Unlike several kitchen tasks, chopping, cutting, slicing and dicing is still mostly done by hand. While many of us have modernised our kitchens with high-tech toasters, microwaves, blenders, smoothie machines and slow cookers, there is no kitchen without the most ancient device of all – the knife.
Choosing a set of essential kitchen knives can be a hell of a task; there are so many on the market with jaw-dropping varieties in price, quality and style, steel types, that a novice can have a hard time to get her/his head around. The simplest strategy to narrowing your choices down is deciding on your budget: if you’re a frequent cook and don’t mind to put a bit of effort into looking after your knives, then it probably makes sense to spend as much as you’re able to on some good quality equipment that can last for years. If you’re on the budget and looking for something temporary, then make it all about how it fits in your hand. You need to feel comfortable manoeuvring the knife.
Most cooks agree that a selection of four or five knives will enable most of your culinary projects, namely:
- a chef’s knife for chopping meat and veggies,
- a paring / utility knife for trimming small veggies and fruit,
- a veggie knife – for those bigger size fruit and veggies
- a serrated knife for bread and squishy things that have a tougher exterior and
- optional: a carving knife for slicing meat thinly
Nowadays Japanese equivalents of German and French knives are gaining more and more fans as they are praised for their durability, and extremely good performance. (and they are no doubt more aesthetically pleasing).
A few things to remember when choosing your knives:
The handle of a knife is one of the most important components to consider. If the knife doesn’t feel good in your hand and if it doesn’t match your grip, you’re not going to enjoy using it. If you have wider palms or you’re left handed, consider custom made handles. Octagonal handles are very versatile and should fit in your hand nicely, also when you’re left handed. When it comes to the handle material, both wooden and Micarta are grippy, durable, and organic.
Next thing you need to check if the knife’s balance. A good knife should be well balanced. Most knives are balanced in such a way that chopping near the tip creates an impact that wants to pull the blade from your hand, your fingers (not your palm) are retaining the knife. This is because the centre of mass is behind the impact point and the blade wants to rotate around the centre of mass. All higher end knives will be nicely balanced, making cooking more fun and less of an effort.
Ok, with that in mind, let’s go to the knives:
Chef’s Knife (Japanese name: Gyuto)
If you’re only going to own one knife, a quality chef’s knife is a no brainer. The chef’s knife – or cook’s knife – can be used for anything from slicing tomatoes, chopping herbs and crushing garlic to mincing meat. The chef’s knife is an all-purpose knife. Its long blade and efficient rocking motion make it extremely practical. The main style we use today is developed from French and German traditions, though, increasingly, Japanese knives – with thinner blade and curved spine – are gaining popularity.
A chef’s knife usually measures about 1 inch wide, with the curve being most pronounced at the tip of the blade. While a chef’s knife works well for the majority of kitchen tasks, it’s not as effective for carving poultry or skinning fruits and vegetables.
Chef’s knives can range from 6 to 12 inches long (up to 27cm blade) and cost anywhere from £30 to £450, depending on craftsmanship and materials. For home use, get one that’s between 8 and 10 inches. Opt for a handcrafted knife over a mass style if you can spend the extra cash as such knives have quality materials used, which last for generations.
Here there is no bigger winner than a Japanese-style veggie knife – The Nakiri. For some, such specific knives as a veggie knife is not considered essential but we have a different opinion on that. All healthy meals include a big portion of vegetables and if you’re a home cook, you want your chopping and slicing task to be effortless.
Our absolute favourite knife to cut vegetables is the Signature Nakiri knife. Chopping onions, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots – you name it, we use our Nakiri knives with them all. A Japanese vegetable knife, these knives have a straight blade. The straight blade allows you, the chopper, to quickly cut through your produce until the knife hits the cutting board. Ps. Did we say that we love our Signature Set? 🙂
The properties of the knife are what make it so versatile and favourable. Forged with a thinner blade, the knife is lighter than its counterparts and allows for a faster overall chopping action to be performed. But, the blade thinness also has a downfall: it doesn’t allow for a clean cut through small bones.
A good veggie knife such as Japanese Nakiri provides effortless vegetable chopping that professional chefs and home cooks can admire. Repetitive tasks are eliminated with this blade. The natural curve and depth allow you to effortlessly rock the blade when needed to cut through every vegetable in your path. And, the hallow blade doesn’t hold onto sliced foods like other knives. Instead, the sliced foods easily slide off of the blade into your
dish. The comfortable handle should make it easy to chop no matter what food you’re cutting through.
A utility knife is another type of all-purpose knife. You can use it for numerous tasks in the kitchen, like chopping, peeling and slicing. Utility knives are slightly smaller than chef’s knives, so you can turn to this when a chef’s knife would be just slightly too large for the task at hand.
Extra: Serrated Knife
A serrated knife has a scalloped edge and gives you very smooth, clean slices. It’s perfect for slicing bread or soft, juicy fruits and vegetables. You only really want to use this knife for some sort of slicing duty – it’s not meant for chopping or peeling.
Next, think about how you’ll store your new wares. If you’re investing in your knives to last for years, go for a magnetic stand or a strip. A magnetic block is all time popular, but small kitchens might appreciate something wall mounted or that can be put away. Of course, there are unlimited styles, materials and finishes to consider, so whether a traditional crafted wood block or a high gloss, brass coated minimalist magnetic rack floats your boat, there is choice aplenty.
To Sum Up
This is all a lot to absorb, we know. But hopefully, you’ve got a little something to work with now. To boil it down:
- Quality over quantity. A handful of well made knives are worth more than a gaggle of cheap ones. If you’re after one knife only – make it a chef’s knife. If, however, you’re looking for something that will serve you a lifetime – consider a handcrafted knife set. Since we’ve started using Japanese knives, we can’t go back. That’s why a tip for you: Japan is known for its attention to detail and an honourable approach to creating only high quality things so Japanese knives are always a safe bet.
- Don’t be afraid to choose with your eyes. We know it’s hard to choose when there are so many different options. If you’re confused, remember that usually price is associated with a quality. The pricer the knife, the more durable it will be.
In that case, it’s perfectly OK to be picky-choosy based on how the knives look. You shouldn’t invest in knives that don’t speak to you.
- Don’t buy anything you don’t want! Just because your friend chef told you about that fussy high carbon steel blade, doesn’t mean that you should get one. High carbon knives may be preferred among professional chefs but they require more maintenance. Don’t talk yourself into buying one. Go for a kickass stainless steel beauties.
Good luck with knife hunting!