It’s the single most handled item in the kitchen, maybe the entire house. Held even more than the TV remote, the kitchen knife is the center point around which the whole house revolves.
Especially during the holidays, as home cooks log overtime in the scullery, this indispensable tool is never far from hand. Any way you slice it, almost every dish involves cutting something — a tomato, a lemon, nuts, an onion, and ideally not your finger. (I’ll help you avoid that in a minute.)
Because the chef’s knife is so essential, many reviewers have diced the finer points of a variety of chef’s knives available on today’s market to find which one stands a cut above.
Now I know you are on the edge of your cutting board, waiting for me to name your knife as The Best One. (I was kind of hoping for that myself.) However, turns out, no one knife is tops in every cook’s book. For various reasons, reviewers selected favorites from a variety of manufacturers. Names like Wüsthof, J.A. Henckels, Global, Misen, Miyabi, Shun, Victorinox, MAC, Mercer, Made In, I’m surely forgetting some, made the cut.
Although reviewers don’t all agree on the top knife, they do agree on this: The best knife is the sharpest one. A great knife with a dull edge will never be better than an inferior one that is razor sharp. And no knife stays sharp forever, said Lisa McManus, executive editor and reviewer for America’s Test Kitchen. All need sharpening.
Gregg Kurtz has been a professional knife sharpener for 45 years. I sidled up next to him last weekend at the Farmers market in Winter Park, Fla., where he has a booth each week and sharpens knives and garden tools for a steady stream of customers. I watched and learned.
“Too many people treat their kitchen knives as utensils,” he said, airing a peeve. “They throw them in the dishwasher then the drawer. The knife is not a utensil. It’s a tool.”
After speaking with him and McManus, I gleaned these pointers to help you cut through the hype to the finer facets of knife choice and care:
Mind the metal. Knowing what makes a great blade involves a deep dive into the science of metallurgy, said McManus. I’m not going there, even if I could, but here’s the upshot. How the steel comes together determines a knife’s strength and performance. Stainless steel knives are most popular. Some chefs swear by carbon steel, which gets high marks for performance, but, unlike stainless, will discolor. Ceramic knives are gaining ground, though not among professionals.
German or Japanese? A discussion of knives doesn’t get far before a debate over East-West virtues surfaces. German knives (i.e., Wüsthof and J.A. Henckels) are known for sturdy strength. Heavier and thicker, their blades work more like an ax or wedge, McManus said. Because they dull faster, they require more frequent sharpening. Japanese knives (i.e., Shun, Miyabi) are made of harder steel, so can be thinner, thus sharper. Known for their razor-like precision (think cutting sashimi), Japanese knives stay sharper longer. But being harder makes them more brittle and prone to chipping, said Kurtz (who can fix that). Though he prefers Japanese knives, “they are not for those who won’t take good care of them.”
The degree of bevel. A key difference between these two camps is their bevel, the degree to which they angle away from the cutting edge. German knives typically have a bevel edge of between 20 and 22 degrees on each side. Japanese blades are closer to 15 degrees, making them sharper.
Get a grip. As important as blade strength, sharpness and longevity is grip. You want a handle that offers what ergonomic experts call “affordance,” McManus said, the ability to shift your grip, rather than force your hand into a specific hold. Texture is also important. “In the kitchen, hands often get wet or greasy, so you want a handle that won’t slip, and become unsafe.”
Tang and bolster. Knife shopping inevitably turns up words like stamped, forged, tang and bolster. Stamped means the knife blades were punched cookie-cutter like out of a sheet of steel. A forged knife involves crafting one blade at a time, which makes forged knives more expensive, and a favorite of aficionados. Tang is how far the blade metal extends into the handle. Through to the end is desirable. A knife’s tang will affect its balance, how its weight falls in your hand. The bolster is where the blade meets the handle. Look for a smooth union that won’t let food and bacteria get trapped in the joint. The space between the bottom of the bolster and the bottom heel of the blade should allow enough room for your knuckles.
Keep it sharp. No matter how fancy your knife, if it’s not sharp, you might as well use a letter opener. Sharp knives are safer. Because they go where you want them to and don’t slide out of control, sharp knives are less likely to cut you. A sharp edge also makes food look and taste better. Dull knives make messy cuts, crush food, and leave flavor on the cutting board. When they get dull, have blades professionally sharpened. (Kurtz charges $4 for blades up to 6 inches, and $5 for those over, including serrated knives.) Between sharpenings, maintain the edge up by running it along a knife honer. Lay the blade’s beveled surface against the honing rod and run it the length of the hone on one side then the other. It won’t sharpen the blade, but rather will straighten out the edge, which gets bent with use. Electric knife sharpeners, which McManus favors for their convenience, are another option, but you have to use them exactly right or they won’t do the job and may grind away too much metal.
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.