Next to your hands, knives are the most important tools in the kitchen. I always encourage students to buy the best quality knives they can afford, because with proper care they will last a very long time. Also, the better and sharper the knife, the more efficient you will be in your food prep. Below is a diagram showing the anatomy of a knife, and then we go on to explain the three most important knives to own and what to look for when buying them.
In addition to reading this article, watch the Knife Basics and Slicing and Dicing videos. We go through some of the same information as below, but also demonstrate proper cutting techniques and safe handling skills.
The Three "Must-Have" Knives
Manufacturer's often sell knives in sets of 7 or more, complete with a wooden storage block. Like pots and pans, sets are typically a good value, but only if the majority of the knives in the set are useful to you. Additionally, for a quality knife set, it requires a large outlay of cash all at one time.
If you are getting started on your knife collection and don't want to go the 'set' route, I recommend starting with three knives, in the following order of priority:
Your chef's knife will be your workhorse. It is used for most slicing and dicing jobs.
The serrated knife does something that even your chef's knife can't do - slice through bread. It is also useful for cutting thin slices from soft fruits or vegetables (such as peaches and tomatoes) and for slicing cakes and other delicate confections.
The paring knife is useful for small jobs, such as coring tomatoes, or anything where the chef's knife feels unwieldy. In some circles this is also known as the gin and tonic knife, because it makes quick work of slicing lemons and limes.
When you start shopping for knives, you will notice big differences in price. Inexpensive knives are typically made with metal poured into a mold. The handle is likely plastic. While these are great for a week or so, they will rapidly become dull and will have to be replaced frequently. A dull knife is not only dangerous but also tedious to use. This is because you have to use a lot more pressure and effort to cut with a dull knife. When I have students that say they don't like to chop, they almost always are using inferior, dull knives. When they try out a high quality chef's knife with a sharp blade, it's as if a whole new world has opened up.
You will also see both Japanese style knives and European knives. Japanese knives typically have excellent balance and sharpness, but they require more care than European knives to keep them sharp. They should be sharpened by hand on a waterstone. This is the main reason I suggest buying European knives. The latter can be effectively sharpened on a wheel once a year or so, and kept sharp using a steel on a regular basis.
When you are ready to buy, I recommend going to a specialty kitchen store that has personnel who are knowledgeable about knives. You should be able to hold the knife, and perhaps even cut with it before buying. This is especially important for a chef's knife, not only because of its price, but also because it comes in three lengths - 6-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch. You should try each one to see which is most comfortable in your hand.
To summarize, here are 5 things to consider before buying a knife:
The blade should be made from good quality, stain-resistant, tempered high-carbon steel
The knife should be forged rather than poured into a mold
The handle should be wood or a high quality synthetic to minimize the risk of germs permeating the handle
The knife should have a full tang; one that extends to the end of the knife handle; this provides better stability and endurance
The knife should feel comfortable in your hand; when buying a chef's knife, try the 6-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch lengths to see which feels best; you don't want something that is too heavy or big
Be sure to read the article about how to keep your knife sharp once you bring it home. With proper care, your knives will last a very long time and will make cooking easier, faster and more enjoyable.