One of the stipulations of hiring me to teach in-home cooking classes is that I have carte blanche to go through your kitchen and play with your utensils, appliances, and cookware. Though my main intent is to see what we are working with, what needs replacing, and what is missing, it has also confirmed something I had long suspected: people who are unhappy in the kitchen usually don’t have good tools at their disposal, and the biggest offender is usually knives. Many of my students didn’t even realize how dull their knives were until I handed them one of mine, but it doesn’t take long before they are asking for advice on buying their first serious knife.
Using a dull knife can be a bit of a safety hazard. The duller a knife is, the more cumbersome and more dangerous it is to use. You have to use more force to cut through ingredients. More force means more slipping and less control, which translates to a pretty good chance of losing a fingertip if a finger strays between the blade and your cutting board (I’m looking at you, person who places their index finger down the spine of the knife while you are cutting. Hope you aren’t too attached to that finger). A good knife can glide through even a sweet potato with ease, eliminating the need to hem and haw at it with a knife. It gives you speed and precision, reducing cutting time and giving you a more aesthetically and texturally pleasing final product.
The question of what makes good knife can be a somewhat loaded one, depending on who you ask, but the one thing everyone will tell you is that it has to be sharp. How sharp? Sharp enough that thinly slicing a fat carrot feels effortless. I am not recommending that you take a knife to your arm, but when freshly sharpened*, my knives can all shave the little baby hairs on my forearm. The other important quality is that the knife feel comfortable in your hand, so handle shape and style will come into play.
Sharpening is not the same as honing, by the way. Sharpening involves removing material from the blade, often by grinding, and honing is just realigning any parts of the sharp blade that ended up out of whack from all that chopping you’ve been doing. That “sharpening steel” that came with your knife block set? That’s just bad advertising.
Though it is entirely true that you can find inexpensive sharp knives, they’re usually made of lower quality material that will quickly go dull. You’ll have to be willing to have them sharpened several times a year instead of the usual once a year for their pricier counterparts, and you pretty much have to hone them every time you use them. If you plan to do any serious amount of cooking, you’ll want to go for quality here. Generally, the widely available serious knives will be either German or Japanese, and any good kitchen store worth their salt will let you try the knives in-store before you purchase them. You’ll want to have a good storage method for them to avoid having the unprotected knives slicing your unprotected hands when you go fishing through a drawer at 1 a.m. Use your knives only on wood or plastic cutting boards (NEVER cut on marble, granite, or glass) and always wash them by hand.
Below, I’ll detail the more common knives you may want in your kitchen and give recommendations on what to purchase. I’ve chosen knives from Shun and Wusthof, both of which are excellent choices and are widely available.
Your First Purchase: Chef’s Knife or Santoku Knife
If this is your first foray into investing in good knives, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is to buy a good French/German chef’s knife or a hollow-edged Japanese Santoku knife (or, if you are me, buy a Santoku that is made by Europeans for the best of both worlds). This will be your all-purpose blade, though which one you choose will be personal preference. Both make quick work of slicing and chopping anything short of bone, and since many of the commonly utilized knife techniques are just variations of slicing and chopping, most of your bases are covered with either of these choices. Though I do own a fantastic chef’s knife, I prefer the Santoku knife in most cases because the hollowed edge creates air pockets between the knife and what it has just sliced, meaning things like potatoes aren’t glued to the knife as you chop them. More importantly, it fits my hand better than the chef’s knife does, making it my choice for over 90% of my food prep. The only times I prefer a chef’s knife are when I need a more flexible blade or when I am doing prep that benefits from the chef’s knife’s tapered tip.
Recommended: Wusthof Classic 7-Inch Santoku Knife, Hollow Edge
Serrated Slicer/Bread Knife
The next most important knife in my kitchen is my slicer/ bread knife. I bake a lot of cakes and crusty breads and, come August, I can eat my weight in tomatoes, all of which will end up generally smushed if cut with a straight edged knife. The toothy serrated edge of a slicer/bread knife cuts through crusty loaves, light cakes, and juicy tomatoes without damaging their structure.
Recommended: Wusthof Classic Serrated Bread Knife, 9″
Up next is the paring knife, which is largely used for peeling vegetables and fruits, but can also be used for slicing and mincing smaller things like garlic and shallots. I generally do all of my smaller slicing and mincing with the tip of a chef’s knife, but my paring knife comes out quite often during citrus season for removing peels and cutting smaller citrus into supremes.
Recommended: Shun Classic 4″ Paring Knife
Carving knives look like longer paring knives and are helpful for cutting larger roasts, hams, and poultry. If you’re in the habit of serving roasts to feed a crowd, it is a worthwhile investment; otherwise, your Santoku or chef’s knife should be sufficient for smaller cuts of cooked meat.
Recommended: Shun Classic 8″ Carving Knife
Just one good knife can make a drastic difference in the way you cook. If you don’t own one, I urge you to invest in one soon. Your cooking will thank you.