You can be a whiz at sautéing or a master on the grill, but when it comes down to the aesthetics of your cooking — and, let's face it, we usually judge the book by its cover when it comes to our food — your skills will only be as good as your chef's knife. The chef's knife is used about 70 percent of the time, above all of other knives, according to chef Philip Burgess, lead culinary instructor at The International Culinary Center, and it is used to prep your ingredients in the chicest way possible. Quality, brand, and cost all factor into deciding which is the best chef's knife to buy, so it can get to be a pretty confusing process. With the help of chef Burgess and other culinary experts, we've outlined some guidelines that will help you become a pro with your chef's knife.
Know Your Knife
The chemistry or build of chef's knives usually fall under two different categories of blades, stamped and forged. The process of manufacturing stamped blades is somewhat "New World," where most of the work is done by machines and there is little effort devoted to the process. Also referred to as the "cookie cutter" process, a stamped blade is cut from a sheet of cold-rolled steel, heated for strength, and then ground and polished. Stamped blades tend to be thinner and lighter in weight, and they often don't run the entire length of the knife but are fitted into a knife's handle.
Forged blades are created using one of the oldest methods known to the history of knife-making, where they're made from heating steel to a high temperature and then pounded while hot to get the shape of the blade. Once the blade has been formed, it is sharpened and polished in an attentive multistep process that is mostly done by hand. Forged blades are heavier in weight and thicker in width, and the blades run the length of the entire knife.
If it's not obvious already, forged blades are the better-quality blades but tend to be higher in cost. They last longer and they're easier to use because the weight of the blade provides little need for straining your arm. While stamped blades tend to be viewed as the lower end of things, they're often a better choice when you're looking for something that will not be used often.
Who to Know
There are two main competitors out there in the knife world: the Germans and the Japanese. Chef Burgess has been known to dabble with German lines such as Trident and Wusthof, especially with butchering and meat cutting, he also enjoys using Japanese brands as well. Some of his favorite lines include Nenox, Glestain, Masamoto, and what he's currently using: Togiharu.
Stainless Above All Else
Half the time, when people buy knives, they are often unaware that different types of blades are made from different materials and thus require different care. For the easiest and most convenient knives, chef Burgess suggests stainless steel. Unlike carbon steel, which you have to wash, dry, and oil constantly, and ceramic, which has to be returned to the manufacturer for sharpening, stainless steel requires a simple wash and dry after use. Beware of the dishwasher, though, Burgess warns, for the high heat of the machine can cause damage to any type of steel, so hand-washing and drying is best.
Consider Before You Buy
While you may know what nationality and brand you want to go with, there are a few things to consider when buying your knife. For Burgess, he recommends starting at the price point and working from there. If you're planning on spending a lot of time with your chef's knife, it's worth investing a little bit more money, but if you don't consider yourself an avid cook and will only be using it from time to time, it's OK to go with something cheaper.
Once you've reasoned with your price point, you'll want to decide on the quality of blade, which is basically deciding between forged and stamped. An important part of this process is "weighing your knife," where you test to see whether the knife is balanced in your hand. While it may seem like a silly thing, the weight is important when considering the ease of use. You want to avoid front-heavy blades because they will strain your wrists and arms. For someone planning to spend a lot of time with their knife, the weight is ideal, and is usually the determining factor between forged and stamped.
Caring for Your Knife
Once you have your knife in your hands, you want to make sure you're caring for it properly. Nothing is more disappointing than wasting money on a knife because of damages you could have prevented yourself. Burgess says that most knives are damaged by dropping them on the floor or by not properly storing them. Always have a steady grip on your knife when working in the kitchen to avoid blunt force trauma to the blade (never mind a cut to your foot!), and store your knife in a magnetic strip or plastic sheath so it does not hit against other equipment in your kitchen drawer.
Beyond storage, the most important thing to remember is keeping your knife sharp. There are many misconceptions that a steel — the long, blunt-looking sword that usually comes with your knife — is an easy way to keep it sharp, but Burgess insists that it only corrects the angle of a knife, and is not needed if you keep your blades sharpened correctly. He recommends the investment of buying a sharpening stone and learning how to use it, because it's a lot of work to get a blade sharpened once it gets too dull, and a dull knife is no use to anyone in the kitchen — not to mention dangerous.
Now that you have the facts, you're ready to become a pro with your chef knife. While it's the most commonly used knife in your kitchen, Burgess recommends have a good paring knife, a serrated bread knife, and a long slicing knife for meats on hand as well. We'll get to those later, though...