Choosing a kitchen knife

By | January 17, 2008

If I had a limited budget to spend in a kitchen, the one thing that spend a decent amount on would be the ubiquitous chef knife. Why? Because it’s used for everything. From slicing tomatoes to dicing fish to everything in between, your chef knife will see more use than any other knife in your collection. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you decide what you want to buy.

Budget

Like most things in life, the price range of knives can vary from as low as a dollar to several thousands. For most people, $100-$200 CDN is a reasonable amount to spend for a knife that if properly taken care of, will last a lifetime. You will also want to budget approximately $50 for a high quality steel.

Country of Origin

In general, you’ll be looking at either German or Japanese knives. German brand names like Wusthof and Henckels are household names whereas Japanese brands like Global and Shun have only begun to take off in recent years. In general, you will find that Japanese knives are sharper due to the harder steel alloys used. This allows the knife manufacturers to grind the edges are more acute angles which result in a sharper edge. This is quantified with a hardness measure called the Rockness C hardness.

Japanese knives tend to measure between 59-60 on the scale which allows the edges to be ground to 15 degrees whereas German knives tend to measure between 55-58 with a bevel of 20 degrees. For reference a straight razor blade is ground at a 10 degree angle.

Construction – Stamped vs Forged

Knives are either forged or stamped. When a knife is forged, a hot piece of steel is pressed into a blade mold and hammered into place. This makes for a stronger blade because the forging process aligns the grains of the metals.

A stamped knife on the other hand is simply stamped out from a flat sheet of steel. This results in a cheaper blade that is not as strong as a forged blade. You might find a stamped knife or two that isn’t complete and utter garbage, but why bother?

Construction – Everything else

If you aren’t looking at the blade, then you are looking at the handle which comes in all different types and sizes. You have metal handles, plastic handles and wood handles. What you choose is ultimately up to you. They’re all pretty much the same.

What you do want to look for however is that the rivets (in the case of plastic and wood handles) are tight and flush with the surface. This prevents nasty little green things from growing in your knife. You’ll also want to look for a full tang which is the metal insert that runs through the handle. This along with the bolster (the fat piece at the end of a blade) helps give the knife balance.

Materials

There are steel knives, plastic knives, titanium knives, ceramic knives and a million and one different types of materials. To keep things simple I’ll be discussing the various types of steels.

Carbon Steel has been around forever.. with good reason too. It’s fairly cheap, it holds an edge well and it’s easy to sharpen. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass to maintain as it can rust. When cutting things like citrus fruit or tomatoes, the acids in the food can cause discoloration. A piece of steel wool will fix those problems though.

Stainless Steel is a generic term which refers to steel alloys that contain more than 10% chromium to prevent rusting. They are often alloyed with other metals such as Titanium, Molybdenum and Nickel to change the characteristics of the metal.

Because of the chromium content, these steels are resistant to staining and rusting. However, the introduction of the alloys also makes them harder to sharpen. Knife manufacturers have overcome this problem by creating High-carbon Stainless steel which gives the users the best of both worlds. You’ll find that these often contain Molybdenum and Vanadium in trace amounts.


Length

Chef knives are between 6″-12″ in length with 8″ being the most popular. What you choose is mostly up to your personal style of chopping. If you like to rock the knife back and forth, then a longer blade might be more suitable whereas if you like to lift up and down, then a shorter blade will be better for you (or even a Santoku knife).

Discussions of specific brands

I’m going to stick to the knives that I have had experience with as I can’t possibly cover everything out there.

Henckels – look for the 2 man instead of 1 man in the logo which is a quick and dirty way to get the higher quality Henckels. One thing to note however is that Henckels uses a 3 piece construction where the tang and bolster are lower grade steel than the blade. It makes for a cheaper knife to manufacture which unfortunately isn’t reflected in retail pricing.

Shun – popularized by Alton Brown, a foodTV host, I can best describe Shuns as wannabe Japanese knives made by an American company (Kershaw). Yes they use Japanese techniques as evident by their Damascus* line, but they are a little half-assed with only 32 layers. The handles however are nice because of the way they are contoured to fit your hand. Shun also came out an elite line of knives which are made with a different process.

Hattori – these are the knifes that I eventually settled on when buying my knives. Made in Japan, they’re 63 layers of Damascus goodness and are the sharpest knives that I have ever used. They are also incredibly light when compared to German knives. The thinness of the blade does make them easier to chip though as I discovered when trying to cut a frozen block of food (which you shouldn’t do).

Other knives you might want to look into include Mac, Misono and Wusthof all which have good reputations and reasonable prices.

*Damascus steel is a method of constructing blades where a piece of steel is folded over itself several times. This results in a neat wavy pattern and apparently a stronger blade. It’s how Samurai swords were created back in the day and if it’s good enough for Samurais, then it’s good enough for me.

Ok, I have the background info, now what?

My best recommendation is to go to a knife shop holding some knives in your hand. You’ll quickly get a feel for what types of handles you prefer. If you find something you like with good balance, then buy it.

Can you recommend some online places to buy knives?

If you’re looking for German knives, then I’d recommend heading over to Paul’s Finest. His prices are reasonable and he knows his stuff. Service through email is outstanding.

If you’re looking for Japanese knives, then look no further than Japanese Chefs Knife. The site looks like garbage, but nevertheless the prices can’t be beat and the selection is unreal. Another thing to note that this is the distributor where Paul gets his Japanese knives from.

10 thoughts on “Choosing a kitchen knife

  1. Daniel Tenner

    Great article! Very helpful. I learned a good few things about knives, and I’ll make sure I hold it in mind next time I’m buying a knife.

    In your experience, why is it important to have a good quality knife? (apart from the rust thing)

    Daniel

    Reply
  2. Norman Post author

    It’s not so much about the rust thing as there are high end knives that will rust if not taken care of (Japanese sashimi knives come to mind), but rather that a good knife will make life easier for you in the kitchen.

    A sharp knife will bite into the thing you’re cutting thereby reducing the chances that the blade will slip and slice your finger off.

    It also makes a big difference with softer things like tomatoes which will crush under a dull blade. Finally, have you tried cutting fish skin with a dull blade? It’s such a PAIN in the ass.

    Reply
  3. Jason Kawaguchi

    Norm,

    After picking up the Wusthof Grand Prix 2 santoku 6 1/2 “, my other knives have gone on vacation, fantastic and does almost anything, 4 swipes of the steel every time and it is a razor

    Reply
  4. Derek

    One thing that needs to be taken into account about a chef’s knife is the hardness of the steel. A knife such as the Henkel with two men on it has really hard steel, meaning that it is hard to sharpen with a stone once it is dull and that it progressively gets harder to keep sharp, as the more metal is worn away, the more the edge moves up to the thicker parts of the knife. It also means that it will need to be sharpened more, as a sharpening steel becomes ineffective rather quickly. A knife made of softer steel will need to be sharpened on a stone less, be easier to sharpen and probably cost less to buy.

    Reply
  5. Jason Kawaguchi

    totally agree derek, my 4 stars are tough to keep sharp with a steel now

    Reply
  6. Derek

    Yeah, the only good thing about Henkels is that they are dishwasher safe!

    My two main knives are a global 8″ Japanese chef’s knife and a 10″ Victorionox rosewood handle chef knife. I use the 9″ Henkel with the riveted handle for chopping chicken bones and other shitty tasks. The 10″ Brazilian Henkel I have holds a better edge, is easier to sharpen and is just as heavy as the German one…

    Reply
  7. Niall Harbison

    Hi There, i just came accross your blog through stumbleupon and think it is fantastic. Lovely food pics especially. I have so many blogs in my RSS that I usually dont even stop on food blogs as I hardly have time to read the ones that i have already! Good news is that I just added yours and will try and read it as much as possible. Have you been cooking long? If you feel like sharing some of your food pics and sharing them with others then http://www.ifoods.tv is my site and I’d love to see you there. I started as a blogger a year ago as well and realised that there are so many good blogs out there but so few people know about them and get to read them so I wanted to find a place to showcase food photos, recipes and videos. Anyway enough rambling on from me, best of luck and keep up the good work!

    Reply
  8. Rob

    Great advice for those shopping for kitchen knives. One clarification on Shun knives; note that although Kershaw was an American firm, they were purchased years ago by Kai, a Japanese company. Shun knives are Japanese, made in Seki-City by Kai. People just associate them with Kershaw. Also, the “Damascus” on Shun Classic knives is just etched to give them a Damascus look, although the result is still a very hard and long-lasting edge sandwiched between softer steel.

    Reply

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