The right kitchen knife for the job will shorten your prep time, a lot. It will allow you to work faster and smarter. It will also help you prepare higher quality ingredients and be a joy to use. So what makes a good knife? The key factors include: size, shape, quality and sharpness.
Use a knife that is too small and you will work harder than you need to. Use a knife that is too big and you lose precision and control, and you’ll work harder than you need to. Generally, you will find that a larger knife is better for chopping, dicing, mincing, and slicing. A smaller knife will be better suited to cutting, peeling and decorating small fruits. A medium sized knife if useful for slicing medium sized fruits and cuts of meat.
A good basic knife set will contain a chef’s knife, also called a cook’s knife. While pros often recommend longer knives, 8 inches is a good home size. 7 inches might be all that a shorter cook will want. Some cooks are using the Japanese style santoku knife as a substitute for the European style chef’s knife. A chef’s knife is the most used blade in a professional kitchen and can be used for most food prep. A knife this large is often intimidating to the home cook but a bit of practice will demonstrate that it makes the job of chopping go much faster.
Where a chef’s knife isn’t appropriate is for fine work like peeling. That’s where a paring knife comes in. Paring knives come in a range of sizes from 2-5 inches but the most common size is 3-3 1/2 inches. Many home cooks use paring knives to chop with, but that’s not what they are designed for. A paring knife is best used when the item being cut is held in the hand. If a cutting board is used then a larger and heavier knife will do the job with less effort.
A bread knife should be long enough to cut a loaf. For breads baked in pans or long, narrow loaves, 8 inches is adequate. For round loaves, a 9 inch or longer knife will be better.
Middle sized knives from 5-6 inches in length are good for general work and are often the home cook’s tool of choice. Generally these knives are good for slicing or boning. A larger chef’s knife will make much faster work of chopping. Knives in the middle size range are often called utility or sandwich knives, though some cooks prefer the thicker blade of a short chef’s or santoku knife.
A good working minimum set of knives will include a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a mid-sized utility knife or two and a bread knife. When preparing poultry, it’s nice to have a knife dedicated to that task that won’t contaminate the rest of the meal. The vast majority of prep work can be easily accomplished with these knives and a set of poultry shears. It’s generally best to start with a higher quality small set of knives and add specialty knives as needed than to buy a huge set and never use some of the knives. Some cooks prefer the nice look of a matching set of knives. Some prefer to buy the knife the they like best for each particular task.
If you work with whole chickens or poultry then a 5-6 inch boning knife is a good addition. A 6-7 inch fillet knife will make short work of de-boning or filleting fish. A 2-2 1/2 inch stiff paring knife helps with garnishes. While a good chef’s knife will do to carve meat or poultry, a carving knife that isn’t used for food prep will be sharp and ready for carving at the table. 8-9 inches is a good general purpose size. A 10 inch knife is better for prime rib and can double as a cake slicer, cutting the entire width of the cake in one motion.
Knives that have curved blades are the most versatile. Chopping benefits from a wider blade, at least at the end closest to the handle, or heel. Straight edged knives work well for slicing things like bread and roast beef. The traditional turkey carving knife will be fairly straight.
The overall shape of a knife includes both blade and handle shapes. The blade shape will influence cutting or chopping speed. The shape of the handle will influence comfort and balance. The latter are very subjective. What feels good for one cook will be misery for another. Before buying it’s always best to actually hold a knife take it through the appropriate chopping and cutting motions.. For some cooks perfect balance is vital. Others don’t care as long as the knife holds an edge.
Better quality knives hold their edge longer and are generally more durable. It used to be that only forged blades held high quality but that’s no longer the case. While low quality knives are all stamped, now days many quality knives are cut or stamped from sheet steel. Forschner knives rated by Cooks Illustrated as a best buy and a popular in many quality restaurants offer the same edge holding ability as the much more expensive German brands at less than a quarter the cost, and bust the myth of only forged blades being sharp and durable. Some very expensive Japanese knives are not forged and may be the best knives available.
Quality Japanese knives typically offer a harder steel than comparably priced German ones. The trade off is that while the edge can stay sharper longer, the knife is more difficult to sharpen when it does become dull. Professional chefs fall on both sides of the Japanese vs. German steel question.
Regardless of what knife you end up choosing, what top brands offer that less expensive ones don’t is a beautiful tool. A less expensive knife may be 95% or more as usable as a a high priced one. It won’t be as finely balanced. It won’t offer that ineffable sense of quality. Nor will it impress your friends. Aesthetics vs. value is fortunately a choice that won’t give you a bad knife.
A sharp, quality knife is a joy to use. However, the sharper an edge is the more delicate it is. Sharpness comes from the blade being extremely thin. If you buy an extremely sharp expensive knife and want its edge to last you will need to take care of it. At the very least that means not cleaning it in the dishwasher, cutting on a hard surface or storing the knife unprotected in a drawer. It also means learning to touch up the knife on a steel or ceramic hone.
Any quality knife should come from the factory with a sharp enough edge, though sharp is a relative term. A $200+ Japanese knife may come with a scary sharp edge, while $40 German one will have a “merely” working sharp one. The tradeoff is one of durability as well as in ease of cutting. An extremely sharp knife edge is fragile and requires both respect and care. A well maintained knife will hold a working edge for quite a while, though when it finally gets too dull you might want to consider using a professional knife sharpening service to restore the edge.