I recently bought a new chef's knife and a few people were asking me about how to purchase their own knives. I often get asked questions about knives and I thought it might be helpful to write a basic primer on how to choose a knife and what options are available to you.
Carbon Steel vs Stainless
This is a good place to start. The knives you will choose from will be made of either carbon steel, stainless steel, or a combination of both. This will be maybe the most important choice you make and for me it's the first. People are divided on this issue with chef's falling strongly into one camp or the other. I will try very hard to hide my carbon steel bias here.
Pros: Carbon steel tends to be cheaper. It it very strong and holds an edge like crazy. You will not need to sharpen a carbon steel knife very often and it takes an edge easily when you sharpen it. It's harder than stainless which accounts for the great edge.
Cons: Carbon steel is very reactive. This means it will rust. These knifes need maintenance. They must be dried thoroughly after each use. If a tiny bit of rust begins to show, it must be immediately scrubbed off with some steel wool. If you are going to store carbon steel, the blade must be oiled with mineral oil to avoid rusting in storage. Being harder than stainless steel, thees knives are more delicate and brittle too. Dropping on the ground, depending on how it falls, may result in a broken or chipped knife rather than bent.
Personal Preference: Carbon steel will develop a patina over time (see photo) regardless of how it is treated. The blade will discolor from the acids in foods no matter how well you take care of it. Some hate this look as it makes a very clean knife look 'dirty', but others feel the patina is beautiful and gives the look of a well used tool. It's personal preference but has no bearing on the actual usefulness of the knife.
This is a great carbon steel knife and one that I keep meaning to buy. As you can see, it's very cheap. I've used this knife several times and wow is it ever nice! It only comes in one shape though and it isn't my favorite shape. The blade style takes some getting used to and the bolster is too low for my hands and so it won't be my main blade. I want it in my kit though as a boning/meat knife. I'll talk a bit more about blade styles later on.
Pros: Stainless steel is softer and won't be damaged as easily. It is also called stainless for a reason. It will not rust. The knives you currently own are probably stainless steel. Stainless is more forgiving about drops and damage since it is generally softer than carbon.
Cons: Stainless barely holds an edge compared to carbon. I find my stainless knives dull up all the time and I am constantly truing them and sharpening them (bear in mind that I am constantly using them too, at home use will be a lot less frequent). Stainless is generally more expensive than carbon as well.
Comination Blades/Cladded Blades
You can also get knifes which try to give you the best of both worlds. My knife is a #2 White Carbon Steel blade clad in stainless. This means a carbon steel core is wrapped in stainless steel so when the knife is finished, the blade area is carbon steel, whereas the rest of the knife is stainless. This results in a knife that hopefully gives you a more flexible knife which doesn't require as much maintenance, but has a blade edge with all the properties of carbon steel. Here is a photo of my main knife. You can see how the blade was exposed through grinding. It leaves a really pretty wavy line along the blade road (the blade road is the term for the area of the knife where the grinding is).
While carbon is generally harder and more brittle than stainless, all steel can be made harder or softer in the hands of a skilled blacksmith. My knife contains #2 White Carbon Steel which is a bit softer than its friend Blue Carbon Steel, for example. A friend at work has a knife which is almost exactly like mine, but has a Blue Carbon core and his has chipped whereas (you can see faintly in the picture right in the center of the blade edge) mine has bent a tiny spot when I dropped it. My bend with come right out on sharpening though, whereas his chips will take a bit more work to remove. His though, will hold an edge much better than mine. Both are much harder than stainless, however.
Blade Styles And Characteristics
How do you cut?
To start deciding what kind of blade profile (shape) you want, it's important to notice the style you cut with. Do you use a rocking cut more often or a push/pull?
A rocking style:
A push/pull style:
I tend to use a rocking motion more often, but the push pull is really useful for some things. If you use a push pull style most often, look for a blade with a nice long flat section towards the heel. You are looking for a knife that gives maximum amount of blade hitting the cutting board, otherwise you are only using a tiny part of your blade to cut with.
If you use a rocking motion most often, more curve in the blade is fine. You can see my knife above has a minimal flat area and curves nicely towards the tip for most of the length of the knife. Here is an example of a good flat chefs knife:
How big are your hands?
When you learn a proper chefs pinch grip, the height of the blade and the clearance it has at the heel for your fingertips becomes very important. First lets look at a proper pinch grip to make sure you are holding your knife correctly. This grip will give you an amazing amount of control over your blade. It makes the blade almost feel like an extension of your hand and makes cutting so much easier once you get used to it. Here's a video (pay no attention to the first 50% of this video, which is just the chef showing off to be pretentious. No one needs to flambe raw veg like that. I have no idea what he's doing besides showing off.):
So you can see how the clearance is important. How much clearance you want at the bolster depends entirely on your own hands. This is where you should try holding a few to see how they feel. You don't want your knuckles hitting the board, but a knife that sits too high for you will feel awkward to handle for most applications. Look up at my knife again, you can see the blade has a cutout before the bolster begins. This is common to Masakage knives (a popular handmade Japanese brand of knife) and also to many other Asian(the continent) blades. I like this very much as it gives me a nice area to sit my first fingers in a pinch grip. I prefer this Asian style of handle and bolster for this reason. It just feels nicer to me personally. Handles and bolsters like the one in the video above are referred to as 'western style'. I prefer Japanese style, personally after having used many, but others disagree. This is strictly personal preference.
Weight, Thickness and Balance
Weight and thickness will depend on your personal preference. I prefer something on the thinner and lighter side, mostly due to years of working in kitchens that have ruined my arms and wrists and given me carpal tunnel issues. Although, I do like my knife to have some heft and thickness along the spine for those times when you really need to hack something tough and you don't have a cleaver. A good chef's knife will be able to handle multiple tasks. In fact, that's it's job: to be a go to blade for most tasks. I use my knife like a cleaver, I use the tip like a paring knife at times. I prefer my knife to be in the mid-range of thick/thin, heavy/light. While some people have many knives and swap them out for all tasks, most people have one good chefs knife that is the workhorse of their kitchen. Even chefs with huge kits often don't bother going through it to get out 100 different knives in a shift.
Balance is personal as well. A perfect balanced blade will balance nicely on your pinch grip. In this way, balance is personal since your grip will be different depending on your hands. To test balance, hold the knife in your proper grip and let go off all fingers to balance the knife on your forefinger where your grip naturally sits. Does the knife immediately fall over? It's either blade heavy or handle heavy. Neither is what you want. If the blade seems like it's balance point is right where your finger sits naturally, that's what you are looking for. Some chefs prefer a bit of over or under balance, but you will get to know what you like over time. I recommend starting with a grip balance.
Oh This All Sounds Expensive!
It can be, but it doesn't have to be. If you have a good knife store in your city, definitely go in there and check out the blades. The best way to figure out what you like is to hold a bunch of knives in your hand to see how they feel. Here are a few examples from amazon of some great knives.
$43.97 - This is a great starter blade. A lot of chefs start their careers using a knife exactly like this and since it isn't very expensive, it's good to practice sharpening with and if you break it, it's easy to replace.
$99.99 - This is a high carbon version of a stainless knife. It is stainless throughout, but has a high carbon content to strengthen it. I'm not sold on this particular knives handle shape, but I haven't held it, so I can't comment too much about it.
$98.58 - Here is an entry level Global knife. Many chefs I know swear by these. I am not, personally, a fan of the handle style and find these knifes weighted strangely. You might love them though! They have a huge following.
Of course, there is that great peasants knife I listed above as well for about $40, but it isn't available on Amazon.
$100 - $200
$129.99 - The 16 layer version of the same knife as the $164 one below. As you can see, this knife has a very different profile from that knife.
$127.90 - A classic knife from a classic maker. this company is quite popular among chefs. VG-10 steel.
$164.99 - A VG-10 stainless damascus blade. Damascus is a style of steel which results in the beautiful designs you see there. VG-10 is a popular high carbon steel used in many Asian blades. This knife is rather soft though at Rockwell 60.
$169.99 - High carbon blue steel. This is a beautiful knife! Grrrr.
$200 and up
$251.99 - Lets start here. this knife made me lose myself for a few minutes. Blue carbon steel with a great profile and it's soooo pretty! I want it very badly. I want a lot of things though, so there's that.
$276.34 - This is a great western style knife. I've used a few knives from this company and they have all been very good. I'm not usually a big fan of very polished flat blades though, they can stick to food. The roughness and dimples and things that some knives have are very useful.
$329.99 - This is another great knife. I have used knives by this company too and they tend to be very light and agile. This one is also quite beautiful but most knifes will be beautiful in this price range.
The <3 Factor
Lets be real though, at the end of the day, you might find a knife that just kills you. You fall in love and little things like a slightly too hard steel or a little too much thickness won't matter to you. In that case, buy for love. Really, do!
Knives are meant to be used to cook and when you have a great knife that you are in love with, you are bound to be more inspired to cook with it. I hope this primer has helped you understand a little bit more about your knives, but remember that the very best knife in the world is the one that inspires you to cook more. So buy that one!