Since this post is going to be about chef knives, I tried and tried to think of a cutting-edge joke or jokes to throw into it, but it was a bust. Nothing. My wit is just not very sharp, dammit. Sorry.
Anyway, about that chef knife you're considering buying. Sure can get confusing, can't it? The choices are almost overwhelming. And it seems like there are more and more brands popping up all the time, especially with Food Network stars coming out with their own labels or endorsing some such brand or other. So where to begin? Which one should you invest your hard-earned cash in? Well, I can't decide that for you, but I have done a little research, as well as having a little experience of my own, having worked in commercial kitchens for quite some time now, so I think I can offer some general guidelines here to help you decide.
It's quite simple, actually, which means that it's often overlooked- you really have only two things to consider- Blade, and Handle. You want a good, sharp, quality blade to handle the business end of things, but you need to make sure the handle is comfortable in your hand too, or else you either won't end up using your knife, or you'll use it, but probably wince in regret every time you do. So basically, do not buy a knife at all without having previously handled it at some point, either in-store, or having used a friend's. Pretty much any kitchen store will have a cutting board for just such purposes and will allow you to slice and dice your air-vegetables. I was seriously tempted one time to ask the salesperson if they'd let me bring in some carrots or something to actually cut up, but I decided not to. Chopping invisible produce at the store is certainly better than nothing, but not the same as actual use. If you've got your eye on a particular knife and know someone who has that same one, definitely ask to try it out. Besides the hands-on, you can also get their opinion of the knife and what they like and don't like about it.
Different people hold their knives in different ways when using them. I tend to hold mine with my hand choked up on the handle, like this:
(not my hand)
How you hold your knife is something to keep in mind when considering the handle. (And the blade as well- if you often hold your knife like that, you want a blade wide enough to allow for that without having to decide between cramped or cut fingers.) I've found that most people who work in commercial kitchens, (whether you call us cooks, chefs, or just the greasy, sweaty grunts who serve up heart attacks on a plate) tend to hold their knives in this way. And what that tends to do is cause blisters and calluses on your hand, because the knife makers, with their hundreds of years of knife making experience and tradition, always decide to make the back edge of the blade nice and square, with rigid corners. And while that might look nice, especially when referring to my chin, it doesn't feel very nice on your hands. So one custom knife maker that I recently read about makes his knives with rounded edges on the back. And while a custum-made knife is not necessary for most people, you can customize whatever knife you do decide to go with by using some fine-grit automotive sandpaper from your local auto parts store. (The back edge of your blade probably won't end up being nice and glittery-shiny like it was when you bought it new, but if you tend to hold your knife in the manner described and are tired of the calluses, I think it's a trade-off in your favor. Your hands will thank you. Not to mention your significant other.)
Ok, so the handle aspect is pretty much taken care of- basically you want something that fits well and is comfortable in your hand- now on to the slightly less simple aspect of the Blade.
Knives can generally be categorized into two main groups- German-made, and Japanese-made. (There are others, of course, but these are the two biggies.) Now, from all the online reading and poking around I've done, the general consensus is that while German steel is good, Japanese steel is far superior. Which makes sense when you think about it. Take movies, for example. Who gave us the Samurai movie? The Ninja movie? The Japanese, of course! Now I haven't seen every single ninja movie ever made, but I'm pretty sure that in every single one somebody gets cleanly sliced in half from top to bottom with one fell swoop of the sword. One fell swoop! Clearly the Japanese take their steel very seriously. What do the Germans got? Das Boot? I haven't seen that one, but I'm pretty sure that noone gets cleanly sliced in half from top to bottom with one fell swoop of the sword. Noone. I doubt if there's even a sword in the movie. Possibly a knife, but no sword.
Score: Japanese 1, Germans 0
But maybe things aren't quite so cut-and-dried. Or maybe they are; I don't really know, since I haven't tried every single brand of knife out there. But I have done a lot of reading and poking around on the internet, and the general consensus of people who are really into knives is that:
Score: Japanese 1, Germans 0
(or actually, more like Japanese 5, Germans 1)
Plus, if you're of the opinion that you get what you pay for, and that more expensive=better quality, then clearly the Japanese win this one. I've seen prices for Japanese knives as high as $1,275.00 for a 270 mm (just over 10.5 inches) chef knife. (And that was on sale!) Ok, so those knives are all hand-made. Probably not a fair comparison, but as far as I know Misono knives aren't all hand-made and they have a 10.5 in. for $240.30. Yikes, this is starting to sound expensive, isn't it? Well, I'm generally of the opinion that you get what you pay for, but that doesn't mean you can't get a really decent chef knife for 100 bucks or less.
First off, a couple quick thoughts on Japanese knives. Many of them use Damascus steel (or at least Damascus-style steel) It has a distinctive pattern that looks like this Katana, by Calphalon. Apparently it rusts more easily than "regular" steel. Not really a problem if you take care of your knives anyway, and don't leave them wet or lying in a wet sink, but it does require a bit more attention to care. Also, I did try out a Shun knife at my local Williams-Sonoma store, and my first thought was that the blade felt a little brittle. Supposedly that Calphalon "Will not chip, crack or peel", but it's something to keep in mind when considering which knife to buy. Obviously, noone wants to drop their knives, but sometimes it happens- and if that blade is a little more brittle and does end up chipping, that can be a very expensive "oops". Other Japanese knives, like Mac and Global, do not use the Damascus-type steel.
Now, something very important to consider when deciding on a knife is:
Bolster? Or no Bolster?
What's a bolster, you ask?
I've highlighted it here- it's that extra thick part of the blade that connects to the handle. Not all knives have them. Many do. Why? And what difference does it make? Well, I'm not sure why knife makers add them- they're not necessary at all. A selling point, is my guess. They tell you things like it adds weight and balance to the knife to get you to think it's a good thing to have. Well, the knife makers at Global will tell you that a knife can be perfectly balanced without a bolster. And if the weight of my entire bronze-tanned, well-chiseled right arm pressing down on that blade is not enough to accomplish the task at hand, then I don't know what good a couple extra ounces of steel is going to do. But I know of something else that it will do, and that is hinder sharpening, as well as offset the curve of your blade when you do sharpen it. I admit bolstered knives do look nice, but the manufacturer must believe that you're never going to have to sharpen that knife, even once. Here's what Holley Knives has to say about bolstered knives:
"Nearly all forged German branded knives have a bolster that extends all the way to the blade. This is not a good thing for those of us who have to sharpen them. Every time your knives are professionally sharpened, the bolster must be ground back to the level of the knife edge. Some professionals skip this step. We don’t. Fixing the bolster can take as much time as sharpening the knife itself and if not done properly it will mar the knife or worse, interfere with it in use."
Indeed. Here's a photo of a bolstered knife I own after a couple sharpenings on an electric sharpener:
It's got that little groove in the blade now because the bolster gets in the way of the guard on the sharpener and the knife can't be insterted all the way in. Not as much of a problem if you sharpen by hand on a stone, but you still have the issue of that bolster not being in alignment with the rest of the blade- you need to grind that down as well, in order to keep it's edge even with the edge of the blade. Otherwise you'll have the same situation you see in the photo. It's not just a matter of appearance. If the edge of the bolster extends further than the edge of the blade, even slightly, then it will interfere with your cutting and chopping, and in a big way. Most people don't realize this. And of course, the knife makers aren't about to tell you. They want you to buy their pretty, shiny, "well-balanced" knives.
Just something to consider when considering a knife.
Something else to keep in mind is blade length and width. A minor issue, but maybe not for some. The average length for chef knives seems to be about 8 inches. Not sure what the width is, but I think the standard is slightly less than 2 inches at the widest point. For most people that works fine. But not everyone. Like me, for instance. The average 8 in. chef knife works well for me at home, but when I'm at work, I really, really need about a 10 in. blade. And it has to be a minimum 2 in. wide. Not 1 7/8. A full 2 inches. 2 1/2 would be best, but those are tough to find. Usually if you do find one they end up being the cheapo ones that you get in restaurant supply stores that go from razor sharp to butter-knife dull in about a day and a half, and are difficult to sharpen as well. Again, this is where some hands on usage proves invaluable. If you have very little knowledge about what you really need or want in a chef knife, something you may want to consider doing is buying one of those $10 restaurant supply store knives- just to try it out at home for awhile and get a feel for what you're really looking for in a good chef knife. And what you're looking to avoid.
Ok, time for some useful links, and then my final summary.
Cooking for Engineers tested and rated 11 different chef knives. It's an informative read. You get an idea of what's out there for knives and how they stack up against one another. Surprisingly, Henckels and Wusthof rated fairly low in all tests, never breaking out of the Serviceable category. Seems pretty objective, but I wouldn't rely solely on their results. Remember, hands on.
The eGullet Forums have a great page on Knife Maintenance and Sharpening. Covers the basics of Steel, Knife Edge, Sharpening, and Maintenance. Very thorough, but a very easy read.
And then for pretty much everything you ever wanted to know, and more, about all things knives, there's BladeForums. Very exhaustive. Maybe a little too exhaustive. Or maybe just exhausting. There's a lot of info there.
Ok, final thoughts.
Do some research. Check out reviews online, ask salespeople and friends what they use and recommend. Especially ask people who cook for a living what they use and recommend, as well as what they don't recommend. And ask why.
Try before you buy. (Unless you've got money to burn, because you might get burned if you don't.)
Generally, you get what you pay for, but more expensive doesn't always mean better. Depends on what your needs are. Note how well the $30 Forschner knife did in the Cooking for Engineers tests, not to mention that Cook's Illustrated (the Consumer Reports of cooking magazines) gave it high marks (Editor's Choice or some such thing).
Decide what it is you're looking for in a knife, and how you're going to use it. 8-in. chef knives are fine for me at home, but tend to hinder me at work.
Bolster? Or no Bolster?
Here's what I think- arm yourself with all the information you can, and in the end, when you decide you're ready, if you go with a reputable brand, at a reputable retailer, and pay a decent amount (not too much, but not too little either) - you'll be just fine.
Thanks for reading.