Knives. They’re the most important tool in any cook’s kitchen. Whether you’re a five-star Michelin chef or a newbie to the cooking scene, the right knife will determine if your cooking experience runs smoothly or not. With so many different makes and brands to parse through, there’s enough there to confuse just about anyone. The goal of this guide is to help you sort through what kinds of knives are available on the market, which knives you actually need, and how to keep them in tip-top shape for as long as possible.
Knives Every Cook Needs
There are five essential types of knives that every cook should have in their kitchen in order to properly cook and enjoy most types of food. If you’re only investing in a few different knives, the ones you need to have include:
1) Chef’s Knife: If you’re chopping vegetables or meat, this is your go-to knife. (And really, that’s the crux what you’re likely to be chopping away at.)
2) Paring Knife: While a chef’s knife is an all-purpose tool that can be used for just about anything, if you’re working with smaller food, such as nuts or cherry tomatoes, then a paring knife is bound to come in handy, providing more dexterity.
3) Santoku Knife: This is the Japanese version of a chef’s knife. While the chef’s knife is most ideal for cutting large quantities of vegetables, due to the curved blade, the Santoku knife is better for chopping since it cuts in a single downward motion. The Santoku knife also has a thinner edge, making it better for getting razor-thin slices.
4) Utility Knife: When a paring knife is too small but a chef’s knife is too large, the utility knife comes in handy. Grab this one if you’re cutting slightly larger vegetables or even sandwich meats.
5) Bread Knife: The serrated edges on this knife make it ideal for more than just cutting bread. Any type of food that has a harder outer edge and a softer interior, like an orange, is ideal for this type of knife.
While there are other specialty knives out there, including carving knives and cheese knives, as long as you have the big five, you’re set to cook and serve just about anything.
How to Choose the Right Knife
Now that you know how your kitchen ought to be stocked, the next step is to find the right brands of knives to purchase and how they fit into your budget. Knives come in a wide range of prices depending on the quality of the steel or ceramic, the way they’re made, etc.
Your best bet is to seek out a culinary store like Sur La Table or Williams Sonoma and see if you’re able to sample any of the knives before buying. This will allow you to see if the weight, balance, and grip feel comfortable before ever taking it home. A sharp knife will make a clean, swift cut through paper (unless there’s food on hand to test). Your grip should feel natural, and it should have a smooth movement when rocking back and forth. If it thunks at the heel (the broadest part of the edge near the handle), then you should look around at other knives.
Knives are either forged or stamped. Forged knives tend to be the pricier of the two as they’re created when a piece of molten steel is cut and beaten into shape. It’s the sturdier of the two models and is less likely to bend over time. Stamped knives are made with a cookie cutter machine and tend to be less expensive and less durable though they can still be effective knives.
Ask your local culinary store staff if they have any recommendations for some of the top-selling brands within your budget. If you’re going to splurge on any one knife, we recommend splurging on a chef’s knife since it’s the most multi-purpose knife of the lot. Some of the top brands to look for include: Chicago Cutlery, OXO, Shun, Victorinox, and Wüsthof. There are plenty of others though, so don’t limit yourself to these!
How to Care for Your Knives
Alright, you’ve bought a high-quality knife and are armed and prepared to use it. The next step is to maximize the life of your knife and prevent it from getting bent, rusted, or dull. Taking good care of your knife can ensure that it’ll last for decades, making your purchase well worth it.
A knife’s most important feature is maintaining its sharp edge. Use a textured steel rod to hone the edges before you’re about to use it. Hold the rod in your non-dominant hand and hold the knife horizontally in your dominant hand at a 20-degree angle. Draw the blade down and toward you from the heel to the tip four times on each side. Aside from honing your knives, you should ideally sharpen them yearly, using a water stone or handheld tool.
Don’t put your knives in the dishwasher to avoid damaging the blade and the handle. Instead, wash them by hand and either let them air-dry or, if they’re made of carbon steel, wipe them dry to avoid rust.
And finally, make sure you’re using your knife properly. Rocking the knife will minimize damage versus slamming the knife up and down in a chopping motion. Slicing your ingredients on wood or plastic cutting boards will also help minimize damage versus using glass, acrylic, or stone for your surface. And when you’re scraping those scraps into the trash can, flip the knife over and use the spine instead of the blade.
You’re now ready to head out into the world and arm yourself with a cook’s most powerful tool. A few good kitchen knives will last you a lifetime, so invest in the proper toolkit now, and you’re sure to see results for many years in the future.