CHOOSING A CHEF KNIFE
They say that a chef’s knife is like a dancing partner: there’s nothing more pleasing than finding the right one. A knife which is perfect for one person will be awkward for another, so you can’t buy a kitchen knife online they way you would buy a potato peeler: there are such a variety of shapes and styles that you’ll really need to check them out in person. A good kitchen shop will have demonstration knives available for you to test, along with piles of onions to practice on.
Kitchen knives are generally divided into two types – German style and Japanese style. German knives are slightly heftier, with a thicker blade and handle made of wood or plastic. Japanese knives are thinner and more finely-honed, often made from a single piece of metal with an integral handle. Neither style is inherently superior. Japanese blades are whisper-sharp, but chip easily and require more frequent sharpening. German styles are tough and long-lasting, but their relatively thick blade can make them feel clumsy in the hand. Whichever style you go for, choose a blade with a slight curve to the end, as this will make it quicker to chop food. If you’re only buying one chef’s knife, then go for one about 8 inches long (excluding handle) as this is the most practical size for a home cook.
The handles of chef’s knives come in a variety of styles and weights. They are usually classified as full tang or half tang, depending on whether the blade goes through the whole length of the handle or stops partway – in good-quality knives, this doesn’t make a difference to their strength. Check carefully for evidence of jointing or welding at the point where the blade meets the handle, because this signifies a weak spot. The handle needs to be just the right height for your hand, and this can only be found by trying the knife out. If it is set too low, you will bash your knuckles on the chopping board; too high, and the knife will be hard to control.
One part of the knife which is often overlooked is the heel, the end of the blade nearest the handle. The heel is usually thicker than the rest of the blade, making it difficult to sharpen, so many manufacturers cut costs by leaving the heel blunt. As it’s the closest part to your hand, you will use the heel of the knife for really tough jobs like cutting through tendons, so look for a blade which is sharp all the way to the end.
Whatever style you choose, the weight of a large chef’s knife should be perfectly balanced between blade and handle. Hold the knife in the air, blade-down, by gripping the joint where the handle meets the blade between thumb and forefinger. It shouldn’t tip towards either end.
Even the best-quality knives will need occasional sharpening – any knife which is marketed as ‘never needs sharpening!’ is simply so tough that it will be impossible to restore once blunted. Stainless steel blades aren’t great for kitchen knives, because their very strength makes them hard to sharpen at home. Non-stainless compounds like VG-10, powder steel, and high carbon steel are easier to put an edge on, although they may rust if not taken care of.
A good-quality chef’s knife can easily cost a three-figure sum, but with basic care and regular sharpening, it will last a lifetime. Once you’ve found that perfect partner, hold on to it.