How do you know what knife to have in your kitchen?
Story by Lisa A. Listwa
Back in March, I wrote a post about my top 5 favorite kitchen tools. When my sister read the blog post, she was surprised I didn’t list my chef’s knife as my favorite kitchen tool. The truth is that my chef’s knife absolutely is my number one beloved kitchen tool. That love is so strong that a post devoted solely to the topic of kitchen knives is certainly in order.
Knives are a personal choice for any chef. Some people like the all-in-one-block knife sets that show up on many a gift registry. Others prefer to select knives individually based on cooking style and skill. I grew up in a family where you might find one or two large kitchen knives and if you were lucky, one might be fairly sharp. It didn’t occur to me to think any harder about it – that’s just what I knew. When I lived on my own, I didn’t do much cooking that even required a knife. I worked with whatever I dragged along with me from my mom’s kitchen.
When my husband and I got married we were gifted one of those block sets and that seemed like a big deal. It served us well for a while, but as my cooking habit grew and my skills developed, I found myself thinking that I might need something different. The chef’s knife in the set didn’t work for me and needed to be replaced. My paring knife was broken – right in half – after about 10 years of constant use. Before making any purchases, I did a ton of research and set out to determine what knives I really needed and how to spend my money.
So, what knives do you really need?
Again, that’s a very personal choice. I’ve had people ask me for recommendations regarding what knives they need for their own kitchen. My answer is always the same. I can tell you what I use and why, but ultimately only you can determine what’s right for you. Take into consideration your skill level, the type and frequency of cooking that you do, the jobs you need your blades to do, and of course consider your budget.
Knives literally come in various shapes, sizes, and styles. Do you want a German, Japanese, Chinese, or Brazilian knife? A combination Western/Eastern knife? Do you want something classic and hefty? Or something sleek and light? Do you need a chef’s knife, paring knife, slicing knife, utility knife, carving knife, bread knife, or even a cleaver?
The first step (after you take a deep breath) is to do some research. I know, that sounds daunting but if you’re going to make an investment – whether it’s in a basic block set or a specialized collection of individual blades – you need to know what you’re dealing with.
When I started thinking about replacing my knives, I turned to my old friend the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. In the section on stocking your kitchen, I found chef’s knife, paring knife, serrated knife, and utility knife in the list of preparation and cooking needs. There was also sharpening steel on the list. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) That’s it. No details or further explanation. Based on my personal experience, though, I would agree that these four knives plus the steel would be a fine place to start for just about any home chef. I use all four of these blades, plus a couple of extras.
For deeper research, I hit the internet. Type in a phrase like “knife buying guide” and you’ll find plenty of sites to explore for guidance on knife brands, styles, sizes, materials, functions and more. Depending on the site you choose, you may find information on things like the weight, comfort, and balance of your knife. You’ll learn about forged vs. stamped blades. You’ll find advice on where to shop for knives and how to give them a test drive – or test chop, in this case. It’s a little overwhelming to be sure.
Some of my favorite places to turn for upping my knife savvy are Good Housekeeping, Popular Mechanics, and Consumer Reports. I also love Blade Advisor. There are plenty of other resources out there as well from cooking sites to personal blogs to home goods stores, and even the individual knife manufacturers’ sites. Want to know what other people think? You’ll find a wide selection of articles and blog posts that rank and review kitchen knives to help you decide what fits your tastes and needs. Dig around until you find what you need. Take notes. Then hit the stores.
I’ve learned a lot about knives over the last 20-ish years. That knowledge and my personal kitchen experience has helped me hone my knife collection to suit my everyday culinary needs. I’ve tried a lot of different knives in my kitchen and other chefs’ kitchens. My favorites are Zwilling/J.A. Henckels knives. For the curious out there, here’s my current blade roster.
From the Zwilling Twin Four Star collection:
- 3-inch paring knife
- 6-inch utility slicing knife
- 10-inch chef’s knife
These are the knives I chose when I needed to replace and upgrade my most frequently used blades. I love everything about them – the weight, the blade, the balance, the comfort of the handle… I could go on. Definitely the priciest knives I’ve owned in my lifetime, but worth every penny.
From the J. A. Henckels International Eversharp Pro line:
- 5-inch serrated utility knife
- 5.5-inch boning knife
- 8-inch bread knife
- 8-inch carving knife
These knives are a solid, low-maintenance value brand. I use the 5-inch utility knife almost every day – it’s a workhorse. I frequently use the 5.5-inch boning knife, but never actually for that purpose. It has a serrated edge so it’s handy for slicing rolls or for softer vegetables like tomatoes or eggplant. Do I need this one? Not really. I could easily live without it in favor of the utility knife, but it’s nice to have around. I use the bread and carving knives when needed. These knives are still sharp and in solid condition.
Speaking of honing your collection, one of the best things you can do for your knives is to keep them sharp. Sharp knives make all the difference in the world when you’re cooking, and sharp knives keep you safe – dull blades are the cause of more kitchen injuries than sharp ones. There are two things you can do to keep your blades in top condition – honing and sharpening. These terms are often used interchangeably but are two different processes. Your best bet is to hone your blade often (about every 2 to 4 uses, depending on your needs) and sharpen occasionally (once or maybe twice per year).
Honing and sharpening can both be done at home if you have the right tool and know what to do. Many knife block sets come with a “sharpening steel” (most likely a honing steel rod) which you can use to hone your blade at home. For home sharpening, you’ll need a sharpening stone. The good news is that both rods and stones are relatively inexpensive. I found this article at CNET about keeping your knives sharp. It covers honing and sharpening, how-to instructions, and even a ceramic mug hack for when you have no sharpening tools available. Also check out this YouTube video from BBQGuys. Here Chef Tony offers great information about honing vs. sharpening and the tools you can use to do each.
If you’d rather leave your sharpening to the pros, many knife manufacturers will sharpen your knives for you. You will likely have to send them back to the manufacturer to have it done, so be prepared to go without your knives for a while. Also make sure to inquire about shipping costs and sharpening fees. Supermarkets, butcher shops, and hardware stores often provide knife sharpening services or host knife sharpening events. Check your local area for information.
No matter what your skill or experience level in the kitchen, the right knives can up your kitchen game as well as your level of enjoyment and satisfaction. Taking proper care of your knives will help keep them in prime condition so they serve you well for years. Before your make your next blade purchase, take some time to evaluate your needs, learn all you can about what’s out there, and get ready to take your cooking to the next level.