How to choose kitchen knives
By Matt Stevens
Article 5 of 7
How to choose kitchen knives
Essential tips for knife-buyers, including knife block buying options and how to get the best deal when buying knives. Read on for our tips.
Uncertain which knife is for you? Check out our kitchen knife Best Buys to find out how much you can expect to pay for a quality knife.
Types of knife
Most knives sold in the UK are supplied as part of a knife block. Knives are often given different names and come in different sizes, but these are the types you'll find most often:
Chef’s or cook’s knife
This versatile wide knife can handle a variety of foods, from onions to chicken breasts, and is slightly curved for a rocking cutting motion.
The smallest knife in the block can be held sideways, with the handle against your palm, for peeling and trimming fruit and vegetables.
Utility or all-purpose knife
With a longer blade than a paring knife, this can handle most everyday cutting jobs, such as cutting peppers or courgettes.
Blades vary in length with this type of knife, but they’re not as deep as a chef’s knife. A longer blade is better for slicing wider joints, such as cooked ham.
A serrated blade of around 20cm should be long enough to cut through a fresh baked loaf.
Sizes vary with this less-common knife, but it usually has a plain-edge blade.
Less frequently seen, this is for cold cuts and cheese.
Rarely found in regular knife blocks, this can be used for de-boning meat as well as general cutting tasks.
Anatomy of a kitchen knife
Blades can be forged or stamped, and both types can be ground to produce the sharp edge. Forged blades are often heavier and more expensive. Forging can improve strength, but if it’s poorly done the benefit is negligible.
The area between the blade and the handle. It's often made of a thicker piece of steel. A large bolster will help prevent your fingers slipping forwards onto the blade but may make it difficult to sharpen the blade right up to the heel.
Heel or choil
The heel or choil is the bottom of the blade near the handle of the knife. Some knifes have a heel that is pointed or points backwards and may hurt your forefinger if you are applying pressure to the knife without the protection of a large bolster. If your knife does have one of these, keep in mind that a well-sharpened knife requires less pressure.
Serrated and plain-edge blades
The sharpness of a serrated blade is fairly consistent over its useful life, as it cannot be sharpened. Serrated blades are easier to use to slice smooth-skinned items such as tomatoes.
A plain-edge blade can be sharpened to slice more effortlessly than a serrated blade, but sharpness will deteriorate until you sharpen it again.
This is a continuation of the blade that runs inside the handle. A full tang, where the tang continues to the end of the handle, is said to offer better strength, but the performance of a knife is not dependent on this.
Rivets in the handle suggest a full tang, but some models without full tangs have rivets just for show.
Try before you buy
It can be hard to try a knife before you buy, because most knives are packaged to prevent them being damaged in transit or dangerous in a shop environment - but a good independent cookshop will let you try a knife before you buy.
Getting the best price
You can save a considerable amount of money on expensive kitchen knives by shopping online. For example, the high street price of one of our longstanding Best Buy kitchen knives is around £100, but the same knife is widely available online for between £50 and £80.
You may also find that chef’s knives are often included in a starter pack of three knives; if you like the style this can also be a more economical way of buying than getting them separately.
Websites such as Amazon list kitchen knives in their marketplace, but making price comparisons is not easy without searching a lot of independent cookware sites.
Choosing a chef’s knife
When deciding which knives you prefer, don’t get too bogged down with fancy descriptions, such as forged blade and full tangs; what’s important is to find a knife that feels comfortable.
The weight of a knife and design of its handle may have a lot to do with comfort, but for larger blades chefs talk about balance. This is fairly subjective but you can get a feel for balance by holding a knife lightly in your hand – but tightly enough to ensure you don’t drop it – with your forefinger positioned just behind the bolster. Hold it and ask yourself a series of questions:
Is the chef’s knife the right weight and length?
Many expensive knives are heavy, and it’s easy to equate weight with quality. However, when we gave a selection of chef’s knives to some keen cooks to try out, they found that heavy knives with thick blades are trickier to use for cutting hard foods than lighter ones. Most cook’s knives have either a 15cm or a 20 cm blade, so choose the length to suit you.
Is the chef’s knife well balanced, or does the blade or handle drag your hand down?
Fighting against gravity with a poorly balanced knife could be tiring. Ideally, the knife shouldn’t try to tip forwards or backwards too much, or roll to either side.
Is the handle comfortable?
Check that it’s the right length for your hand, and consider whether trendy styling details might make your hand sore. Wholly stainless steel knives can be attractive, but they tend to be harder to grip with wet hands than knives with plastic or wooden handles.
Textured handles are easier to grip than their smooth counterparts. If you wash your hands frequently when cooking, but don’t always take the time to dry them, a textured grip can reduce the risk of your hand slipping.
Finally, consider choosing a knife with a blade guard on the handle or a bolster on the blade. These help to stop your fingers slipping forward as you chop.
Choosing a knife block
A knife block provides a home for your knives and stops them damaging each other, so you’ll need to sharpen them less often.
What’s included in a knife block?
A basic set tends to include paring, utility, chef’s, carving and bread knives. These aren’t necessarily what the professionals use, but they will address most of your kitchen needs. Some blocks also incorporate a knife sharpener.
The average person probably won’t require a filleting or boning knife, but they can be used for general cutting tasks outside of filleting and boning if they are included.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about what foods you should and should not cut with each particular knife – what foods you use them on is entirely up to you.
Knife block considerations
A block can protect the knives from damage – simply storing knives in a drawer where the blades rub together can blunt them. Storing knives in a block also reduces the chance of cutting yourself when you’re rooting around in drawers.
If you have difficulties with dexterity, keeping knives in a block can make them easier to pick up, as long as they’re not too close together – it can be difficult to get hold of a particular knife if the handles of the others are in the way.
A heavy block is more stable, something to think about if you are going to place the block on a smooth kitchen work surface.
For safety, look for knives with prominent bolsters to prevent your fingers slipping towards the blade when you apply pressure.