When you start spending time in the kitchen, you will quickly find that your most used tool in your entire arsenal is your kitchen knife. As such, spending some time and money getting the right one is going to make a lot of difference.
One thing you don’t need? The knife block. The knife block is a travesty found in millions of kitchens. The money spent on a knife block would be better spent on one or two quality knives.
Just what is my gripe against knife blocks? First is the block itself. It turns out it is very unhygienic. If you put a knife that isn’t completely dry in the block, the moisture has no way of draining out. This can lead to bacterial growth or even mold and mildew.
The second problem is that you just don’t need all those knives. Take a look at the knife sets sold at your local discount store or local kitchenware store. There are probably about half a dozen knives, not counting steak knives. I received a knife set as a wedding present and it contained: chef’s knife, carving knife, bread knife, sushi knife, cheese knife, filet knife, paring knife, and kitchen shears. I don’t even like sushi, let alone make it! Likewise, I don’t buy whole fish, so I have no need for a filet knife.
Out of that entire list, I regularly use the chef’s knife, the paring knife, and the shears. The carving knife has been used once in three years, and the bread knife a handful of times. The cheese knife has never actually seen cheese.
Consider for a moment that those knife sets start at about $20 for absolute no-name, cheap-o stuff that wears out in a couple years to $200 for a big name brand such as Wusthof. For that money, I could have gotten myself a quality chef’s knife that meets my preferences better than this one, a good paring knife, and a pair of kitchen shears from the dollar store (because, really, there is no difference between them and the $20 pair at Bed, Bath, & Beyond).
What to look for in a Chef’s Knife
A chef’s knife is the backbone of your kitchen. You can use it for just about everything. It will be the single most expensive utensil in your kitchen. And having the right one will be the difference between it being a chore and a delight to use.
Always get a knife that has a full tang. The tang is the metal part of the knife that stick past the blade and into the handle. Having a full tang will increase durability of the knife. I once owned a part-tang chef’s knife and actually had the handle break off in my hand. Part-tang knives have really gone out of style these days and even the cheaper knives have a full tang.
Chef’s knives come in three basic sizes, 6, 8, and 10 inches. This is the length of the blade, measured from the heel to the point. Which size works best is a matter of choice. Your best bet is to go to a housewares store and test different knives to find the size the fits you best.
The other fundamental decision you will need to make is the style. By this I don’t mean the color of the handle, or the material.. By this, I mean the great debate in knife manufacture: German vs Japanese.
German blades are heavier. They use a softer steel with a blunter edge to handle the brunt force of Western style chopping. They require sharpening more often and are sharpened to about 40-50 degrees. German knives are also designed to be sharpened from both sides. They also have a well defined belly, or curve, starting about half way down the blade.
Japanese blades use a harder steel in a thinner edge. They are designed for more finesse and will go longer before needing to be re-sharpened. Typically, they are sharpened to 30 degrees or less. The blade is only sharpened from one side. Japanese-style blades have less of a belly and typically have more of a diagonal line profile instead. These blades are lighter in weight, sometimes as little as 40% of the weight of a similarly sized German knife.
Choosing between a German or Japanese knife is a matter of preference. I like the heft of German knives, but I have the size and strength to put into it. If you are smaller, you may find Japanese knives to be more comfortable. Again, spend some time testing the knives to find the right choice for you. If the store won’t let you handle the knives, then they aren’t going to have the quality of blades you are looking for.