You’ve been stalking that 18-piece cutlery set at the store like a panther ready to pounce. The handsome, unfinished wood block is tilted at a cool 45-degree angle to give you easy access to all the blades, including an entire row of steak knives. The set promises to handle any chore you could possibly face in the kitchen — chop, slice, core, mince, whatever — and costs only $150 to boot.
Just three words of advice: Don’t do it.
People who sell kitchen knives for a living will tell you such sets are a waste of money. For starters, you will probably never use some of those blades (except, perhaps, as a backup for when your chef’s knife turns into a blunt instrument). Second, cheap blades start to dull virtually from the moment you remove them from the store.
You’ll be far better served, experts say, investing in a single, high-quality chef’s knife than in a cheap set. The chef’s knife will perform practically any task asked of it, whether chopping vegetables, trimming meat or even slicing bread.
But what kind of chef’s knife to buy? A Western-style knife with a softer, V-shaped blade and a pointed tip? Or a Japanese santoku or nakiri knife with a harder, single-edged blade and a more rounded (or flat) tip? Or maybe a hybrid knife, like one with hard Japanese steel but a heavier, Western-style handle? The choices are seemingly endless.
If you live in a city with a gourmet kitchen wares shop, such as Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma, spend some time at the knife counter, wrapping your hands around as many handles as possible, says Derek Swanson, co-owner of DC Sharp in Washington. Comfort is key: You want a knife that’s not too heavy and feels balanced in your hand. “It’s kind of like shoes,” Swanson says. “Everyone’s hands are different.”
Western knives — such as those from respected German manufacturers Wusthof and Zwilling J.A. Henckels – tend to have heavier handles, which can feel more balanced (though many Japanese knives now feature Western handles, too). But German knives feature softer, thicker steel, Swanson says, which won’t cut as well as their Japanese counterparts and will go dull faster. If you chop a lot of vegetables, your hand may tire faster with a Western-style knife.
Conversely, thinner, harder, sharper Japanese blades can be brittle. They can chip and break if you’re the type who manhandles knives. Western-style knives tend to be more durable.
Some other factors to consider: Western knives have a pointed tip, which allows you to, say, core a bell pepper but keep the vegetable’s shape for stuffing. A Western knife also has a curved blade, which allows you to “rock” the knife back and forth on a cutting board without losing touch with the surface. Japanese knives, with their flatter blades, tend to be used for more up-and-down chopping. Japanese knives also tend to be shorter, around 7 to 8 inches long, than the Western-style knives, which can be 12 inches or longer. Most home cooks will want a knife in the 6.5- to 8.5-inch range, Swanson says.
Price, of course, is a prime consideration. Some chef’s knives can almost require a small-business loan to purchase. But Swanson says you can find a good-quality Tojiro gyuto knife — basically a Western-style chef’s knife but made in Japan — for as little as $70 from online stores such as Chef Knives to Go. The problem is, you won’t be able to hold the knife in your hand to see if it feels right.
Swanson understands that many consumers are looking for value and may not want to invest a lot of money in a knife. But, he says, the more you’re willing to spend upfront, the more you’ll save in the long run. Your knife, with proper care, can last a lifetime — your lifetime.
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