What kitchen knives should I buy?
December 28, 2003 6:46 PM   Subscribe

What kitchen knives should I buy? [more inside]

Right now, I'm surviving with a bunch of crappy blades, and one much-abused 8" Henckels Twin Gourmet. I'm a good cook, and I spend a lot of my time in the kitchen, so I want some 'grown-up' knives. I want ones that will last, but I don't want to pay for gimmicks, branding, or snob-appeal. Suggestions regarding the merits of various materials (is ceramic any good?) brands (Global? Henckels?), price-levels (i.e., twin gourmet vs. four star vs. professional) would be much-appreciated. More than anything, I just want to be steered away from bad deals.
posted by stonerose to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard that ceramic knives aren't all they're cracked up to be, when you consider how hard they are to take care of.

I love my Global knives, but have heard purists on another cooking-oriented community complain about the metal handles being more apt to slip in wet hands. I've never had that happen to me. I own several, of varying sizes, as well as a sharpening gizmo, and I wouldn't give them back.
posted by crunchland at 7:17 PM on December 28, 2003

I suggest either Cutco or Henckels, if you have money to burn. I have Henckels and, when I was a high school, became a member of the Cutco cult for a summer. (I call it a cult because their form of marketing/selling is rather odd and brainwashing)

Just stay away from Williams Sonoma. Although I love their products, their prices are 20% higher than independent stores.
posted by BlueTrain at 7:26 PM on December 28, 2003

You're looking for a forged knife with a full bolster (the steel goes right through the handle). There are lots of choices. A good knife should balance right at the join between the blade and the handle.

The major brands are:
- Henkels, which is, in fact, a sintered knife, not a forged one. It makes little difference. German. Sort of the chevy of knives.
- Global. A highly regarded knife from Japan.
- Wustorf-Trident. A very nice German knife.
- F. Dick, an American knife (with a French shape) that's an excellent value.
- Sabatier. Used to be the premiere French blades. Unfortunately the name has devalued---too many cheap versions. Fortunately, Thiers-Issard is making excellent knives under the "elephant-and-four-stars" mark.

Each maker makes a slightly different blade shape. Which you prefer, you'll only know by trying. The German blades tend to be a little wider across the blade and be more curved. The French style is a narrower blade with less curvature. The Dick blades are Frenchish, the Globals more of a German shape.

What the handle is made out of doesn't matter much. The easiest-care knives usually have plastic handles. I've never used the steel-handled knives, and can't really comment on them. Steel handles command a premium price though.

Over all, I'd give the F. Dick, Wustorf and Globals a good long look.
posted by bonehead at 7:52 PM on December 28, 2003

I have a set of *old* Chicago Cutlery walnut-handled knives -- before they got bought by farberware and got cheap -- and they're very good. You can recognize the old ones because they have unvarnished handles and there'll be a model number stamped into the handle. They've served me *very* well... and the cheap new chicago cutlery knife that I bought to replace one whose handle got warped by my sister is no compare.

That being said ... My mom has a set of Henckles five-star (professional?) knives, and they're pretty awesome. They don't even own a sharpener; they just use the iron to keep the edge straight.

(That does bring up another question -- How should you care for the blade on your knife, how sharp should you keep it, and what should you use to care for it?)
posted by SpecialK at 8:01 PM on December 28, 2003

I've been extremely pleased with the Henckels "Professional-S" series (which I personally like more than the "Five Star" series), supplemented with a cheap $7 straight-edged carbon steel vegetable cleaver from a chinatown kitchen supply joint. I have the 10" chef from the series, and it's a bit like a kitchen katana: comforable in the hand, an extension of the will, and horribly, terribly dangerous. The Henckels cleaver is a little bit european for my tastes, but it's got great ergonomics, potent weight behind it, and a powerful edge. I've got a small, lightly serrated Pro-S 6" utility which sees pretty regular use along with the 4" paring. All of the Henkels are easy to keep sharp with a couple of flicks of the steel.

I was given a pair of MAC knives as gifts, and while they are impressively sharp (really impressively sharp) they have a very odd shape and MAC won't honor the warranty on them unless they are sharpened with special equipment. I keep one in its case as part of my "away kitchen," the set of equipment I use when I'm camping or loaning out a kitchen. They're good enough for casual use, and I could stand to use them every day, but I have other knives I prefer.

I tried Wustorf (an 8" chef, if I remember correctly, but it was a while ago) and found the ergonomics lacking. Nice edge, though. Don't know much about edge care since I haven't spent a long time with them.

One of the knives I use most heavily, though, is a no-name wooden handled 8" chef; it's a bit wide at the base, which I like, handle shape is vaguely similar to Henkels Pro-S, so ergonomics are acceptable, and since it was a thrift store purchase I don't feel guilty about trashing it with nasty work and my occasionally inept sharpening with a stone. Sometimes it's a good idea to have a blade which you're willing to subject to abuse.
posted by majick at 8:14 PM on December 28, 2003

The lauded Thiers-Issard brand ("Sabatier" in Europe) is available at considerable savings fromLee Valley Tools.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:47 PM on December 28, 2003

Once you go Mac, you'll never go back. You can pry my Japanese Vegetable Knife out of my cold dead hands. Yes, they've become trendy in the past year or two, but, in this long time knife nerd's opinion, they are absolutely the best.

That said, any Forschner/Victorinox stamped blade (yep, the swiss army knife folk) is going to be the best value for the dollar. While I have a forged Wusthof chef's knife that I love, I have a stamped Forschner blade that I rely on more. if I could replay my youth I would have bought these quality stamped blades instead of the overpriced-not-that-much-better forged blades. Forged is longer lasting, but at three times the price of the Victronox stuff, not even close in terms of value. If you care more about impressing people with the food you make than the tools you use, this is the way to go. Actually, if you have any friends that have ever done prep in a professional kitchen, they'd probably be impressed that you use the Victorinox stuff.

In terms of the blades , an 8" chef's knife, a 4" paring knife, and an 7" serrated bread knife will let you do anything you need to do in the kitchen. You can get high quality stamped blades in all three of these styles that'll last you at least 10 years easy for about $60.

There's some specialty hardware out there from Mac, Global and others that's awfully sweet, but I'd avoid those until you have a good foundation of basic knives and the income and vanity to pour into such frivolities.

As for sharpening, a basic stone is the best value, but, personally, I could never really get the hang of it. I've used one of those Chef's Choice electric sharpeners for a few years and, while they do provide a fantastic edge, they grind the hell out of the blade. Recently I've been using a cheap handheld Fiskars sharpener with tremendous results (a few strokes every other month for a wikked pissa edge), but it's only been a couple of months, so I don't know what the long-term effects will be.
posted by dchase at 9:08 PM on December 28, 2003

I've been extremely pleased with the Henckels "Professional-S" series (which I personally like more than the "Five Star" series)

I am the opposite.. I love the 4-star and 5-star series, but the Professional-S is painful for me to use. I'm female with really small hands, and I find the S-series to be literally blister-inducing. The softer handles on the 4/5-star ones are much kinder on my hands. FWIW, my male friend with big hands loves his S-series. You should definitely go and physically look at them before you buy, even if you end up ordering them online.
posted by gatorae at 9:28 PM on December 28, 2003

My only advice to to hold a knife before buying it. All hands are different, and it's important that the knife feel comfortable in your hand. I can't comfortably use a lot of knives bycause my hands are very large, and small handles not only feel cramped, but are dangerous, because it's easy to slip if the grip is uncomfortable.
posted by Nothing at 9:42 PM on December 28, 2003

My MAC chefs knife is my all time favorite. Forschner is very nice since it's a great knife for not a lot of money.

My best advice would be to try holding a knife before you buy it. You get more out a knife if it fits your hand and your chopping style. For me the way the knife works is much more important than anything else. And you can't tell that sort of thing until you actually get the knife in your hands.
posted by y6y6y6 at 9:59 PM on December 28, 2003

I second dchase's opinion about needing only the chef's knife, a serrated bread knife and a paring knife, and also y6y6y6's opinion about handles. I have Wusthof Grand Prix knives, but I think the classic handles actually feel a little better in my hand.

I doubt there's much difference in quality or ergonomics between, say, Henckels and Wusthof. If you want to try something a little different, check out some Japanese style knives like the ones pictured here. They're very different both in terms of balance and material -- for example, they rust. My brother really likes his, and I think they may even be getting trendy.

The main thing is to take care of whatever knives you choose. Clean and dry them promptly, and keep them out of dishwashers and utensil drawers; use a knife block. Have them professionally sharpened every so often. The satisfaction they give you will almost certainly be a function of the care you give them.
posted by coelecanth at 10:18 PM on December 28, 2003

My wife won't touch anything but Henckels. We recently replaced (but did not discard) her 6" Henckels kitchen knife that she'd inherited from her mother. It cost about $75 at Williams-Sonoma (she didn't want to wait for mail order) but she wouldn't touch anything but that brand.

Cold Steel makes some excellent knives (I carry their 4"-tanto-blade Voyager folder with me everywhere, along with a Leatherman Pulse), but I haven't tried their kitchen stuff yet.
posted by mrbill at 10:43 PM on December 28, 2003

Also see Smoky Mountain Knife Works. They've got a great Henckels selection.
posted by mrbill at 10:46 PM on December 28, 2003

Another vote for needing only three or four essential knives. I and all the cooks I know have those big knife blocks and never use the great array they contain.

But a HUGE vote for the ceramic knives! The original brand (I believe) is Kyocera and you need to do some real searching online to get the best price because they vary tremendously. I have the 6 inch chef's knife and instead of the paring knife, I went for what they call a fruit knife because I prefer the shape of the blade.

Ceramic knives are delicate - you can't put them in the dishwasher, you really need to avoid dropping them on the floor and you can't just chop away at anything with them (bones, say.) But the way they slice through veggies and raw meat is so amazing that once you try one, you'll never go back. (For what it's worth, I've dropped mine a bunch of times and it's still fine but my mother broke her blade in two on the rind of a very hard cheese.)

I scoffed at these when I first heard about them, but now I'm evangelical about them. Any serious cook who has $50 to blow should try one of the smaller knives. (To search for good prices, I worked out the product number I wanted and googled that. And I avoided the branded Ming Tsai knives, which is the same Kyocera knife marked up for a fancy box.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:36 AM on December 29, 2003

Also, this is the best bread/deli knife I have ever used. The offset handle gives you spectacular control.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:42 AM on December 29, 2003

I second the offset bread knife. It's a real improvement on the straight handled bread knives. Faboo!
posted by bonehead at 5:49 AM on December 29, 2003

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you for your fantastic advice! I'm looking forward to trying out many of the brands you've recommended.
posted by stonerose at 5:59 AM on December 29, 2003

For most jobs, a nice knife is a good idea. But I'm surprised nobody's mentioned how handy those $0.99 serrated plastic-handled knives are. Abuse 'em as much as you want — they can probably take it, and if they can't, so what? Buy another!
posted by skryche at 8:40 AM on December 29, 2003

Second the recommendations to actually hold a knife in your hand before you purchase. Handles, balance, and blade shape are all such individual decisions that the best way to figure out what you like is to try 'em all.

That said, Henckels are certainly good knives. My mother, a former chef, uses a mix of Henckels (some) and Forschner (mostly). I believe her Forschners are forged, though, instead of stamped (they're fairly old, but they're really good.)

I have a few Forschners that I got from her, but a couple of years ago I won a pretty big shopping spree from a high-end mall. Designer duds just ain't my scene, so I went to the cooking supply store and got me a set of Globals, which I love. Perfect balance (and light!), nice blade shape, and they really hold an edge.
posted by Vidiot at 10:03 AM on December 29, 2003

I have a set of Henckels 4 Star, which I like much better than the Professional-S, for the sole reason that they feel good in my hands. One of my best friends prefers her Wusthof for the same reason. It is totally worth handling kitchen knives in the store before sinking a lot of money into a set of them. There are big differences in balance and grip, and everybody's hands (not to mention techniques) are different.
posted by Tholian at 10:40 AM on December 29, 2003

I recently bought a set of Global knives and they are fantastic, style and substance, and insanely sharp. I also have a 19cm Victorinox chef's knife which is very sharp, very cheap (£16 GBP) and very comfortable to work with, if you want value for money I doubt you could beat that.
posted by chill at 3:47 PM on December 29, 2003

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