge (these chips can be microscopic as well) your knife will be sharp. And sharpness is so very important. Dull knives force you to put more muscle behind each cut. This creates instability, and trips to the emergency room. Its very counter-intuitive, but the majority of injuries in the kitchen can be traced to dull knives.
To stay sharp, the bevel must be protected. This means you do not slice on hard surfaces like glass or stone. Use a cutting board. My favorite is a polypropylene board that is cheap and non-porous (nasty bacteria can’t permeate it). When you become more comfortable with your knife, and if you have the counter space, you might want to try wooden boards for slicing vegetables and fruit.
Next, repeat after me: I promise to never ever ever put my knives in the dishwasher. Ever.
Dishwashers will wreck your knives. First, they get tossed around in the little cutlery tray, and they bang against other metal items, chipping the bevel. Secondly, wash cycles are incredibly punishing, and will cause the handle to warp, ruining a good knife.
You don’t want to leave them on the counter either. Just wash your knife as soon as you are finished and put it back in the block. Great knives are an investment. If you take care of them, your knives will be passed down for generations.
A note on serrated knives: These are the exception to most of the rules above. Stamped is perfectly okay for serrated knives because this style blade is really only used to slice bread. Every kitchen needs one serrated, but only one. Serrated blades can’t effectively be sharpened (some would argue this point, I personally have never seen it), so cheaper is better.
During normal usage, the microscopic teeth on your knife’s bevel will get out of alignment, and that’s when you use your honing steel. People get confused here. Knife sets often include a steel and people think this sharpens the bevel. Honing steels only put the teeth back in alignment. I hone my knives about once a week, depending on usage.
Microscopic view of a knife bevel.
The key to honing is to set the tip of the steel on your cutting board, I like to hold it at about a thirty degree angle from the board. Then take your knife and pretend you are trying to slice off a thin strip of the honing steel. Do your best to keep the angle of your knife the same throughout. Do this five to ten times. Then, repeat with the other side of the knife.
The consistency of angel is key.
You will never actually sharpen your knives. Sharpening means removing metal from the blade’s edge to restore the bevel. Each time a knife is sharpened it loses metal. This isn’t to say that your knives will never need to be sharpened. Eventually, even with the greatest care, honing won’t cut it anymore, literally.
This is when you find a local professional to sharpen your knives for you. Unless you are a professional, don’t do this yourself. High-carbon steel is the material of choice for knives precisely because it holds a bevel longer, requiring much less sharpening over the life of the knife. Less sharpening means the knife will last longer.
Trying to sharpen knives ourselves usually results in the bevel being the wrong angle and/or shape. You will have to take your knife to the professional, and he/she has to grind way even more metal until the correct angle is restored. This is very hard on knives.
If you follow these guidelines, your high-dollar investment will last you a lifetime and beyond.
What to Buy
When shopping for knives, its very easy to go with a set, five or more knives in a handy wooden block. There’s nothing wrong with buying a set, per se, so long as the knives included are the ones you need most. Buying them one at a time (or “open stock”), lets you spread out the expense, and you aren’t paying for knives in the set that you rarely use. That said, if you do go open stock, you will need to buy a steel and a block.
Regardless of how you acquire your new knives, you really only need three.
The Chef’s Knife
This is the workhorse. You will find yourself reaching for this one the vast majority of the time. Slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing, are the purview of the chef’s knife.
They come in various sizes, but an 8-inch is sufficient for most things. A good chef’s knife, like this Wüsthof Classic, range in price from $100-$200.
The Paring Knife
Paring knives are used for much more delicate work. My favorite use of my paring knife is hulling strawberries. It is small, short, sharp, and very effective on precision tasks like peeling fruit or vegetables. A good paring knife will cost somewhere between $30-$70.
The Carving Knife
The carving knife is your best friend when it comes to preparing and serving meat. Long, with a very narrow blade, this is the prefect tool for deboning, filleting and other meat prep work. Normally found in 8 and 9-inch lengths, a good carver runs between $100-$150.
So Many Choices
What about all those other types of knives? Once you’ve mastered using each of the above styles, you may want to branch out and try some of them. I have a Nakiri (a Japanese vegetable cleaver, though mine is SUPRISE! Wüsthof) that has become my hands down favorite knife. The chef’s, paring, and carving knives are necessities. Anything else is bonus.
Like most things related to kitchen equipment, there’s an overwhelming number of options at the high end of the price scale. Once you have spent some time with a good knife and refined your technique, some of these options may suit you perfectly.
I know this post reads like an advertisement for Wüsthof, but this is the brand I have most enjoyed working with. I don’t go into any detail on Japanese style knives because they have a different type of bevel from traditional knives. It’s much sharper but much much more fragile. This style is best left to people with expert knife skills.
The price of these knives no doubt surprised some of you, but I have never seen a great knife on the cheap. And my motto is: only buy something once if at all possible. In knives, that will put an initial dent in your wallet.
That said, you cannot go wrong with the knives I’ve recommended here.