Know Your Knives: Selection

This is important: THROW AWAY those dull, flimsy, stamped metal, $3.99 Ikea knives you bought back in college that couldn’t cut through Jell-O, and buy yourself a DECENT chef’s knife #realtalk.

For serious, the first time I cut through a tomato with a good, sharp, chef’s knife was a revelation to me. The knife glided through the skin without effort, went straight through the flesh down to the opposite side, and created a perfect circular slice begging to be placed on a burger. I was shocked. All those years of forcefully sawing through the skin of ripe tomatoes with sub-par knives, only to get deformed, oblong slices that were paper thin on one side and stupid fat on the other, wasted! If only I had a better knife, I could have been slicing with ease. Listen: making the change from a junk knife to a good knife can change your entire perspective on cooking.

So do yourself a favor, go to your local kitchenware store that has a decent selection of knives, and invest in something good to cut with. I guarantee* your enjoyment of cooking will increase ten-fold.

To get you ready for your purchase, I’d like to introduce you to my knife.  A no-frills, German-made Wüsthof Classic 8″ Chef’s Knife. Say hello, and note all the different parts:

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This may sound funny, but get to know your knife anatomy. All kitchen knives have these components and knowing about their variations is what will help you to select your knife. Not seen in this picture is the tang, which is the metal strip that extends from the blade and is usually covered by the handle, and actually plays a really important role in balancing the knife.

Selecting a knife is a little like buying a car. Different models perform differently, and the different performances will appeal to different people. Also, you’re buying something that you’ll probably be using for years to come, so most importantly, always take the product on a test run before making your purchase.  When shopping, you’ll mainly encounter two styles of knives: European and Japanese (again much like cars, coincidentally). Here we’ll break down a couple of the more popular knife types out there:

European: Usually heavier, with a thicker spine, and a bigger bolster that comes all the way down to the heel, which adds some weight and leverage. Pros: Good for more heavy duty jobs like breaking down a chicken or cutting through thick winter squashes, ergonomic handle, the larger bolster can act as a finger guard if you’re worried about getting nicked. Cons: Not that pretty to look at, heaviness can cause you to fatigue faster if doing a lot of knife work, not as good at jobs that require a little finesse or a sharper edge, like thinly slicing fish.

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Japanese: Usually lighter, with a thinner, rounded spine, smaller bolster (if any) at the end of the handle, usually has a cylindrical handle made of wood. Pros: The lighter knives allow for more maneuverability and control, thinner knives can have and maintain a sharper edge (especially because a lot of Japanese knives are made of high-carbon steel), thus making slicing delicate foods easier, smaller bolster makes it easier to sharpen the entire length of the blade, and last but not least, they are just beautiful knives. Seriously they are sexy. Cons: Not ideal for heavy duty jobs like breaking down a chicken, knives tend to be more brittle and the cutting edge requires more maintenance than the European style.

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Carbon Steel: Carbon steel knives are starting to gain popularity again after about a century hiatus.  These are the blades people used to use before stainless steel was invented/perfected. They’re worth mentioning here just because I think they are bad ass. They tend to tarnish really fast and start looking like some medieval Game of Thrones blade after a while. They’re also easier to sharpen and maintain a sharper edge for a longer period of time.  If you take care of them and use the right cutting board you don’t have to sharpen them for like a year. Pros: They’re sharp and bad ass. Cons: A TON of maintenance and they rust right away if you don’t wash and dry them vigilantly. Also, although very sharp, they are more brittle and not as flexible so not great for heavy duty jobs.

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Ceramic: I’m just gonna come out and say I probably will never buy a ceramic knife.  I think they look like little toy knives. But from what I’ve read, they supposedly keep their edge for much longer than your typical high-carbon steel knives, and tend to be lighter than stainless steel. Pros: Very sharp, very light, great for chopping veggies and boneless meats, more affordable. Cons: Looks like a kid’s toy (at least the white ceramic ones do), very brittle, not good for heavy duty jobs.

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So there you go. For me, I tend to like the weight and the sturdiness of a European-style knife, and I just don’t think I have the discipline for all the maintenance required for a carbon knife.  One day I’d like to get a Japanese knife but for now my Wüsthof Classic is serving me well. But like I said, choosing a knife is a very personal thing, so what works for me will not necessarily work for you. Think about what you’re probably going to use your knife for most and go from there, and for goodness sake, go out and try some knives. See how they feel in your hand, try chopping a couple veggies if the store lets you (you might want to bring some of your own veggies to chop, or some stores, such as Sur La Table, usually have celery and carrots available for you), and get an idea of what you like and what’s comfortable. Don’t get caught up by brand names or by the sheer beauty of a knife. Unless you’re going to display it in your trophy case or if you’re going to juggle it in a circus, it really doesn’t matter what your knife looks like. Happy hunting!

Another little tidbit: A good knife should well-balanced if you hold it at the end of the handle, and angle slightly towards the blade side, like so:

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Okay I hope this helps if you’re still reading.  Now go out and TREAT YO’ SELF!

(resource: Knives Cooks Love, by Sarah Jay)

*guarantee not guaranteed.

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5 thoughts on “Know Your Knives: Selection

  1. Dude – I can totally break down a chicken with my Japanese knife. But the maintenance is definitely difficult. I have to send it away to get them sharpened, but Shun’s do have free sharpening as long as you pay for shipping.

    • Oh right, forgot about the sharpening component. If you’re careful I think you can definitely sharpen a Japanese knife at home, but forget about it with ceramic knives. I think Kyocera is like Shun where they will sharpen for free but you have to pay for shipping.. plus deal with not having a knife for a few days. I guess all the more reason to buy more knives!

  2. eddiesah says:

    Getting new Knives definitely helped with the quality of cooking overall.

  3. Aileen says:

    love your blog will! thanks to this post, richard and I are now the owners of a Wustof classic 7-piece set!

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