As consultant, I’ve either been at clients or worked at home. Because I used to spend 35+ weeks a year on the road, eating out wasn’t special. Plus I grew up with mom and dad who believed you needed to be able to take care of yourself including fix a flat, mow the lawn, mend a shirt, cook a decent meal, etc. I enjoyed the cooking, married a wife who loved to cook, and raised a family that thought a good day was going to market, making big meal, and discussing the world over a home prepared meal and several bottles of wine with friends.
In addition, I like fixing and making things. I like the tools that help you make things, too. Knives the single most important tool in the kitchen. The best one is the one that is highly effective for you. Bad technic, wrong shape, or dull knives will be produce poor results, be frustrating, and can be dangerous. As your skills improve, you may find a “better” knife will up your game. The general rule is take care of your knives (tools) and your knives (tools) will take care of you.
Any knife that is sharp is better than the best branded dull knife.
Either send your knives out once a year for most home chefs or buy a good diamond sharpener or equivalent. If you are going to sharpen your own knives, it is as skill that must be learned. Plan on spending $100-$200 unless you want to go manual with traditional wet stones. I haven’t tried the pendulum style sharpeners, but they do help guide the wet stones, so they look promising. The only problem is that the bevel will be flat instead of the ideal convex of a belt sharpener or proper use of wet stone.
I keep looking for the ideal home sharpening system. I probably have half dozen knife sharpeners in the shed I don’t like. The NY Times Cord Cutter recommends the powered Chef’s Choice Tri-razor. I am disappointed on manual version especially on smaller knives. In a follow up comment, they say use it only on inexpensive knives, so what good is it. I was also really disappointed by the Global Manual sharpeners. I’ve got a few wet stones that work better, but not without a lot effort. I just got a Worksharp Ken Onion sharpener. Other than making a lot of dust, it does put an amazing edge on my knives. I am waiting a few months to see how they wear.
Every cook needs to buy a steel of steel or ceramic. You can keep your knives in good cutting shape using a steel made of steel or ceramic. Ceramic is preferable as it will remove less material. You don’t sharpen with steel, but you straighten the cutting edge and it will keep a knife cutting for a long, long time. Here’s a short video with Alton Brown on the topic (https://youtu.be/lRUYAgrsoLw). When the steel no longer gives you a good edge, you need to sharpen the knives. You try avoid sharpening because it removes material and eventually will wear the knife out. A steel just straightens the blade so far less material is removed.
When cutting, be sure to use a cutting board. Cutting on your counter probably won’t hurt your counter, but it will quickly wear your knife. A good cutting board is religious debate equal to the topic of which knife is best, so I won’t go into it today. I use both food grade nylon and hard, non-porous, non-toxic wood boards (mostly maple). I’m mixed on bamboo. I love teak and have added to boards I’ve made (https://www.bobvila.com/articles/best-wood-for-cutting-board/) as few to date (see knife pictures). It is great skill builder for wood workers and you’ll have friends for life. If you are buying, Boos is the best known high quality wood cutting board maker. They are not cheap, but they will last a lifetime for most home cooks. Using a good grade cutting board oil on it every year or so will make it look better and last longer.
Learning good cutting technics are also critical. Some things like using your knuckles and keeping your fingers curled back will feel awkward at first (“the claw”). There are some great YouTubes, classes, simply watch any of the 100’s of cooking shows. I’ve got a half century in the kitchen with a knife and I’m still learning.
Please never ever put your kitchen knives in the dishwasher. The dishwasher soap especially at high temperatures is corrosive. It will etch the blade and destroy the cutting edge. In addition, if you have wood handles, you’ll destroy them (makes me cry). Woodworkers are sensitive about ruining good wood.
For safety’s sake, keep your knives separate from your dishes. Don’t throw them into sink full of dishes or soap water. You’ll reach in to wash a cup and lose a finger. I recommend washing them with soap and water, rinse with warm water and either gently dry them or place them aside where they will dry.
Do not put them back in the knife block unless they are dry. Even stainless will pit, rust, or grow mold from the dust in the air (mostly your dry skin particles in a home – another story). Who wants to have their food prepared with rusted, dull, stained, moldy knives? Please take care of your knives and treat them with respect.
You need at least 5 knives. You probably only need these knives or their equivalent.
- Chef knife for slicing, chopping, mincing and splitting a spaghetti squash typically 8 – 10″, but can be 12″ – 14″. Buying a small Chef or Santoku (see below) is a great way to see if you like brand, blade, and handle. If you have a good Chef knife, you will grab it 75% of the time.
- Medium prep knife for everything you don’t use your chef knife on – typically about 5″ blade and not as thick at top.
- Paring knife for peeling and cutting toward yourself, mostly – typically 3″ blade.
- Serrated bread knife mostly for bread typically 8-10″, but go 10-12″ if you like those giant loves of round bread.
- Slicing knife for long slicing cuts typical in carving meat – thinner and 10-14″. These are often boudsght in a set with carving fork. Usually the knife and fork looks great great on the table. I don’t carve at the table, so I just have ugly forks I use with good knives in the kitchen and use the pretty set to serve the food.
Every knife after that is extra, but can be useful, but tends to be a variation of theme above. In addition, the Japanese or Asian style knife sets are slightly different. My wife prefers these styles partially because they are lighter blades and the handles tend to be slightly smaller, too.
- Santoku knife is a thinner blade designed for more slicing and less chopping. The tip is rounder, too. Rachael Ray has been a big fan of these over a traditional chef’s knife and they are workhorse knives.
- Vegetable (Nakari) knife is designed to allow you to slice and chop vegetables. Unlike the medium prep knife, the height of the knife allows you to use your knuckles more effectively.
- Lots of variations on the theme with boning, cleavers, breaking, bird beak paring , etc.
Every knife has cutting edge angle. All German style knives used to have 20 or 25 degree edges. Most Japanese and Asian knives were 17.5 or 15 degree edges. Now almost all kitchen knives except cleavers are 17.5 or 15 degree edges. The sharper angle does make for a sharper blade, but it also wears much faster. The compensation is harder materials which I find makes it harder to use a steel or sharpen.
Every knife has a balance point. The experts tell you that the ideal point is right where the blade and handle meet. Larger knife blades have larger handles up to a point. Cleavers are blade heavy. Paring knives are handle heavy. The exact balance point is a really a personal choice. For a chef’s knife, the key is when you use chef’s control grip (thumb and finger on the blade), the knife should be balanced and rock almost effortlessly.
Every knife is attached to the handle. The tang, the unsharp part of the blade, extends into the handle. Partial tangs do not extend the full width and length of the handle. Full tangs do. In general, full tangs are considered better as they lessen the chance the blade will pull out, counter balance the blade, provide direct leverage on the blade, and I believe allow you to better feel blade cutting. A full tang yields better control.
I have owned numerous kitchen knives including Global, Henkel, Misen, Wusthoff, Victorinox, and bunch of knock offs.
I haven’t tried a ceramic knife, but I would like to do so. If you go this way, I’d start Kyocera who invented the blades and are well known for ceramic materials. They are brittle and can break. They are sharp, very sterile, and non-oxidative. Using metal to cut vegetables can oxidize the edges which is why you tear lettuce rather than chop it unless you are going to eat it the next 30 minutes.
Victorinox are inexpensive. You can get a good set for about $100. The fibrox (plastic) handles clean easily and you can throw them in bleach water every day and they’ll stay in good shape. The blades are stamped, thin and light. The come sharp and stay reasonably sharp. I especially love their bread knives. I tend to throw away my serrated knives every 10 years since they don’t sharpen well. They also work well as small paring knives. They won’t tire you out. If you use them long enough, you’ll eventually want a better knife. They have a partial tang so they are light, out of balance, and in my opinion will always make them good, but never great. They are wonderful for a cabin, a boat, or to give as a wedding gift to entry level cook. I’d hate to give someone a $600 forged knife set to hear through the grapevine they aren’t working too well after they ran them through the dishwasher and cut with them on the granite counters.
Japanese knives are personal taste as is Scotch, Bourbon, Rum and Vodka – so no judgment. They are scary sharp out of the box. My wife loves our Global knives. The balance is perfect. I find them proportionally slightly light and the handles a bit small for my hands. For medium and paring, I like them and use them for very delicate work. For chopping and heavy slicing, I find the back of the knife too thin and it wears on my thumb from pressing down. I do like the seamless design from handle to blade which keeps the knives spotless. Japanese knives stay sharp, but are hard to sharpen because the thinner blade angle requires harder steel to avoid wearing out too fast. Most people send them out to someone who knows how to do sharpen them. In some cases the factory will sharpen them for free. If you do a lot vegetables, the santoku and vegetable (nakari) knives are terrific additions.
Shun knives are common amongst professional chefs and I’d love to try them. The wavy unique patterns emulating Damascus Steel looks terrific. On my list of knives to try out. The wavy, hammered effect, or hollow grounds on any knife are supposed help food fall away from the knife after slicing by breaking the suction. I’ve heard and seen mixed results. I do know thin slices of tomato or cucumbers do tend to stick to the blade.
Misen is recent Internet only cookware site. They try to provide semi-pro products at consumer prices. I have chef, medium, and paring knife I use almost daily. They sharpen easily, stay reasonably sharp, and have larger handles that are easy to grab and hold. I don’t like that the knife will lay on its back with the blade aimed up. This is a safety concern especially if you are cooking with others (e.g. kids). For the price, just a bit more than Victorinox, you get a full tang robust near professional grade knives. I use their chef knife daily and I only sharpened after 18 months.
Henkel and Wusthoff are great German steel knives. They dominated professional cooks and semi-pro kitchens until the early 2000’s when Japanese knives became popular. German knives did use slightly softer stainless steel than Japanese knives had 20 degree angles. In the last decade, German knives have improved their steel and shifted to 17.5 or 15 degree angle. These are great traditional style knives. I think the Wusthoff are getting a little better press right now. I used older Henkels up until the late 90’s when we switched to Global. I might go back to Henkel or Wusthoff now that they’ve emulated the Japanese styles.
Honestly, any good brand of knife with a sharp edge will cut well. The real key is comfort of the handle and balance of the blade. The only real way to know is try it out. A good set of knives is a decade or more purchase. I’d advise its worth trip to department or specialty store to put your hands on them.
You can read the NY Times Cord-cutter review on build your own knife set (https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/lists/build-your-own-knife-set/). I find I don’t always agree with their best pick, but it is usually in the top 3 or so. Sometimes when I read the discussion of the competition, I find another I like better such as we thought it was too big of a handle or would have been our first pick, but it was more expensive and the other was almost as good. It is worth a read.
If you really want to go off the deep end, check out Jay Fisher. He’s dedicated to building the best knives in the world and he really, really likes to write about it. The net of his discussion is new stainless steel is better than old carbon steel blade http://www.jayfisher.com/Blades.htm#Carbon_Steel_vs._Stainless_Steel so ditch grandma’s old knives. He does have knives for sale but they start at $2000 per knife. I’m sure they are awesome, but not my idea of how to spend a few grand.
Based on reviews, I’d also look at MAC and Dalstrong. Dalstrong has good aesthetics, great Amazon reviews, and has good stats on hardness, etc; however, I’ve yet to see anyone run it through its paces. MAC has been around. Unless you know the knife or have a very liberal return policy and warranty, you might spend a few dollars more and buy at a store until you find a line you like.
Knives in the kitchen are very personal. In the end, it will be what you and your family likes the best. You may find that it varies between individuals in your household. It’s part of the adventure of good food. Enjoy the journey.