If you are shopping for a new chef knife, the options are practically unlimited these days. Here are some things you should consider when buying your next cooking knife, based upon the most common experiences of our customers at District Cutlery in Washington DC.
1. YOUR NEEDS. Buy the knife that’s best for you. You will be the one using it. Sometimes customers come to our shop and ask us to buy the best knife we have. After showing them knives by Japan’s Teruyasu Fujiwara, we explain that not everyone needs or wants to spend over $200 on a single knife. A reputable cutler will ask you questions to get a sense of the conditions in your kitchen and the experience level of those who will regularly use the knife, and help you to make informed decisions about knives. We often show customers alternatives at a lower price point so they can meet their needs for the best price. High-performance hand-forged blades are not for everyone as they often present challenges to inexperienced owners (chipping, corrosion etc.) . Some knives, such as those made from European steel, are designed with durability in mind at the expense of edge-retention, and many users appreciate that.
2. THE FEEL. Customers come to our shop in DC to “try on” knives; hoping to find that perfect fit. We often hear the remark “I love the way this one feels, but this other one is really awesome too.” This situation begs the question: “Can you get used to it?” All new tools take some time to get comfortable with. If you really like a knife’s specs but it’s not as comfortable as others you’ve tried, evaluate whether it will likely always feel uncomfortable or whether it just still feels unfamiliar. The feel of the knife is driven primarily by the shape of the handle and the balance of the knife. Western style or riveted handle knives have a more even balance from front to back, while Japanese style knives tend to have more weight in the front. Which feels best to you?
3. STAINLESS OR NON? Stainless steel is not corrosion-proof. Many people shy away from non-stainless (aka carbon steel) knives because of the potential for rust and discoloration. Two of the largest and most popular Japanese knife brands, Shun and Miyabi, offer stainless steel knives that have a significantly higher carbon content than most other stainless knives on the market. We’ve noticed these knives are more susceptible to corrosion and pitting in the blades, making it impossible to create a true edge on them. The take-away: it’s just as important to dry your stainless steel knives as quickly and thoroughly as a non-stainless blade.
4. UPKEEP. How often you will need to sharpen a knife is determined mainly by how carefully the knife is used and the hardness of the blade steel. This frequency also determines how much time or/and money it will take to keep the knife functional over the course of its life. That lifetime maintenance cost should be factored into the equation when determining the real cost of a knife. Think of it like gas mileage.
5. ROOMATES are your knife’s worst enemy (next to your dishwasher). Is your knife durable enough to withstand someone else grabbing it while you are indisposed and butchering a duck with it? Thin high-carbon steel blades, like Carters, have no tolerance for such antics and will quickly give up a chunk of steel; thicker european style blades can usually take the pain. Some knives require a gentler touch than others, while many can be banged around in a utensil drawer without much of an impact.
Once you’ve figured out which knife you want, choose the best specimen of what’s available at the store. Very rarely are any two knives exactly alike; there are imperfections that trained eyes can catch. If buying online, request the dealer ensure the blade is straight and the edge has been finished by hand. Many knives come from the factory with imperfections that can be fixed by a reputable cutler. Make sure you get your knife set up and performance tuned before you take delivery.