Knife Buyer’s Guide
Before you purchase a knife for the kitchen our outdoor use, here’s a few things you should understand to find the sweet spot between price and quality.
Material – Carbon Steel VS. Stainless Steel
Most knives are made of steel, although there are some intriguing ceramic options out there too. Exactly what kind of steel makes a difference, though the language here can be pretty impenetrable. Steel is an alloy of mostly iron with a little bit of carbon.
Knives advertised as carbon steel are pretty much just that, possibly with a few other additions. Carbon steel knives can be sharpened to an amazing degree, but lose their sharpness relatively quickly, and so need frequent sharpening. They also rust if they’re left wet, so they need to be carefully and religiously cleaned, dried, and oiled. In short, they need a lot of regular maintenance. Professional chefs love them for their excellent performance, but home cooks will probably spend more time cleaning them than cutting with them.
Stainless steel adds chromium to the mix to keep the iron from rusting. Go back in time thirty or forty years, and stainless steel knives were pretty bad. They didn’t rust, but couldn’t be sharpened all that well, and were considered a knife for amateurs. Over time, though, materials have continually improved, both through better production techniques and adding a third of the periodic table to the recipe, to the point where modern stainless steel knives are really good.
High-carbon stainless steel knives are made from a relatively modern alloy that tries to make stainless steel as sharpenable as possible. It’s probably your best choice for a home cook, but it will cost a couple of dollars.
I’m not a metallurgist, and the details of nickel percentage go over my head, but I can give a few tips on materials. First, sharpness is usually proportional to the need to sharpen a knife. If you get a knife that can take a great edge, you need to maintain it, while a lesser edge will take less of your time. Second, you usually get what you pay for. Better quality steel costs more, and cheap knives don’t have it. If you’re planning to go with a cheap set of knives invest in an simple knife sharper.
Finally, there is no magic bullet out there. If an ad claims that their knives stay razor-sharp forever, clean other dishes by their mere presence, and cook dinner all by themselves, don’t believe it. None the less, there’s value to be had. We have a few good value buys in our knife set article if you’re looking to get started, see them here.
Construction Method – Forged VS. Stamped
Metal knives are either forged or stamped.
Forged knives start with a chunk of steel that’s hammered into shape while hot. Stamped knives are cut from a sheet of steel. In general, forged knives are stronger, heavier, and more expensive than stamped knives. The extra money is worth it for a chef’s knife that needs that extra strength to hold up to heavy chopping jobs, but a stamped blade can do a fine job as, say, a boning knife where the goal is to be thin and light.
On a forged knife, look for the presence of a bolster, a thick part at the handle-end of the knife. It helps the grip and balance of the blade.
Weight and Balance
The weight of your knife should be appropriate to the job it needs to do. A cleaver needs to be heavy to chop through bone, but a paring knife needs to glide weightlessly around a potato. Beyond that, it’s your preference. Do you like a heavier blade that guides itself a little more, or a lighter one for greater control? Try a few friends’ knives before you buy.
A good knife needs to put that weight in the right place. Normally, that’s right on your index finger and thumb when you’re gripping it, but that can change a little bit with different knives. The cleaver, for example, should be blade-heavy because that’s where the work happens. Balance is something you notice more when it’s bad than when it’s good.
You need a good grip. The handle on your knife is very much a personal choice, and needs to fit your hand comfortably. You need to be able to keep your handle clean, so watch out for bits where crud can get lodged and be hard to wash. Most knives now have synthetic handles with no gaps at all.
The back end of the blade, called the tang, is encased in the handle in some way. A good knife should have a full-through tang that extends the length of the handle for strength and stability.