How to choose a knife: A guide for kitchen novices everywhere

I don’t cook. I know a lot of people say that they don’t cook when what they really mean is that they don’t cook often or don’t cook well but I, very literally, do not cook. My family and I either eat out every meal or we throw something pre-prepared on the barbecue or in the microwave. I confessed to this terrible secret on my blog not too long ago and then resolved to make changes, so I signed up for a 5-week Basic Cooking from Scratch class which started last Wednesday.

muppet-chef from FilePlanet

As I was chopping a carrot for my first assignment, my teacher came by and stopped to give me a correction in how I was doing it. When she picked up my knife to demonstrate proper technique, she quickly wrinkled her nose and pronounced, “This is a bad knife.”

Great, so not only am I a complete failure as a mother, wife, and woman because I can’t/don’t cook, but now my knife is sub-par, too.

Over the weekend, after discussing my in-class experience with my husband, we tootled off to a local cooking store – where I also registered for an upcoming hands-on cooking class – to choose a new chef’s knife. I thought this would be a simple and straightforward task but I learned there are several things to consider before making a purchase.

  1. Do you want a ceramic knife or a steel one? Ceramic knives are much lighter and almost never need to be sharpened because they are made from the second hardest substance on Earth so they hold their edge exceptionally well. They will also cut as well if not better than a steel knife. On the other hand, they are not as tough and hardy as a steel knife – if you drop it, especially tip down, it can chip, and they are not intended for cutting through tough substances like frozen foods or anything with bones. I decided on a stainless steel blade because I tend to be a bit of a klutz and I didn’t want to be in a constant state of anxiety over breaking the tip off of my knife but the ceramic knives might be a really appealing option for more experienced and confident kitchen ninjas.
  2. How long do you want your knife to be? The two most common sizes are six and eight inches. The gentleman who helped me at the store reminded me that the knife is supposed to be an extension of your arm so that your cutting motion flows smoothly through your whole arm. Given that I have relatively short arms – I’m a short person! – I was leaning toward the six inch, and that instinct was proven right when I tried both lengths out.
  3. How much do you want to spend? This is a sensitive subject, I know, but there is definitely a wide array of pricing options in the knife world and I’m not even taking into consideration the ultra-cheap knives you might be able to pick up at your local discount department store. If you choose well, you’ll have this knife for the rest of your life, so don’t skimp. On the other hand, you don’t have to spend a fortune or buy a big name to get good quality. Make sure that the grip feels good in your hands, that the same metal that forms the blade also extends all the way to the end of the blade (under the handle), and that the handle is riveted to the blade, and the rest is just personal preference. You should also shop around to see if there are any good sales going on in your city or town – my knife was less than 50% of its normal price and they threw in a blade guard at no extra cost when I mentioned that I would be toting it back and forth to class each week. (I think they might have felt sorry for me with my woefully bad knife skills!)

Probably the most important thing I learned in this process is that a real test drive is absolutely essential because the best, most expensive knife in the world is not going to be up to the job if it doesn’t work for you. Ask for a cutting board and a vegetable to be cut, and go to town. Was it embarrassing for me to put my fledgling knife skills on display in front of the sales man and my husband? Oh yes it was, but I’m so glad I did.

Armed with what I’m certain is an acceptable chef’s knife, I’m ready to go back to class next week to open myself for more learning. At least I know I’ll be properly equipped this time!

Addendum: Classes were much easier after I started bringing my new knife – my teacher was SO right! If you didn’t spend more than $20 on your primary kitchen knife then chances are good your knife doesn’t hold a sharp edge well and is actually making your cooking tasks tougher. You don’t have to spend a fortune if you do some comparison shopping and check for pop-up sales online.

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