Kitchen knives can vary in price from a few dollars to a few hundred. A little basic knowledge will help in choosing a suitable knife, no matter what the budget.
Steel Type and Hardness
Knife reviewer Cliff Stamp points out that food is soft. Almost any steel is more than hard enough to easily cut meat and vegetables.
The exception is cutting bone and frozen meat, which is best done with a large (thick) dedicated cleaver (chopper). These need to be thick more than expensive.
In his Steel FAQ, Joe Talmadge says that high grade steel can make a difference in cutting ability, but only if the edge angle is reduced to take advantage of the stronger steel’s ability to hold a thinner edge.
Chopping Board Blunting
Knives are blunted more by contact with chopping boards than with food (chopping boards are harder than food).
Using a soft board (wood, plastic) instead of a hard glass board will have a greater impact on how long the knife stays sharp, than the quality of the steel.
An average blade is about 1/10 to 1/20 inches thick (0.1″ to 0.05″).
People with weak hands (example: arthritis) should get thin blades. A thin blade is good for slicing through stiff foods such as carrots, potatoes, apples and turnips.
For soft food (meat, vegetables) the blade thickness doesn’t matter.
A thin knife can feel too light and flimsy in the hand. It is also less comfortable when dicing food (using a rocking motion and pressing down on the top of the blade with one hand).
Knife Balance and Weight
The right balance is subjective. It is best to check the balance of old knives that handle well, and buy a knife with the same balance.
Balancing a knife on a finger will locate the balance point of a knife.
- A neutrally balanced knife will balance with the finger near where the handle joins the blade.
- A blade-heavy knife will balance with the finger placed further up on the blade.
- Handle-heavy knives, where the balance point is away from the blade, are rare except for small knives.
Blade Type and Shape
Chinese cooks are said to use only a large cleaver for all their cutting.
The best blade type (chef’s, santoku) is subjective and should be chosen based on individual experience and preference.
Straight square-edge handles are uncomfortable and tire the hand (require a harder grip to hold securely).
Well-rounded handles that bulge out towards the blade, will give a comfortable and secure grip.
Handles make good dirt traps.
- Though attractive, wood should be avoided.
- Plastic and metal handles last longer and wash clean more easily.
- Riveted handles may be stronger, but the rivets also trap dirt.
Single piece knives, where the blade and handle are seamlessly joined into one continuous piece of metal, are the most hygienic.
The Sharpest Kitchen Knife
Cheap knives have a poor reputation because they are blunt when new. They can actually be sharpened to be as sharp as expensive knives (though they may blunt more quickly).
A cheap well-sharpened knife will obviously out-cut a branded knife that hasn’t been sharpened for years. Yet, people pay hundreds of dollars for knives and then neglect to sharpen them.
Regularly sharpening a knife is more important than buying quality steel.