Chef and Kitchen Knives Buying Guide
A good set of knives, well-cared for, will give a lifetime of service and satisfaction - as they should, knives are not cheap.
The perfect knife is the one that suits you – how it feels in your hand – and most effectively does the job you’re buying it for: cutting, slicing, boning and so on.
Fortunately, there has never been such a wide selection of different styles, shapes and materials to choose from. Our knife buying guide explains everything you need to know to get you slicing and dicing.
What are your needs?
First ask yourself, what tasks do I need knives for?. Will you be slicing smoked salmon? Opening oysters? Boning out sides of beef? Fileting fish? Once you’ve made a list of tasks you need your knives for, you’ll be able to decide exactly which knives you are going to need.
You can spend as little – or as much – as you like on knives. As a rule of thumb, you get what you pay for. It’s better to pay a bit more for a few, well-chosen knives than a large collection of cheaper ones. You can always add to your collection over time.
Stainless steel knives are the most popular and most commonly available. They are quite easy to care for and to store. They are easier to sharpen than carbon steel but the edge tends to dull faster. And it’s called “stainless” steel for a reason: it’s resistant to rust and stains.
Or more accurately “high carbon” steel; all knives contain some carbon. These are stronger and will keep a very sharp edge for longer than those made from stainless steel. On the downside, high-carbon steel is prone to staining and needs a lot more care and maintenance. High-carbon blades are also more brittle – they can chip and break more easily - than their stainless steel counterparts.
Stainless steel or high carbon? Either one will get the job done. It all comes down to personal preferences and priorities.
Ceramic knives are quite recent additions to the market and have very definite advantages. They are light and easy to handle. They retain their edge for much longer than those made from conventional materials. Finally, they do not stain or rust.
Their weak point is that they are brittle: rough treatment can chip or break them. When they finally do need sharpening, you have a real problem on your hands – unless you have a diamond-dust-coated grinding wheel handy.
Forged vs Stamped Knives
A forged knife is made from one single piece of steel that’s been heat-treated and hammered into shape.
You can identify a forged knife by seeing if there’s a bolster – the thick junction between the knife blade and the handle. They will also have a tang, that’s the strip of metal that runs through the handle, usually attached by rivets.
These elements, and the greater weight and thickness of forged blades, make forged knives heavier than stamped knives. But this is offset by good weight distribution and balance. The bolster can come in very handy for preventing your fingers from slipping from the handle to the blade,
A stamped knife, as the name implies, is made by stamping a piece of steel in a hydraulic press; it’s then heat-treated, ground, polished and sharpened.
Stamped knives have, until recently, been thought of as a cheaper, but inferior, product. This no longer necessarily the case. Stamped knives are light and flexible, and they tend to be more resistant to chips and breaks.
It’s true that many chefs prefer the heft and balance of a forged knife, but it just depends on what you’re looking for. Try out both types and see for yourself.
There are basically three types of knife blade cutting edges: straight, serrated and scalloped. All three are used for distinctly different purposes.
Straight or V
This the typical edge you’ll find on most knives, as with your average chef’s knife. Just two slanting sides that end in the cutting point.
A serrated blade is perhaps nearer to a saw than a knife, but you can be sure you’ll need one at one point or another. The points bite into the item and the cutting surface between the points does the cutting. Serrated knives are best suited to cut items with harder outsides and softer insides like crusty bread, citrus fruits and tomatoes.
Scalloped edges are the opposite of serrated edges. With the rounded cutting surfaces round out from the blade. Used similarly to the serrated edges, scalloped edged knives are used for bread and as slicing knives..
These knives have regular hollowed-out grooves called grantons or kullens, running down the length of the blade. When slicing - think ham or cucumber - these hollows allow slices to fall away cleanly without sticking to the blade or tearing. This is the style of knife you’d most often see used for slicing smoked salmon, for example. Grantons have also been added to chef knives and Santoku knives.
Knife Shapes and Styles:
At first glance, the choice of different blade shapes and sizes can seem a bit daunting. But it really boils down to what the knife is going to be used for. In practice, a capable chef could use a good chef’s knife for almost every conceivable task in the kitchen, but using the right knife for the right job is easier, more efficient and will give better results – for less effort.
The classic kitchen workhorse. The blade gently curves from the handle to a sharp tip. This curve allows a rocking motion to chop herbs and vegetables finely.
Blade lengths range from 8 to 12 inches; be sure to choose the one you feel completely comfortable and confident with as the blade size increases, so does the weight.
A utility knife is a smaller, lighter version of the chef’s knife, with a 5 to 7 blade. A versatile jack-of-all-trades.
A small knife, with a 3 to 4-inch blade. Indispensable for peeling fruit and vegetables and for all those delicate, niggling tasks.
Indispensable if you plan on boning out chickens or separating meat from the bone. These have a 5 to 7-inch blade that’s thinner and more flexible than a chef’s knife, with a sharp point.
Very similar to a boning knife – around the same size and blade shape – but with a thin and very flexible blade that’s better suited to boning and skinning fish than the stiffer-bladed boning knife.
A knife with a long, thin blade, usually with a rounded tip. If you want to slice items like roast and deli meats or smoked salmon, into neat, thin slices a slicing knife is essential.
Santoku knives are in a category of their own. These Japanese knives are typically a bit shorter and lighter than a western style chef’s knife, with a distinctive tip: the thin blade curves down to the point at a steep angle. These versatile style knives can be used for chopping, cutting and mincing. An interesting alternative if you are looking for an all-purpose knife that’s lighter than a chef’s knife.
Knife handles are typically made from one of three materials – wood, stainless steel and plastic.
For food safety reasons, wood-handled knives are not recommended for use in foodservice settings.
Stainless steel handles are extremely durable and easy to clean, however, the grip can become slippery (and therefore dangerous) under wet conditions.
Plastic – there are many different types of plastic used for knife handles – is the most common handle material for durability, ease of cleaning and cost. Plastic handles can have a textured or smooth grip and some have a specifically designed no-slip grip. Some manufacturers also have a grip considered soft-touch which has some give when used to reduce hand fatigue.
Colour coded handles are available from several manufacturers that can assist in minimizing cross contamination in busy kitchens.
As long as the handle is durable, comfortable and gives a good balance to the knife you’ll have made the right choice.
Specialty Knives and Blades
There are some tasks where cutting is involved but you wouldn’t want to use your precious kitchen knife. You’ll doubtless need a box-cutter and a good, rugged pair of kitchen shears. Shears are basically scissors designed for use in the kitchen, very useful for snipping herbs, cutting through lighter bones and shells and a host of other tasks.
There are many specialty knives available that you may need depending on your offerings. If oysters, clams or scallops are going to be on the menu, you’ll need a specialty knife (or two). Butchering in house will require specific knives.
Keep them sharp!
To complete your knife collection, you’ll also need a sharpening steel. Choose wisely – you’ll be using this a lot!
And you still have to figure out how and where to store your knives – you can’t just throw them in a drawer. Two of the most popular options would be a knife block or a wall-mounted magnetic strip, but there are also knife guards and cutlery cases (also called knife rolls).
Every commercial kitchen needs a selection of knives suited to its menu. From an 8-inch chef knife to a pointed tip paring knife, selecting the right blade for each task will inevitably save time and provide quality results - choose wisely and start cutting down your prep list.
Written by Charles Bruce-Thompson