Finding the Right Kitchen Knives

As any chef will tell you their knives are one of their most prized items in the kitchen, they bring them along when they cook outside of their kitchen and they typically take better care of them than any other tool used when cooking.  There’s a number of great reasons for the esteem chef’s hold for their knives and we’ll outline them briefly and then offer some tips to help you find the right knives for your kitchen.

Chef’s don’t bring their pots and pans, their cooktops, favorite spatula or any other tool with them when cooking in a kitchen other than their own, but they will likely bring their knives.  The more you use a knife in the kitchen the more it becomes almost a part of you, you get used to the weight, the blad flex, the balance, the ability to hold an edge and the sharpness of the blade itself.  I’m not a professional chef but I will admit it is VERY frustrating to go to a friend or family members house and start helping prepare a meal, I am very hands on with everything I do, only to find they have a set of cheaply made knives from the 1970’s.  I know it sounds snobbish and even like an urban legend, but I’ve had more close calls at cutting myself with dull, down right cheap knives than I have with razor sharp knives, knock on wood * knock knock* I’ve never once cut myself with a sharp, quality knife.  This union between chef and knife is only increased the more you use it, so I can only imagine the connection a full time chef has with their knives after years of using them over 40 hours/week.

Another reason chef’s love their knives so much is a quality knife will last the rest of your life.  With proper maintenance and a little cautionary care they will easily last longer than any of us will.  Learn the proper way to maintain your knives, take care of them and they will reward you with a lifetime of superb performance.

As anyone who knows me would tell you I have a reputation for being very frugal, though they say it in a slightly more insulting way, the term they use rhymes with “heap.”  With that said I have the most expensive set of knives of my circle of friends, they also all have knife envy when they come over.  I am a firm believer in purchasing quality when it will offer a better experience during the service life of the product and the service life is longer than a cheaper counterpart.  In fact I sometimes wish I spent even a little more, because I will have the knives I have until I die or a natural disaster takes them from me, though I have no regrets or complaints about my knives.  It’s just that when you are committing to something for the rest of your life I think making sure you’re going to be happy with it just makes sense, after all you don’t marry the first person you meet, you wait until you find the right person to spend the rest of your life with, any “until death do you part” relationship should be looked at for the long term.  If you take cooking seriously DON’T CHEAP OUT ON YOUR KNIVES!

Caveat emptor, if you know that you are not the sort to take care of things, if you tend to be on the lazy/sloppy side don’t waste your money buying fancy knives because you will just ruin them.  We are all different and some people are just inherently messier than others, if you can look at yourself and say you know you’re not going to take care of them save yourself the headache and a lot of cash.  An expensive knife will dull just like a cheap knife and if you’re not prepared to maintain your investment you’ll be better served with an inexpensive solution.

The most obvious first item you have to consider when purchasing a knife or more likely a knife set is your budget, this is totally up to you, we all have different situations we live in and I never encourage anyone to live beyond their means, though most people can easily save at least several hundred dollars/month with basic lifestyle changes, but that’s up to you to figure out.  Don’t go in debt to purchase knives but don’t go to Wal-Mart and by a 35 piece knife set for $16.99 and expect it to be even remotely decent.  In fact, if you’re budget is on the smaller side I would strongly advise not purchasing a set at all, instead just purchase the few knives you’d use the most.  I originally purchased an 8 piece knife set, keep in mind 1 piece is the steel, another piece is the block and yet another piece is the kitchen sheers, so in reality it’s a 5 knife set.  I have added another 4 knives to it over the years but still find that I use 2 or 3 of the knives 95% of the time.  It is handy to have some of the others but I think if I had a tighter budget I could happily get by with just a few knives purchased individually.  I’ve seen some professional chef’s who use a cleaver for just about everything and yet others rely on just a few knives of their sets, in other words don’t get blinded by having a huge knife block with a knife for every purpose, focus on getting the best quality you can afford on the knives you’d use the most.  Before you go too much further you should honestly ask yourself if you’re the sort who always uses the same 1 or 2 knives or if you want a full arsenal of knives that you’ll use all the time.  If I could go back this is one thing I would change, I would likely have purchased just the few that I use all the time in even higher quality, with that said I am extremely happy with my knives and plan on keeping them the rest of my life.

The next step is that you should go out and hold/handle some of the knives you’re interested in, places like Bed Bath and Beyond offer a decent selection and everyone knows about their 20% off coupons which can add up to huge savings with items like kitchen knives.  Though places like Williams Sonoma offer higher end offering and will even allow you to get medieval on some vegetables of you’re serious about purchasing.  Holding and actually cutting with the knives you want is extremely helpful to find out what feels comfortable to you, what is balanced and what isn’t, don’t pay super close attention to the factory edge, without proper care that will be gone in no time, even cheap knives can be made super sharp for short periods of time.  One of the most common complaints I hear about an expensive knife is the pricier Shun knives, between the handle shape and the blade angle some people find them to be uncomfortable to use.  The point of this is no two people are the same, we all are a little different and finding a quality knife that you are comfortable with is more important than finding a knife that other people like a lot.  The more comfortable you are with a knife the more confident you will be and the more your skills will develop.

Another big item to consider is stamped vs forged.  Some brands are kind of sneaky about this but as a general rule if the knife is forged they will tell you about it because forging a knife is a more expensive process and creates a knife that is typically always higher quality.  The one downfall of a forged knife is they are not flexible like stamped knives, if you bend them too far they will stay bent and a crooked knife is just about useless in a kitchen.  Forged knives typically cost more but will hold an edge better, be easier to realign (more on this later) and can be sharpened if dulled.  There have been advancements in stamped knives, but as a general rule they are cheaper and lower quality than their forged counterparts.

This point is EXTREMELY important, don’t buy into the gimmicks! Chances are high that you’ve never cut a brick and even higher that you’ll never find a recipe calling for sliced brick, so who cares if a knife can cut a brick.  Virtually any knife can be made sharp for a short period of time, a quality knife will hold an edge and be able to be sharpened for a lifetime.  Don’t trust door to door salesmen selling a single knife brand, this is true beyond just knives, of course they know the sales tactics and angles to prove to you their knives are better while there, but you are paying for inexpensive knives at premium prices.  Do you really think they are going door to door for fun? They are doing it to make a living, in this case off unsuspecting people who are looking for good in others.  No knife will stay sharp forever, don’t believe them.  Any other claim that seems impossible means you’re probably right.  If these gimmick’s were right the pro’s would be using them too and they never are.

I’ll follow up soon with post about knife care, straightening and sharpening so you can maximize the life and user experience of your investment.