A Chef's Guide to Buying Knives
Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Everything you need to know to get bang for your buck buying blades
The question I get asked most by non-chefs isn't about how to cook this or that... it's about what knives people should buy.
It makes sense. A good, sharp knife is the single most important tool in the kitchen, but when it comes to buying one there are a bewildering array of options. The world of knives is so vast that several people have written entire books dedicated to the topic (I recommend Knife by Tim Hayward if you want to do some extra reading) but for those just looking to fit out their home kitchen I wanted to offer some simple guidance to demystify things and make it simple to buy the right knife or knives for your budget.
What makes a good knife?
There isn’t a knife in the world that will make anyone a better chef than they already are. But using a good knife will make your job in the kitchen much easier and much more enjoyable. So what constitutes a good knife? There are 3 factors to consider: sharpness, craftsmanship / materials, and suitability for a specific task
Sharpness is the knife’s essential quality.
A sharp knife is a safe knife, because it bites into the food you are cutting instead of slipping on the surface of it.
A sharp knife takes the work out of cooking, because it does the work for you, gliding through food instead of you having to saw and hack at it.
A sharp knife also has a huge impact on the finished product. When you cut cleanly and easily through an ingredient you preserve its quality - it presents better on the plate, maintains its colour and texture better, and can even give a better flavour - compared to produce that has been crushed and torn by a blunt edge.
But the truth is - all knives are sharp when you buy them, and whether or not they stay that way depends only on how well you care for them maintain them.
Chefs hone and sharpen their blades daily. As a home cook you won't need to it so often, but you should still be taking great care of your edge and sharpening it as soon as you notice a drop in performance. Buy a steel and learn how to use it, or go for one of the simple, pull-through sharpeners. What method you use doesn't really matter (unless you have a specialist Japanese blade - more on that shortly) but you must sharpen your knives regularly. Otherwise it doesn't matter what type of knife you bought or how much you spent - a poorly maintained knife is a blunt knife, and a blunt knife is useless.
Craftsmanship and materials
The dominant factor in the cost of a knife will be in the quality of the materials and the method of manufacture.
A cheap knife is made with softer steel, whereas a more expensive knife will use harder steel. Harder steel has an advantage in that it maintains its edge for longer, but comes at the cost of being harder to sharpen when it does lose its edge. This is why most chefs do this chore daily. 5 mins a day can save you several hours of work if you leave it for a few weeks. I have met chefs though who swear by buying cheap knives and just sharpening them for 30 seconds before each use.
Hardened steel comes with an additional risk - the harder the steel is tempered, the more brittle it becomes and therefore the more liable to become chipped and damaged. More expensive knives need much greater care to protect them from harm. Drop a cheap knife and the tip may bend - drop a very expensive knife and the blade may snap or break.
There are 3 levels of craftsmanship in the knife world: Stamped, forged and hand-forged.
Stamped knifes are cut to shape out of sheets of steel before being polished and sharpened. These are by far the cheapest and easiest to manufacture and therefore the cheapest to buy. They tend to be very light, easy to sharpen but quickly lose their edge. They also usually have a degree of flexibility in the blade making them well suited as filleting knives.
Forged knives are made from blocks of steel hammered flat. This imparts much greater strength to the steel but makes them more costly to manufacture. They are also much heavier, particularly in the handle. They are more durable and feel better in the hand, but also require a degree of care.
Hand-forged knives are mostly found in the realm of Japanese blades, although there are a few western forges now making them, albeit at extortionate prices. Similar to factory forged blades, these are hammered out of blocks of steel but are shaped by hand by skilled blacksmiths / knife makers. They may use several different steels together to impart various qualities to the blade, and to produce the famous "Damascus" forging pattern that marks them out as high end knives (although some cheaper blades now have such a pattern laser-etched into them. Buyer beware.) Hand-forged knives are the top end of the market and have a price tag to match - expect to pay anywhere from £200 - £500 or more - and they require a high degree of maintenance. They require specialist tools and knowledge to sharpen (whetstone sharpening which is a difficult skill to master) and so I generally advise amateur chefs to avoid them.
Suitability for the task
There are a staggering array of knives designed for specific tasks, from filleting fish to turning artichokes, from cleaving bones to cutting bread. Most chefs will own dozens of different knives (my last count was 40 and still going) but the reality is that the home cook needs at most 3. Even in my day to day work in a professional kitchen I rely on 2 knives to do 90% of my job.
Don't be suckered into buying knife sets. You are very unlikely to use half of the knives they include. instead, spend your money on buying the best quality you can of these 3 blades:
A chefs knife.
A paring / utility knife
A scalloped bread knife (wavy instead serrated edge)
A chefs knife is the one you will use for most jobs, from chopping vegetables to carving meat. It should have a blade between 8" - 12" long and a sharp point to the tip. Don't buy one without first feeling it in your hand to make sure the weight and the grip are comfy for you.
A paring or utility knife is a smaller knife used for smaller jobs requiring a degree of finesse, such as filleting fish or boning a chicken. Get one with a thin blade that has a bit of flex to it, with a blade length of around 6" - 7"
A good breadknife is not only a requirement for the stated purpose of cutting bread, but also useful for all manner of pastry work, and makes short work of tougher jobs like the crackling on a pork joint.
These are the only 3 knives you will use or need to use unless you plan on doing a significant amount of your own butchery or fish prep. Buy the best you can of these 3, care for them well, and you'll never need to buy another.
A note on Japanese vs. "Western" or European Knives
It has become very fashionable to buy Japanese knives, and you see plenty of them in both professional and home kitchens these days. I'm personally a fan of them, and have several in my kit. It is important however to understand the differences between them and their European counterparts before considering which to buy.
Japanese knives tend to be more expensive, and that's because the majority of them sold here in the West are the high end, hand forged variety (of course in Japan they have a wide range of cheap versions available, but they tend not to make it on to the market here). As mentioned before hand forged knives, whilst beautiful to look at and made with great craftsmanship from high quality materials, need both great skill and great care to maintain. You cannot just use a steel or a pull-through sharpener on these beautiful blades. Nor can you just throw them in a draw between uses, as they will almost certainly chip and damage. They need protecting in a sheath (saya) or knife roll.
Japanese knives are also designed differently in terms of the shape of the blades, and that is because traditional Japanese cooking and food preparation uses different methods than we do in the West. Japanese blades are generally very flat in profile, whereas a European blade will tend to have a pronounced curve from heel to tip, with a rounded "belly". This is because in Europe we tend to cut in a rocking motion with the tip of the knife maintaining contact with the board, whereas Japanese knives are designed for an "up and down" vertical chopping motion. You can not buy European knife and use it in the style of a Japanese one, and vice versa - so consider carefully how you use a knife before splashing out on one.
High end, factory forged European knives offer a superb level of quality and craftsmanship that will more than meet the needs of any home cook or professional chef. That said, as an avid collector of knives myself I understand the draw of owning a beautiful, hand forged Japanese blade. I'd just urge you to give serious consideration to both its use and its maintenance before parting with such a significant sum of money.
A chef recommends
All that being said, here are my recommendations for the knives you should actually consider buying, considering a range of budgets and personal tastes:
If you want knives that look good and keep an edge well but don’t cost a bomb look at Victorinox. Every chef has a few of them in their kit because they’re cheap, well made and very easy to maintain. Go for the ones with the rosewood handles, because they look great.
Wustof offer both stamped and forged knives, with the cheaper stamped blades being somewhat on a par with Victorinox (but slightly more expensive). Their Classic range of drop-forged blades though are a serious step up; high quality stainless steel and precision german engineering make for some really excellent knives. Heavy in the hand but thin and light in the blade, properly looked after they are knives you'll be leaving to your kids.
I buy my Japanese knives from an excellent shop in London's Covent Garden. The two owners are very friendly and helpful and know everything there is to know about knives. They have a fantastic range of knives to suit all tastes and budgets, but please do your homework before you buy! They also offer sharpening services, and whetstone sharpening classes: https://katabahamono.com/