Buying Knives

all the knives you really need
Everybody has ‘em, everybody uses ‘em, but most people don’t know how to choose ‘em or how to maintain ‘em so they’re constantly sharp, which is a shame, because there’s no kitchen tool more dangerous than a dull knife. A dull knife is far more apt to slip off of what you’re trying to cut, which means that it’s more apt to catch you instead. Once it catches you, it’s less likely to make a clean incision, and you wind up with a jagged, painful, slow-to-heal wound. Nobody wants that, so put down whatever else you’re doing and pay attention—here’s the skinny on how to choose a good set of knives for your kitchen and how to keep them in tip-top shape.

There are generally four knives that I feel are necessary for anyone’s arsenal: a chef’s knife, a utility knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife (as pictured above). It’s useful to have a slicer for carving roast meats, but if you don’t have one, you can use a chef’s knife instead. It’s also nice to have a couple more knives than that because you have the option of choosing a knife based on the exact task at hand, and you don’t necessarily need to clean your knife immediately if you’ve got a lot of stuff going on. As shown below, I’ve got 2 French-style chef’s knives in different blade sizes and a Chinese-style chef’s knife.
my three chef's knives
Having multiple chef’s knieves is not necessary, especially not at the outset. It would be better to invest in one chef’s knife that you can use for everything and then choose additional knives based on your findings (i.e., if you find yourself sometimes wishing the blade were slightly smaller or larger, purchase an additional knife accordingly).

Because your chef’s knife will be the tool you use most often, be certain to get one that fits your hand. If there are two people in your kitchen who split prep duties, get two knives because if the knife you’re trying to use is too small for your hand, it will probably seem dinky compared to the food that you’re working with. Contrariwise, if your blade is too big, it will seem unwieldy. A good rule of thumb for choosing a blade is that it should be about as long as the span of your thumb to your pinky when your hand is outstretched.
choosing a blade that's the right size for your hand
Taking a measurement (in inches) before you go to the knife store is a good way to generally determine what size knife you’re looking for before you get to the counter. In some of the upscale kitchen stores especially, the knife experts can be a bit full of themselves and will talk down to you if they think you don’t know what you’re looking for; also, they will sometimes trying to sell you on more knife than you actually need because they see you as an easy chump for a big commission.

In buying knives, remember that you don’t need the most expensive brand of blades out there, but you do need something better than substandard. Instead of going purely by price, look for high-carbon, stainless steel blades and a handle that feels comfortable in your hands. Look for a middle-of-the road option; it will serve you well for years to come and help you learn how to handle a quality blade. If there comes a time when you realize that your knife has shortcomings and you’d like to correct them, that’s the time to take your more-educated self out to the knife store in search of a better-quality blade.
the knife's tang
When comparing knives, look at the tang (the extension of the blade that runs through the handle—and that the handle is bolted to). For maximum durability, the tang should be the width of the blade and run the full length of the handle.

Many people I know don’t see the value of buying a better-quality paring knife. They figure that a cheapo-version only costs about six bucks, and when it goes dull, they can just replace it. If you don’t do that much detail work, they might be right. On the other hand, during the summer especially, I often find myself faced with tasks (like peeling peaches and tomatoes) that a cheaper paring knife will mangle, but that a better one handles with ease. Therefore, I’d recommend that if you can, buy yourself a good paring knife that will last; but, if money’s a bit tight, hold off, and buy the paring knife at another time.

A utility knife is basically a paring knife with a longer (5″-7″) blade. It’s a convenient knife for smaller tasks like cutting grapes, olives, or cranberries; butterflying a steak; deveining shrimp; deboning a chicken, etc. The utility knife fills the gap between a paring knife and a chef’s knife by taking care of the tasks that are too big for the one and too small for the other. Plus, it has a slender blade that fits neatly into tight spaces. If I’m not using my chef’s knife, chances are I’ve got my utility knife in my hands.

A serrated bread knife is of utmost importance if you make your own loaves or you buy unsliced loaves from a bakery. Otherwise, its main use in my kitchen comes during the winter months when we use it to cut grapefruits. Really, though, it’s a multi-purpose tool that you’ll be glad to own. Bread knives come in two basic styles: straight-blade (pictured) and offset-blade, in which the blade is offset from the handle so that you don’t hit your knuckles against the cutting board when you’re slicing bread and sandwiches. I prefer an offset-blade, and have one in my knife kit that I use at work. Hold one of each before you make a decision and see which style feels better to you.

Though buying all of the knives that I’ve recommended adds up to a fairly substantial purchase (anticipate paying $30-70 per knife, depending on its size, brand, and quality), it is a purchase that you can expect to reward you for the rest of your cooking days. Having a set of quality cutlery tools makes cooking a much easier and more pleasant task than it is when you’re trying to hack through carrots with a discounter’s special stainless steel micro-serrated blade.

Next Time: Maintaining your blades

photo credits: Aurora Sharrard

6 Responses to “Buying Knives”

  1. slu Says:

    Thanks! Really helpful especially about how to measure becuase I have small hands.

  2. Aurora Says:

    The picture of the hand and knife is my hand with my knife — a 6″ chef’s knife that I absolutely love and highly recommend for those with smaller hands.

  3. kari Says:

    I’m glad to read that you use your chef’s knife the most. I use mine almost all the time, and I was starting to wonder if I was overcompensating for something. or trying to be excessively punk rock. either way, you reassure me.

  4. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Knife Skills Table of Contents Says:

    [...] Buying Knives: What you should look for when buying cutlery, including choosing a knife to fit your hand, deciding how many different knives you need, and what styles they should be. [...]

  5. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Knife Recommendations Says:

    [...] For my full guide to shopping for a knife, read this article and for more tips on the best way to use your knives, follow the links in my knife skills table of contents. [...]

  6. carolyn mays Says:

    uery intersesting

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