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A Buyer's Guide to Kitchen Knives
How to Choose Kitchen Knives
- Your First Four Knives
- Growing Beyond the Basics
- The Most Common Knife Blade Materials
When a young cook's training begins, it begins with a good knife. It is her first and most important piece of equipment for as long as she cooks. She is trained to keep it sharp, keep it clean and keep it protected, so she can count on it to perform well. We like to think of cooking as an art, and it can be that, after some time. But first, it begins as a trade and the knife is your primary tool. Lots of people will go through life never experiencing the effortless and precise feel of a great chef's knife. But for those of us who are lifelong cooks, great knives are just a matter of time and once you've used one, there is no going back. Your culinary knives, particularly your essential pieces, should be an investment in your love of food and cooking. Quality knives will reward you with safe, enjoyable performance every day and inspiration over a lifetime. And all the while your skills will grow using the right tools for the right jobs.
Use this resource to help you find your next great knife. Remember that quality knives are available across many price points, and research is a necessary step, but the best way to decide if a knife is right for you is to hold it your hand. If it is right, it will feel right. When you are ready to explore your options in person, be sure to visit the nearest Kitchen Kapers location. Our friendly staff will guide you in choosing the right knife for you and answer any questions you may have.
It's also important to remember that most high quality knives are not necessarily maintenance free. The proper storage, cleaning, honing and use are critical to ensuring that cutlery will last and remain a pleasure to use. So you have to consider the materials a knife is made with and any specific care it requires. No matter how fabulous a knife may be, if you find it a hassle to maintain, it's probably not worth it. Have a look at the materials guide at the bottom of the page to learn more about key materials and care requirements. Also be sure to store your knives properly. Knife blocks, magnetic strips and plastic edge guards are all affordable solutions for the protection of fine knife edges.
To make an informed decision about knife purchases, it is important to know the difference between the two methods for constructing knife blades: stamping and forging. The method of manufacture is the single largest factor in the selling price of any knife. Another factor is the quality (and inherent cost) of the materials used for the knife, be it stamped or forged. (For a more detailed explanation of knife terminology and the manufacturing process, have a look at our Basics of Cutlery page.)
Generally, stamped blades are considered to be of lesser quality and lower cost and forged blades of better quality and higher cost. Though stamped knives are machine made and often inferior to forged, there are some great stamped knives out there, appropriate for both professional and home cooks. The best examples boast high quality materials, full tangs, and well designed blades that hold a great edge. They can even be hand polished and honed, but the additional quality will be reflected in the price. Quality, riveted handles will also affect costs.
A forged blade is a more complicated process that requires the skill of a craftsperson, at least in part, to shape and finish the blade. Because forging is a slower and costlier process, it would make little sense to use lower quality materials that would compromise the finished product. Therefore, most forged knives are made from high quality materials. A forged knife is often better performing and easier to use. They are heavier than stamped blades, but because they are made with bolsters and achieve better balance, they do not always feel heavier. Many forged knives are like heirlooms, if you take proper care of them, they will outlast the cook! Also, because the entire blade can be shaped to support the edge, it should hold an edge longer. Not all forged knives are great, but it is fair to say that the best knives are from forged construction.
The take away is that knives are one area where price still matters. But the two types of construction can offer flexibility in the price you have to pay for the quality and performance you want. Almost every type of knife is available in versions both forged and stamped. Some of your knives are better off being the best quality, and some will see much less use. It's all about how you cook. Most professionals rely more heavily on forged blades but will likely also own several pieces of quality stamped.
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Your First Four Knives
One: Chef's Knife
The iconic Chef's Knife, as well as its Japanese counterparts, the Gyuto knife and Santoku knife, are designed to be a cook's primary knife. We recommend you choose one of these as your first knife, which you can use to chop, slice, dice and mince all types of vegetables, fruits, meats and fish. Whichever you pick will be, without a doubt, your most valuable player. And as similar as these knives are in purpose, they are not the same. Read on to explore the subtle differences.
The Chef's Knife has proven to be one of the most useful and versatile designs available. The rocking curvature of the blade, the sharp fine tip and the deep, stable heel combine in a form that is utterly faithful to function. You only need to look at a chef's knife to understand how to use it. When choosing your first western style chef's knife, we recommend one that is made from high-carbon stainless steel. Other materials can be used to make fine chef's knives, but most quality manufacturers prefer high-carbon stainless steel because it offers a good edge retention, toughness and ease of maintenance. That means they are hard enough to keep an edge for a long time, but not so hard that they can't be sharpened. Additionally they won't rust and are generally a bit less fragile against hard materials. The 8" chef's knife is the most popular size for home cooks.
The Gyuto (or gyutou) is a more recent design in Japan's impressive history as bladesmiths. It is similar to the western Chef's knife in shape and size, but they are lighter and to use one feels decidedly awesome. The blade is curved and suitable for rocking, but the knife's light weight just begs to be lifted from the board for quick "tap-tap-tap" cuts. A broad generalization exists that Japanese knives are spectacularly sharp, but thinner and harder, which can make them somewhat more brittle. This becomes evident if you hold a typical Gyuto next to a German Chef's knife. Because of their light weight, ability to take an extremely sharp edge, and versatility, they're great all-around knives that excel at mincing, precision vegetable prep and light protein prep (fish and chicken). Their biggest downsides? You can't use them for heavy-duty tasks like chopping through bones or splitting winter squashes in half. You can also expect quality Gyuto to cost more than quality Chef's knives.
The Santoku is a bit more traditional in design than the Gyuto; it has a straight edge that is not made for rocking. Rather, this blade must be lifted from the board for every cut. But the fine edge is supported by a wider blade all the way to the tip so it can make very precise, straight cuts, even slices and fine chops and minces. Santoku are the knives for the kitchen perfectionist. If you want very uniform cuts for super-clean presentations, a Santoku will help you get there. The classic size for a Santoku is about 7".
Japan makes a great deal of knives of varying quality and from many materials. But in the quality cutlery market, Japan is known for making exquisite blades that, as a rule of thumb, are thinner than western blades and breathtakingly sharp. Some high quality Japanese producers forge blades from carbon steel because it is very hard and will hold a very sharp edge on a thin blade for a long time. Be aware that knives made from carbon steel are prone to rusting and will require additional care. And even when properly cared for, the blades will generally develop a dull "patina". The fact that they do not stay shiny does not diminish the performance of the blade whatsoever. Japan is also a world leader in advanced ceramic blades that also require specific care and handling. In the end, be sure to learn the specific maintenance requirements for the knife you choose.
Two: Paring Knife
Next you will need a Paring knife. A 3-4" Parer is the knife you use for the small fruit, vegetable and meat prep that just isn't comfortable with the chef's knife: trimming strawberries and brussel sprouts, halving mushrooms or prepping artichokes. If you plan on doing much in-hand cutting (holding a small food in your hand as you cut it, such as "turning" carrots, "fluting" mushrooms or peeling apples), we recommend the 3". Since paring knives are small and meant for delicate work, highly durable build quality seems less of a requirement. You may find that in this category, quality stamped knives are on a more even playing field with forged knives. But don't underestimate how frequently this little knife gets used; stamped or forged, you'll want a good one!
Three: Sharpening Steel
So we already have the knife you will use most of the time, and the knife you will use when your first knife is too big. And that means your third knife has got to be...a Sharpening Steel! Okay, we tricked you, your third knife isn't actually a knife. But here's what you need to know about the mysterious sharpening steel: it's not optional. As you use your beautiful new knives, the finest tips of their edges are getting pushed and mashed out of alignment which quickly leads to poor cutting performance. That fact is unavoidable. But using a Steel will re-align the edge so your knives will feel sharp, cut cleaner and go longer before they need to be re-sharpened. Sharpening Steels are affordable and come in several sizes, namely 8, 10 and 12 inches. We strongly suggest that you buy a steel that is longer than your longest knife. 10" is great for most households. Steels also have a hidden talent. The tips are almost always magnetic and perfect for fishing bottle caps and other metal objects from a garbage disposal or under the stove or fridge.
Four: Bread/Serrated Knife
The fourth most important knife has got to be the 8" Bread Knife (or serrated knife). It's your ace in the hole for a myriad of odd-ball fruits and vegetables that have tough or waxy skins with soft interiors. Use it for tomatoes, eggplants and slicing the rinds of melons, pineapples and hard winter squash. It's true that a sharp Western chef's knife can do these jobs too, but a serrated knife is safer to use and usually more effective. And, obviously the Bread Knife is perfect for slicing cleanly through all types of breads and cakes without smashing them. It's also ideally suited to cutting assorted sandwiches and wraps. Serrated edges cannot be used with a sharpening steel, but are designed to cut effectively for a long time. The edges of quality serrated knives can be re-sharpened by a professional.
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Growing beyond the basics
Your collection of cutlery can easily grow to specifically address the number of cooks in your kitchen and the foods you prepare. You may find that the basic knives you have are perfect, but you could use a couple more or want a slightly different size. Or you might discover that your growing repertoire requires a more specialized piece of cutlery to help turn a challenging task into a culinary victory. Here are a few examples of other kitchen knives that can make the cut.
A Utility Knife is usually 5-6" long with a narrow blade that can be straight or serrated. It's ideal for all-around-the-kitchen, everyday use and nice as a knife that can be used by a helper. It will also take some weight off of the Paring Knife for small food prep and sandwiches.
The Boning Knife is a thin-bladed specialist designed for skating down the surface of bones and maneuvering around joints to separate meats of all kinds. It also works well to clean and fillet fish. Historically, this knife would make the top 4 list, but its status as an essential has faltered in recent years. More and more people typically buy cuts of meat in exactly the form they plan on using; our collective home butchering skills are at an all-time low! Still it is a very good knife for trimming fat and silverskin. But we will concede that if you are a vegetarian, you have little need of this knife. Anyone else who may be the type to bone out poultry and meats, French trim a rack of lamb or free the bone from a ham, absolutely will need a boning knife. The most popular size is 5".
The Slicing Knife is primarily used for slicing roasts and larger pieces of meats into thin, even slices. Slicing knives are sized from 8 to 12 inches and can have a pointed or rounded tip and a smooth or "granton" edged blade (also referred to as "hollow ground"). For the most part, a slicing knife only sees occasional use, but it does this particular job so much better than any other knife that it is often considered a necessity. Experienced cake decorators know that a sharp slicing knife is the secret to cutting even layers of cake.
The Fillet Knife is similar to a boning knife, but with a longer and more flexible blade that is ideally suited to the delicate removal of fillets from whole fish. It also offers great feel for the fine cleaning of pin bones from the fillets. They also have a very low drag that is ideal for removing skin from meats and large vegetables. Fillet Knives typically run 7" to 10" long.
Kitchen Shears. Yup, a good set just for the kitchen is a great thing! They are typically used to butcher chicken, pan dress whole fish, cut parchment paper, pastry dough, herbs and trussing string. Kitchen Shears often feature bottle openers and other handy integrated tools and can separate for thorough cleaning.
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The Most Common Knife Blade Materials
Many of a knife's virtues stem from the materials they are made of and manufacturers carefully select (or formulate) the materials that will best suit whatever type of knives they want to produce. Since virtually all production cutlery is made from engineered alloys (metals combined with other substances to make them stronger, harder, lighter, or better in some other way), you can be sure that every quality of a knife is by thoughtful design whether the intended emphasis is on performance, ease of ownership, low cost or a combination of desirable traits. Refer to the primer below for a better understanding of the most common alloys and combinations used in quality cutlery and how they are best used and maintained.
Carbon Steel- When carbon is added to steel, it becomes harder and easier to sharpen than ordinary steel, and it also holds an edge longer. Carbon steel can also be forged into a thinner blade, which in turn, allows for a steeper and sharper edge geometry. On the downside, carbon steel is vulnerable to rust and stains. It is also more brittle, and will not have the beneficial "flex" of other blade materials. Some professional cooks swear by knives of carbon steel because of their sharpness and feel they are worth the extra maintenance and care. Over time, a carbon-steel knife will normally acquire a dark patina, though it does not affect the performance. But they can also rust or corrode if not properly cleaned and lubricated soon after use. Some chefs even "rest" their carbon-steel knives for a day after use in order to restore the oxidizing patina, which prevents transfer of metallic tastes to some foods. While some cooks prize carbon steel knives for their razor-like characteristics, others find carbon steel too maintenance-intensive for their particular kitchen environment. We at Kitchen Kapers absolutely love using quality carbon steel blades- the performance is amazing. But the key to happy ownership of a Western or Asian carbon steel knife is knowing not to use it with very hard foods, and never with bones, shells or frozen foods. You should also be sure to hand wash and thoroughly dry carbon steel, soon after each use. A light rub of mineral oil from time to time is also a really good practice.
Damascus Type- This is not a material, but a complex and labor-intensive forging process (also called laminated steel or pattern welded steel). It's a method of layering at least two different types of steel by heat and force to shape the layers into repeated folds. A typical combination of metals would use a softer-but-tough steel as the supporting or protective outer layers, and a sharper/harder but more brittle steel as the core and edge material. Because different combinations of metals and alloys are used, it is impossible to give any single rule on how to maintain Damascus type blades. Currently, this process is most prevalent with high quality Japanese manufacturers, who produce lines with carbon steel cores enveloped in layers of alloy that may or may not be stainless. The point is to be sure you know the specific maintenance requirements for the edge and outer blade materials before buying a Damascus style knife.
Stainless Steel- An alloy of iron with approximately 10-15% of chromium, nickel, or molybdenum, and only a small amount of carbon. Lower grades of stainless steel cannot take as sharp an edge as good-quality high-carbon steels, but are resistant to corrosion. Many knives of this type are produced by stamped manufacturing and make very affordable knives that are serviceable (especially as serrated blades), but not long lasting because they won't re-sharpen well. Knives made from better quality stainless steel and particularly with molybdenum can hold a good edge, but their best feature is that they require virtually no maintenance at all. Watch that the handle material does not compromise this trouble free status.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel- These "designer" steels offer a very good balance of sharpness, edge retention, easy resharpening and corrosion resistance. This material is the type most sold by Wusthof, Zwilling J.A. Henckels, Global, Victorinox and many other manufacturers. Some manufacturers boast their own proprietary "cocktails" for the alloy used to make their cutlery, with some differences in hardness and strength, but all are easy to own and use. Some Japanese knives are made with highly engineered versions that can actually get sharper than carbon steel, and hold an edge for even longer. High carbon stainless steel knives can be made by stamped or forged process, don't rust easily, they re-sharpen well and they hold an edge for a very good amount of time. It also doesn’t hurt that they have an undeniable aesthetic beauty. Most professionally-owned knives are made from some type of high carbon stainless steel. The only maintenance requirement is to hand wash and dry them (mainly to preserve the handle), and make sure to store them properly. If there is a standard for kitchen knives, it is probably high-carbon stainless steel.
Ceramic- A super-hard material that is lightweight, ultra-sharp and will hold an edge the longest of all. Of course, because it's ceramic, it can shatter if dropped and may also chip or break if used improperly. Because ceramic is so hard, it can't be sharpened on a home sharpener, and likely will need to be sent back to the manufacturer or to a specialist to resharpen. Ceramic blades are also chemically nonreactive, so will not discolor or change the taste of food. Especially if accustomed to a western style knife, a ceramic blade will take some getting used to because of their considerably lighter weight. Knives made from ceramic have no special maintenance requirements, other than to take care not to drop them or bend them and to protect their edges when not in use. Technology is still advancing the evolution of this material and it will be interesting to watch how it develops.
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Knife handles are made from many different materials, including various woods, composites, resins, metal and different types of plastic. Each offers a different feel, grip, aesthetic and comfort level. The only way to find your favorite is by holding them to experience how certain handles will feel better to you. From a maintenance standpoint, the handle is often the "Achilles' heel" of a knife. Long term protection of the handle is why hand washing is recommended for any quality knife. The dishwasher will cause wood handles to dry out, crack and degrade over time. And it will even dry out and dull high quality molded and resin materials well before the blade has been compromised. Once again, the most important aspect of the handle is that it feels comfortable to you and gives you a good sense of control over the blade.
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