There are very few kitchen tools that are truly a necessity. Our kitchens get filled with gizmos and gadgets, but the truth of the matter is that we end up using very few. Garlic press? Got it, and yes, it works well but it takes longer to clean than it does to press the garlic. I can use a chef’s knife for that. Pineapple slicer, mango splitter, strawberry slicer? Really? One wonders how we managed before the advent of the infomercial age and the persuasive ability of pitchmen came on the scene!
Yes, we managed very well indeed, and we did it with a couple of knives and a good cutting board (which is a topic for another conversation). OK, so now that we might be convinced it’s time to buy a knife or three, how do we decide what’s important and what’s not? Well, the first step requires visiting a store. Yes, you can order your knives online, and perhaps save some money, but in order to buy the right knives for you, you absolutely have to hold the knives in your hands to make sure they’re comfortable and that they work!
Before you worry too much about what type of knife to buy and which brand is the best, consider for a moment what we’re discussing. It’s a long, sometimes heavy razor-sharp extension of your hand. This thing can do some damage if you lose control of it, and that’s why you need to go to a store and handle knives before committing to one. The best full tang, high carbon steel, hi-tech handled knife is useless -- or worse, dangerous -- if it doesn’t fit you properly. So, step one is handle knives, lots of knives.
Get a grip
The handle of the knife is very important and deserves ample consideration when buying a knife. The first hurdle it needs to pass is the comfort test. It should feel natural in your hand. Your grip needs to be comfortable and secure. My chef’s knife has a hard rosewood handle riveted to a full tang. It’s been very durable -- 25 years and counting -- though it has lost a little material around the edges.
Check it's well balanced
Other handle materials include rubber, plastic, and metal. Once you find a handle that’s comfortable make sure the knife is well balanced. I find a chef’s knife that carries 50% of its weight in its handle and 50% in the blade to be perfect. See if your knife balances on your finger right where the blade meets the handle. If it does it’s got that 50/50 balance, which makes long-term use of the knife much easier.
Go with the full tang clan
Once you found a knife that you like, take a look at the handle. If it’s wood it might be riveted on to a full tang. The tang is the part of the blade that lives inside the handle. A full tang means that the tang extends through the handle and can be seen as a layer of steel that is sandwiched between the two handle halves. This is the strongest, and best-balanced, type of knife. Smaller tangs can present two problems. The first is that there is simply less tang to attach the handle to so you might end up with movement between the two parts. The second is that with less of a tang you are likely to find the balance of your knife shifting dramatically towards the blade, which can make the knife awkward and uncomfortable to use.
Check if it is hand-forged
You might find that the base of the blade, where it meets the handle, is flat, or it might have what’s known as a bolster. The bolster, a thick base, is usually the result of a knife being hand-forged. Hand-forged knives are made the old-fashioned way, by one person working a single piece of steel into the blade’s shape. Most knives today are stamped mechanically from a sheet of steel. It is said that hand-forged knives, which do not always have a bolster, are more durable than stamped knives, though this may be less true with today’s high carbon steels.
Carbon steel, stainless steel or ceramic?
High carbon steel is the material of choice for most kitchen knives these days. It’s strong enough to keep an edge, yet malleable to be easily sharpened. It doesn’t discolor and is generally non-reactive with foods. Other materials used for knife blades include carbon steel, stainless steel and ceramics.
Carbon steel knives are easy to sharpen and holds their razor edge a long time, though they require careful cleaning and drying and will discolor with time.
Stainless steel knives hold their edge well and are neutral and easy to maintain, though very difficult to sharpen once they lose their edge.
Ceramic blades can be razor sharp, hold their edge very well ,yet can be difficult to sharpen and can be more brittle than steel -- meaning an errant fall can see the blade snap at the tip or where it attaches to the handle.
A set or individual pieces?
Now you should be ready to make your decision on what style of knife to buy, and all that’s left to decide. You have two routes you can take here: buying a knife set or buying individual pieces. I have tried both and have found that mixing and matching from among producers and styles has been best for me. Just because a producer’s chef knife works well for me, doesn’t mean that their utility knife is just as well suited to my hand and grip. Buying a knife set can usually be an affordable way to equip one’s kitchen. In general, if you like one knife, I always suggest trying out the chef’s knife -- you may very well like the rest of that line-up.
So, you might guess that I think a chef’s knife is a kitchen essential, and I do, though I realize that other people might prefer a Japanese-style Santoko blade. In any event, this largest knife in your repertoire should be the blade you test drive first. Chef’s knives typically come in 8, 10, and 12-inch lengths. I have found that the 10-inch model is perfect for me, but trying each one is important in determining what may be perfect for you.
The 5 essential knives
Now on to the knives! In addition to the keystone of any collection, that all-too-handy chef’s knife, I also recommend:
a 10-inch serrated knife for bread slicing
a 6-inch utility knife for handling small tasks
a 7-inch boning knife for breaking down meats
a 10-inch ham slicer for slicing through meats and fish
and a 4-inch paring knife for the really small jobs.
Though the truth is, I am comfortable enough with my chef’s knife to use it for almost every task.
To view the photos for this article, go to 5 Knives Every Chef Needs (or Wants).