What makes for a good kitchen knife?
You might be inclined to purchase whichever one your favorite TV chef uses, or just the most expensive cutlery that you can afford in hopes of its cost inferring quality.
While both of those options are sure to yield a knife that’s a cut above the rest, it’s not necessary to spend an arm and a leg just to get quality kitchen cutlery.
In part two of our series, we’ll share tips on how to stock your kitchen with the tools that you need without missing a car payment.
The Three Most Important Kitchen Knives and Their Uses
Start shopping for kitchen cutlery, and you’ll quickly learn that there’s a specialized knife for almost every task under the sun, from stubby oyster knives and mango slicers to giant tuna swords.
But, the truth of the matter is that all of those knives aren’t necessary for your regular cooking tasks. For most home cooks, three styles of kitchen knives are plenty: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated slicing or bread knife.
Here’s what you need to know about the “Big Three:”
1. Chef’s Knives
The chef’s knife is usually the first knife you pick up when cooking—and the last one to be put down—since it can accomplish 90-percent of everything you need to do when preparing a meal.
Wusthof Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife
Chef’s knives, which sometimes referred to as “French knives,” range from 6 inches to 12 inches or more. Most consumers will find that an 8-inch chef’s knife suits their needs. Anything shorter than 8 inches is too short to reach across a roast and can lead to frustration.
If you regularly chop large bunches of vegetables, considering a 10-inch blade is appropriate. Not only will the length allow you to handle more ingredients at once, but the additional width of a longer blade makes it easier to conveniently scoop up your nicely diced veggies to toss them in a pan.
Just beware that longer blades can feel ungainly, and require a larger, open counter area to avoid spearing kitchen clutter.
How much should you expect to pay for a chef’s knife?
Although you can easily spend more than $250, it’s not necessary. Instead, it’s reasonable to expect to pay anywhere between $85-150 for a quality chef’s knife that strikes the right balance between holding an edge and requiring maintenance that suits your particular style.
Japanese-Style Chef’s Knives Offer a Wider Range of Sizes
Do you find that an 8-inch chef’s knife is too short, but 10 inches is too long to handle? One type of Japanese-made, Western-style chef’s knives called Gyutos are often available in half-sizes.
For example, you can find Gyutos in 210 mm (about 8.25 inches), 240 mm (about 9.5 inches), 270 mm (about 10.5 inches), and so on.
On the upside, these half sizes are great if you’re having a Goldilocks moment. However, you will need to use the metric system to calculate your perfect length.
Should Style Affect Your Chef’s Knife Purchase?
In part one of this kitchen knife buying guide, we remarked on the differences between traditional German-style knives and those hybrid western-meets-Japanese styles that are becoming popular.
Aside from available lengths, why select one style over the other?
The answer, in short, depends on whether your preference is precision (Japanese-style) or a knife that can handle bulk chopping as well as occasional bones (German-style).
Again, as the two styles merge, these differences become less apparent. However, if you’re still unsure, just remember that Japanese-style knives tend to be task-specific (e.g. separate knives are meant for vegetables, meat, or fish).
With that in mind, those shopping for a Japanese-style chef’s knife should look for one that has the western attributes of a longer, thicker, and wider blade if you intend for it to be your go-to tool.
2. Paring Knives
The number two pick in your kitchen trinity is a paring knife. These diminutive blades are used for all the delicate little tasks that your chef’s knife can’t handle, such as:
- Peeling thin-skinned fruits and vegetables
- Cutting the cores out of apple slices or strawberries
- Removing eyes from potatoes
- Deveining shrimp
The paring knife is your go-to tool for any task where using a chef’s knife feels like you might lose a finger.
The blade of a paring knife usually ranges between 2-4 inches in length and comes in a variety of shapes.
J.A. Henckels International Paring Knives
One type of paring knife tapers to a point, like a tiny chef’s knife. Called a “spear point,” this style has the straightest spine. It’s best for those who cut using the pointer technique – where you lay your index finger along the knife spine to direct the blade.
The second style of paring knife features a straight blade with a spine that curves dramatically down to meet it at the point, giving the knife a Japanese-style appearance. This is called a sheep’s foot paring knife, and the shape gives you a lot of blade to work with for its size.
However, because of its straight edge, this shape doesn’t offer sufficient knuckle clearance for use on a cutting board and is best used by those who favor the grandmother technique. That’s where you hold the carrot or potato in one hand, using that thumb as a guide to move the blade away from you as you take off a vegetable’s skin.
The third shape of paring knife has a bird’s beak-like appearance that makes goring potato eyes and strawberry hulls easier. This shape, also called a tourné knife, is also used to create the tourné cut—a classic (and difficult) method of French cooking where in root vegetables are carved into football-like shapes.
While it’s unlikely that you’ll need to attempt a tourné cut anytime soon, it’s a great example of how handy this particular blade shape can be when you need to peel round surfaces.
How much to spend on a paring knife?
Because of their small size, paring knives aren’t expected to handle heavy duty tasks, and there is rarely any attention paid to the alloy content of their steel.
For these reasons, paring knives are extremely inexpensive. Expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $20 depending on the shape and brand.
3. Slicers and Bread Knives
Slicing knives are long and lean, ranging from 9-18 inches. The purpose of these long blades is to allow you to make clean slices in a single stroke.
Ginsu Essential Series 8-Inch Slicer
This is especially important when carving roasted meats, slicing fish, or any other time you’d like to avoid the ridges and rough texture made by sawing back and forth.
Slicing and bread knives are not only long but narrow. The narrowness of the blade is to help stop moist foods from sticking. Additionally, some slicing blades have rounded tips that both help you avoid tearing a delicate piece of salmon or accidentally spearing someone else nearby.
While all slicing knives are long and narrow, they do come in a variety of edges that are designed for specific tasks.
A Granton edge can be identified by a series of ovals hollowed into the blade. These recessions create air pockets between the knife and delicate meat being sliced to prevent further sticking and shredding.
A serrated edge features little crescents of blade protected by triangular teeth. The teeth of a serrated knife grip and pierce the crusty exterior of bread without slipping, but it’s the crescents that do the actual cutting.
Because the “teeth” of a serrated knife do all the work, this style of slicer doesn’t need to be made out of especially quality metal or be sharpened.
What if you want to slice both bread and meats?
A scalloped edge blade looks like a reverse of a serrated edge blade and features little half-moons separated by inverted triangles. Scalloped edges are more gentle than serrated edges and provide a cleaner cut.
Depending on the style of slicing knife that you choose, these specialized blades can cost anywhere between $12 for a get-it-done bread knife, up to $120 or more for Granton or scalloped-edge meat slicers.
However, unless you regularly slice delicate fish or like to serve up the thinnest sheets of roast, there’s little reason to splurge on this knife style.
How Much to Spend on Kitchen Cutlery?
That’s pretty much it for the Big Three of kitchen cutlery. (We’ll share some specialized knife shapes shortly.) Though truth be told, you can even get by with two or if your funds are limited.
Which two? Well, that depends on your needs.
“When I'm too lazy to unpack my knife roll at home, I often get away with just a chef's knife and a bread knife,” says Bay Area chef Samin Nosrat.
Let the ingredients you encounter most frequently shape your knife choices. If you prefer veggies to bread, go for a paring knife instead.
But, there’s no question about it: Whether you decide to forgo a paring knife or a slicing blade, a good chef’s knife is an absolute necessity in every kitchen.
As such, experts suggest that you prepare to spend accordingly. If you have $100 for kitchen cutlery, allocate $75 for a chef’s knife; if you have $150 budgeted, allocate at least $100.
That’s because your chef’s knife isn’t just the most important knife in your collection, it’s the most important tool in your kitchen overall.
Three Optional Knives That Might Compliment Your Cooking Style
You can do anything and everything you’ll ever need to do in your home kitchen with the Big Three. However, there are some great knives out there that are specially designed to make specific tasks easier:
1. Boning and Fillet Knives
Do you eat a lot of fish? If so, you might want a super-flexible fillet knife or a slightly bendy boning knife.
These blades are usually six to eight inches long, and their flexibility allows you to slice perfect fillets or, in the case of the boning knife, glide the flesh right off a fish’s bones as well as debone a leg of lamb or trim a tenderloin.
While these two knives are designed with slight differences, they have more in common, and a semi-flexible boning knife can split the difference to cover all tasks.
One important note: These specialty knife blades are often uniformly thin. When deboning, you run the risk of stubbing the knife point on something hard and having your hand jolt up the blade on impact.
To avoid serious injury, it’s important that your boning knife has a significant bolster. Without that protective lip, you’re risking more than ruining your dinner.
2. Cleavers and Vegetable Knives
We rarely buy sides of beef or bone-in cuts of meat anymore, which means that very few people need a heavy duty bone cleaver these days.
So, why mention cleavers? While meat cleavers might rarely be used in home kitchens, the thin-bladed Chinese cleaver is praised by food writers as a do-it-all kitchen wonder.
Weightless and wood-handled, these Chinese cleavers are even touted by some to rival the chef’s knife as an all-purpose kitchen tool.
Chinese cleavers are seven or eight inches long and about three inches wide. They’re made by nearly every knife manufacturer and are available at a range of prices.
But, many who love them argue that the $10 versions that are sold at your local Asian markets are just as good the brand name versions.
The idea being that you can purchase one, use it, abuse it, and occasionally sharpen it for two or three years. Then, chuck out the cheap cleaver to buy another.
3. Kitchen Shears
Every kitchen eventually needs a pair of heavy duty shears to handle tasks from cutting stems to de-spinning a chicken. Heck, you can even use kitchen shears as a pizza cutter.
These sharp blades snip through crust, packaging, joints, and nearly any other material that you need to cut.
Kitchen shears can be purchased for as little as $10 for a soft-grip pair. However, consider springing for a set that snaps apart for easier clean-up.
Should You Buy a Set or Individual Knives?
So far, we’ve suggested six knives that range in importance. At this point, you might be wondering why not just buy one of those knife sets that come resplendent in a wooden block?
After all, you get six, eight, or even ten different knives for the price of a single high-end chef’s knife – what a steal!
As tempting as a pre-bundled block of knives is to budget-minded shoppers, it’s important to remember that the metal used in these sets is often mediocre at best. Instead, these blades dazzle your senses with quantity – not quality.
Even if a potential knife set includes a usable chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated slicer, and you don’t mind the sub-par steel, your kitchen counter is stuck housing a number of knives that you won’t likely use beyond those main three.
What most often happens is that the remainder of those knives will sit forlornly on your countertop until you eventually upgrade the whole shebang.
Instead, avoid spending unnecessarily—and cluttering up your kitchen counter—by focusing on quality. Mix and match your kitchen cutlery purchases to your needs, and slowly build your collection.
The result will be kitchen knives that suit your tastes and cooking styles, without the feeling that you’ve wasted your money on an unused purchase.
The Most Important Step When Buying Kitchen Cutlery
From our first article of this buying guide, you know how to identify the anatomy of a knife, the difference in cutlery materials, how to identify quality steel, and production styles.
Now, you’re also confident in which knives would best compliment your cooking, and how to navigate nuanced differences within each category. What else could you possible need to understand before shopping for kitchen cutlery?
To confidently purchase any kitchen knife, you need to determine what feels right in your hand.
Not only does this mean you need to go knife shopping in person (at first, at least), but feel is a very subjective thing. If you don’t have your criteria defined, you’re more likely to be swayed by marketing promises or the inferred exclusivity of high prices.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple test for what feels right.
Some people will balance the knife on their finger at the bolster to see if it’s weighted evenly. That’s great if you prefer a balanced blade, but others prefer knives that are weighted forward for the extra feeling of control and precision.
Knife handle material and shape also make a difference. To learn what fits your hands, pick up every knife that you see.
Make a note if you like ergonomic humps and grooves, or if you’d prefer your handle to feel like a well-worn bar of soap. From carved wood to ergonomically sculpted metal, the right handle is one that feels good to you.
If a prospective knife has a bolster, make sure that the area is seamless. If there are rivets, check to ensure that they’re perfectly flush. Test the knife in different grips to make sure that it doesn’t rub or weight uncomfortably.
The Bottom Line: You’ll Need to Touch the Knife Before You Buy
When you’re shopping for kitchen cutlery, forget name brands, friend recommendations, and, to whatever extent possible, even cost.
Instead, how the knife feels in your hand should be the deciding factor. While what feels right is subjective, it should feel familiar – like an extension of your hand.
Because, when it comes down to it, the most expensive knife in the world isn’t worth much if you never use it due to discomfort.
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