If you’re serious about being a really great home cook, there are a few important tools that you absolutely must have in your culinary arsenal. The most important of these is a chef’s knife, the hardest-working piece of equipment in any kitchen. A good chef’s knife will make your life immeasurably easier, especially if you’re used to chopping veg with an old, dull blade.
Now that foodieism is practically a religion, though, you can spend hundreds of dollars on a chef’s knife and still not be satisfied. There are as many knives as there are budgets, preferences, and skill levels, which means that it’s going to take a little trial and error to find the one that works best for you. In this first installment of Kitchen Cheat Sheet, a weekly series on making your home cooking better, these tips can help you invest in the knife that works best for your chopping, dicing, and slicing needs.
You can spend as much as you want on a chef’s knife, but you don’t necessarily have to drop your car payment in pursuit of a good knife. If you can only spend about $50 on a chef’s knife, invest in a no-frills professional quality knife, like those made by Victorinox. You should remember, though, that a chef’s knife is an investment, and if you properly care for a well-made knife, it will last for a lifetime. When you consider the cost of replacement knives, $150 or $300 almost seems like a bargain.
If you watch the Food Network, you’ll see chefs deftly using knives with 12-inch blades, but you’re probably just going to end up cutting yourself with something that big. When the knife is too big, it is harder to keep steady for rapid movements, which will only end up in disaster. For most cooks, an 8-inch blade is all you need to do most work in a home kitchen. If you regularly chop large batches or butcher meats, a 10-inch blade is a good choice for more seasoned cooks.
When you’re shopping for knives, hold each one in your hand and mimic a chopping motion on the cutting board, if one is available, to find the knife that feels the best. Better yet, ask if you can actually cut real food (not many stores offer this option, but, like test-driving a car, it can make a big difference). You may have to “try on” several knives, but finding one that makes the tedious task of dicing an onion easier is worth it.
Many high-end knives are made from durable proprietary alloys that hold an edge for a long time, yet can be sharpened fairly easily. Much loved by chefs, carbon steel knives hold an edge very well, but their blades require more maintenance and can discolor, especially when used with acidic foods like tomatoes. Carbon steel knives are also the easiest to sharpen yourself, should you want to go that route. A lot of cheap knives sold at discount stores are stainless steel, which is very difficult to sharpen, even professionally.
Ceramic blades are also increasing in popularity, and for good reason. Knives made from ceramic are lighter and stay much sharper for a longer period of time. Because of their brittleness, though, they are prone to chipping, which isn’t ideal if you need to cut through frozen food, bones, or rigid winter squash. Steer way from off-brand ceramic knives, which lack the craftsmanship of more trusted brands like Kyocera and are not nearly as sharp.
Think about the kind of foods you cook with the most and the budget you have to work with, and explore blade materials accordingly.
In order to last for years, chef’s knives need to be properly cared for. That means immediately washing them after use and never putting them in the dishwasher (harsh detergents and high heat can pit the blade and warp the handle), making sure that they’re dried completely before storing them, and taking them in for sharpening one every year or so. Proper honing with a steel at least once a week will maintain the sharpness of your knife’s edge in between professional sharpenings. If you’re still apt to toss your knife into the dishwasher, it’s best to just go with a cheaper model. Whatever knife you choose, though, giving it a little extra TLC to keep it sharper longer.
If you’ve never purchased a knife before, it’s likely that your first choice will not be the knife that you eventually fall in love with and use for years. There’s nothing more disappointing than dropping $200 on a knife that’s too heavy and wobbly to use, which is why a return policy is valuable for first-time buyers. Stores like Bed Bath and Beyond and Sur La Table have generous return policies, along with knowledgeable salespeople that can help you figure out what went wrong the first time.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s assistant food editor.