A few weeks ago, a good friend gave my husband and me an unexpected gift: A chef’s knife.
I confess, I was puzzled.
Perhaps my recent confessions, chronicled in this column, of being a so-so cook with sub-par (but recently upgraded!) pots and pans prompted him to (correctly) assume that some of my other kitchenware also needed an upgrade, starting with that most basic and essential tool the chef’s knife.
“I love this knife,” my friend, Bud, raved, about the Shun Classic Santoku knife. “Since I received my first one a year ago, I have given seven as gifts. Everyone loves them. They will change your life.”
“Or end it,” I thought. Man was this sharp. Though I had sharpened my old kitchen knives periodically, this knife’s edge was in another league.
The first night I tried out my new knife, I slipped it out of its paper sleeve like a Samurai warrior. The dish I was making called for a diced onion and sliced mushrooms. Whoosh, whoosh. The knife slid through like Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Onion juice did not spurt out. Mushrooms didn’t mush. The vegetables’ edges looked crisp not haggled. Hmmm, I was already a better cook. I love it when a product makes me look better than I am. (Here, I must pause to thank MAC Cosmetics and Estée Lauder.)
When I cut a tomato slice so thin I could almost see through it, I knew I could never go back. Bud was right. I had been living under a knife block.
Although I’d heard that having good kitchen knives was really important, as with so many lessons learned in my life, mostly the hard way and late, I didn’t really know how important until I felt the contrast firsthand. Like the difference between reading about love and falling in it, some things you just have to experience.
This home-chef moment made me want to know more about what makes a great knife great. I started my quest for knife knowledge, once again, with seasoned cooking expert Lisa McManus, executive editor and reviewer for America’s Test Kitchen. McManus and her team have reviewed dozens of knives over 20 years, by putting them through brutal tests.
To evaluate that all-important chef’s knife, they asked testers of all sizes, with large hands and small, male and female, experienced cooks and novices, to put the knives through four universal tasks: They minced fresh herbs with the aim of creating confetti not a pile of green mush. They diced an onion looking for a knife that glides through, doesn’t push back, and doesn’t squirt onion juice all over the cutting board. They cut up a butternut squash, a notoriously hard object picked because it has a hide like bullet casing. And they cut a whole chicken into parts, slicing through bone and cartilage ideally without getting stuck.
Then they sought a knife that would do that all again, and again.
What makes one knife a cut above the rest has been the subject of many articles. As I sliced and diced the information about this key cutting-edge kitchen tool, I found as many top knives as top chefs. “That’s because it’s highly personal,” McManus said. “What fits you might not fit me. You and I might wear the same size shoes, but the same pair that fits you beautifully gives me blisters.”
When you do get your hands on that perfect knife, it’s like love. You know. “It feels like magic,” she said, “like an extension of you. It flies into your hand, feels comfortable, and fits. It doesn’t slip. It feels natural and balanced.”
Here’s what else experts say you should know when picking kitchen knives for life:
You only need three. McManus and other cooking pros agree, just three knives can do every job in the kitchen. The most important is the 8-inch chef’s knife, the go-to tool for cutting meat, fish, herbs, produce, nuts, you name it. Next, invest in a good, long, (10-inch) serrated knife, for cutting through crusty bread and items with differing layers of resistance, like sandwiches. Finally, a good 3-4-inch paring knife is a must when you need precision and control for cutting or coring small items, like strawberries. Once you have those, if you want to expand your set, add a boning knife, or maybe a six-inch chef’s knife.
It’s not about price. ATK reviewed knives ranging from $25 to $300, and found price did not always equate to quality. “Some of the best performers were surprisingly affordable, while those that cost much more truly didn’t cut it,” she said. In fact, their top performers in the above categories were as follows: Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 8-inch (around $40). Mercer 10-12-inch serrated knife (around $23). Victorinox 3.25-inch paring knife (around $8).
Avoid the block set. Although they do look nice on the counter, don’t buy a blocked knife set, McManus said. Instead, buy knives individually, and not necessarily from the same maker. “The blocks may have one or two good knives, but they have a lot of fill.”
Treat ‘em right. To help edges last, never cut into frozen food, or on glass or stone surfaces. Cut on wooden or plastic cutting boards. Store them in a wooden block or on a magnetic strip, not loose in a drawer. Hand wash them and sharpen them regularly. “If you start with good knives, take care of them and keep them sharp, you will have them for life.”
Join me next week when we talk about what other qualities to look for in a kitchen knife, and some top picks. Spoiler alert: There is no one best knife..
Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home — What to Save, What to Let Go and Downsizing the Blended Home — When Two Households Become One. You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.