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A CHEF'S GUIDE TO BUYING KNIVES

 

KNIVES 101: KNIFE LESSONS WITH A CHEF

 

If you love to cook at home, or do it for a living the most important investments you can make is in quality knives. Knives are the main tool used in a kitchen, if you buy smart and take care of it, they can last a lifetime. The first thing that needs to be stated is that you don’t have to spend a ton of money buying a big set of knives; sets are a trick to sell you additional knives you don’t need. Over the years I have collected more than 30 professional quality knives, and with all these options at my disposal, I use just three of them for almost everything I do in the kitchen, in fact I could do 100% of all my cooking jobs with the big three if needed. 25 years ago it was relatively easy, there were only two top brands of knives, they only had one line each and each line only had a few base styles available. Today there are multiple brands and each with many different lines, styles and various quality levels.  Before you go shopping, it is important to know how to pick the right knife, and how much you can expect to pay for it.

STEP #1: UNDERSTAND THE KNIFE ANATOMY  

  • YOU WANT A FULL TANG: The tang is the metal from the blade that runs through the handle of a knife; simply in a full tang the metal of the blade runs from the tip of the knife all the way to the very end of the handle, and a half tang the metal only goes partially into the handle. A full tang will give the knife necessary strength to make difficult cuts, it is a must, and a knife that is professional quality will ALWAYS have a full tang 

 

  • LOOK FOR A BOLSTER: A bolster is there to add balance and weight to a knife (so one part is not heavier than another) it is also the key indicator that the blade was forged and not stamped.  Forged blades are a far superior quality and something that you should look for in a knife that you are investing in.  Look for the bolster where the blade meets the handle. 

 

  • UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENT BLADES / EDGES: The blades are the most important part of the knife and almost all forged knives are made from a stainless carbon blend, this allows ease of maintaining the edge. If your not sure ask or do a little homework. The flexibility of the blade is a personal preference; I recommend a slightly firm to firm blade. Finally there are three basic types of blades:

 

  • TRADITIONAL / STRAIGHT EDGE: This is meant for meat, vegetables and a majority of all slicing and cutting.

 

  • SERRATED EDGE: These are meant for bread, and maybe a fruit or other soft item. These need very little maintenance. There are very few knives outside of a bread or tomato knife that need a serrated edge.

 

  • HOLLOWED / GRANTON EDGE: Slight hollowed out ridges run perpendicular to the blade edge, allowing the knife to get extra sharp, and helps reduce food suctioning.

 

  • THE HANDLE: This comes down to preference or what feels good in your hand. The easiest way to figure this out is to hold it, so I recommend supporting a local knife shop or store where you can try it out first. It should be an easy material to clean, and not have little areas food can get caught in. I am not a fan of wood, because that requires additional maintenance, and can warp, crack and become slippery. A good high quality hard piece of plastic is usually what I look for. 

STEP #2: KNOW THE BIG THREE: There are only three knives you really need. A chef knife ((three different types detailed below), a Bread knife, and a paring Knife.

  • #1 THE CHEF KNIFE: This is the single most important knife, and where you should spend the most money. The chef knife can range from $20 to $500, but I highly recommend you spend between $125 and $160. It seem like a lot, but I still have ones I bought 25 years ago, and if taken care of they will last the rest of your life. When I was a young cook, there was only one style the French knife, but today there are a few more tweaks and you need to pick the one that best suits you. I currently use a hollowed edge chef knife and love it; to me it is the best combination of blade shape and style. To be clear you only need one of the Chef knives below, not all three.

  • CHEF / FRENCH: The traditional chef knife. Great for slicing meat, vegetables and an all-around knife.

  • LENGTH: 5” to 14”, most home cooks use an 8”

  • BLADE SHAPE: Curved blade that becomes more pronounced close to the tip.

  • BLADE TYPE: Straight edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $125 - $160

  • CHEF / SANTOKU: This is the Japanese version of the French knife.

  • LENGTH: This can range from 4.5” – 8” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE: It has a flat to slightly curved blade, with a curved top/ spine that becomes more pronounced as it gets close to the tip.

  • BLADE TYPE: hallowed edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $90 - 135

  • CHEF / HOLLOWED EDGE: If I were starting over again in the restaurant world, I would get this. It has the strength and slicing ability of a French knife with the sharpness of a Santoku. 

 

  • LENGTH:  4.5” – 10” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE: Curved blade that becomes more pronounced close to the tip.

  • BLADE TYPE: Hallowed edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $125 - $160

  • #2 THE BREAD KNIFE: This may be the only serrated knife you need. A good bread knife should be full tang, a basic scalloped edge (nothing too jagged like a ginsu). Again this is one that if treated properly will last forever, and I recommend spending a bit more. I ONLY buy off set blades on my bread knives, they help so you don't bang your knuckles as you slice.

  • LENGTH:  7” – 12” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE: Straight / offset

  • BLADE TYPE: Serrated

  • PRICE RANGE: $90 - $120

  • #3 THE PARING KNIFE: The one knife that I break my cost and quality rule on. Buy the $5 cheapy at the knife store. Buy two or three of them, and keep them in the drawer for when you need them. I still use the $5 stainless steel paring knife I bought almost 20 years ago in culinary school. I have bought a few $50 high quality ones in the past, but they are difficult to sharpen, and just don’t do the same quality job as the cheapy. There is no reason to spend good money in this category.

  • LENGTH:  2” – 3” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE: Curved blade that becomes more pronounced close to the tip.

  • BLADE TYPE: Straight edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $5 - $10

STEP #3: OTHER KNIVES THAT MAY BE WORTH PURCHASING

  • TOMATO KNIFE: I do admit I make a lot of dishes with tomatoes, and this one does get used a lot, but is by no means necessary a bread knife can be substituted.

  • LENGTH:  5” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE: Slight curve with a forked tip for piercing the tomato skin.

  • BLADE TYPE: Serrated edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $75 - $120

  • UTILITY KNIFE: Some people love it, I never use it.

  • LENGTH:  4” – 5” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE: Curved blade that becomes more pronounced close to the tip.

  • BLADE TYPE: Straight edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $55 - $110

  • BONING KNIFE: Considered by many the fourth knife in the basic set, but I find unless you do a lot of meat de-boning you really can do without it. I use mine only once or twice a year.

  • LENGTH:  4” – 7” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE: Long and straight with a curve at the end of the tip

  • BLADE TYPE: Straight edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $70 - $100

  • FILET KNIFE: If you cook fish a lot, this may come in handy.

 

  • LENGTH:  4” – 8” blade.

  • BLADE SHAPE:  Long and skinny straight at the base with a moderate curve that gets more pronounced at the tip.

  • BLADE TYPE: Straight edge

  • PRICE RANGE: $70 - $110

Remember that if you can identify the parts that make up a quality knife and which ones you really need, you are armed with the knowledge to start building a set of knives that any serious cook will be envious of without over paying. Look for future blogs on how to maintain and store your new knives coming in the future..

 

 

 

 

For more great features from Pig's Pick visit my site for chef travel guides, recipes, and blogs about American regional cuisine. www.pigspick.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Pig

Call me Pig, it's not my real name, but it will do for our purpose.  As you'll find out, I'm a research chef, not a blogger. I travel the country looking for new trends and documenting great American independent restaurants.

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