Equipping your home kitchen for the first time can be a daunting experience. Walk into most stores that specialize in culinary tools and you’re faced with dizzying arrays of implements. In the knife section, rows and rows of blades of all sizes and shapes are displayed under glass, with mind-boggling price tags. It’s tempting to walk out the door. But you need knives, so let’s cut to the chase so you can get the best blades without blowing your budget.
We sourced our advice from a range of expert chefs, from local to global. Tim Ripa, Executive Chef at the Dry Creek Mercantile in Hidden Springs Idaho showed us his favorite knives. Chef Christian Feher of Food Chain TV gave a detailed explanation of how to choose a chef’s knife. Finally, we gleaned more advice plus brand recommendations from the late, great international superstar chef and television host Anthony Bourdain, from the updated edition of his New York Times bestseller “Kitchen Confidential.”
The Indispensable Blade
Chef Ripa advises, “If you buy only one, get a chef’s knife.” Chef Feher explains that when choosing a chef’s knife, be sure the bolster (the vertical back portion of the blade, near the handle) is long enough so that when you chop with the knife, your knuckles don’t hit the cutting board.
A taller person with longer arms needs a longer blade, and a shorter person will be more comfortable with a shorter blade. “When I choose a chef’s knife, I put the blade up to my forearm to measure. The heel should be at my wrist and the tip should just reach to my elbow joint,” Feher says. Chef Ripa finds an 8-inch blade to be the most useful size for the widest variety of people.
The Investment Knife
If you can afford it, invest in a good knife, Chef Ripa suggests. He also advises buying a high-carbon steel-knife rather than stainless steel. The high-carbon steel blade is harder, lasts longer, and doesn’t need to be sharpened as often. You can also sharpen it more to cut with increased precision. Because high-carbon steel blades lack the chromium you find in stainless steel, they can rust, so you need to clean and dry them after each use. Chef Ripa adds, “I leave my best knives at home, because they’d get beaten up by the kids in the kitchen here. At home, I only need to sharpen my good knives once a year. Never put your knife in the dishwasher, and never leave it in the sink. I don’t clean my good knives with soap either, just a soft cloth.”
But a lifetime knife doesn’t mean you have to break the bank by buying a top German brand. Bourdain favored “the lightweight, easy-to-sharpen, and relatively inexpensive vanadium steel Global knives, very good Japanese products that have—in addition to their many other fine qualities—the added attraction of looking really cool.” An 8-inch Global chef’s knife runs just under $100 on sale, while a starter set of Global knives can be had for about $179.
Three Other Useful Knives
If you want and can afford additional knives, both Ripa and Bourdain recommend a flexible boning knife for filleting fish, butchering, and trimming meat; a paring knife for fine/decorative work on vegetables and fruits; and an offset serrated knife. Bourdain called this last one a “genuinely useful blade” and “a truly cool item that, once used, becomes indispensable.” He recommended the one made by F. Dick, which sells for about $33.
The Starter Knife
But what if you’re on a super-tight budget? Maybe you’re living with several roommates. People come in and out, knives get left in sinks. Maybe they fall into the garbage disposal or just get lost. This might not be the time for a “lifetime knife.” I asked Chef Ripa what he thought; is this perhaps the time to just get some of those ultra-cheap Diamond Cut no-sharpen knives? “Absolutely, you can always invest in a good knife later,” he said. “But look at this,” he said, while bringing over a 7-inch Santoku knife to show me. “I paid $8 for this knife; it’s a commercial-rated Chicago Cutlery knife, and we use it here all the time.” Santoku knives are another great, all-around kitchen knife; we found them online for about $13. Ripa added that ceramic knives are also inexpensive, although they can chip.
Chef Ripa’s last bit of advice is to look for a knife with a one-piece handle, preferably made of composite, as opposed to a wood handle with screws. A one-piece composite or metal handle is easier to keep clean. So, get shopping, and start cooking with your new knife—culinary delights await!
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Crista Worthy writes about aviation, travel, wildlife, and more from her home in Idaho.