How (and Why) to Choose Good Kitchen Knives

My name is Derrick Bohn, and I'm a knife guy.

By now you've seen my videos. You've read my newsletters. You know that I'm a fan of edged tools -- I have been all my life. And if you spend any time on Internet forums or social media, you also know that I tend to hang out with other knife people.

That's my kind of fellowship. In a way, it's therapeutic.

If you're here on KnivesShipFree, you're probably as hopelessly afflicted as I am. People like us buy knives, swap knives, discuss knives and, of course, we use our knives. We've probably spent a lot of money on our passion for knives, too -- am I right?

Over the years, I've learned a lot about steels, grinds, history, you name it. I've even made a blade or two myself. And after all that, there's still one thing that bothers me, something I truly don't understand.

The problem: What's wrong with this picture?

Let's paint a portrait of the typical "knife knut." He goes to work at his office every day carrying a Northwoods Willamette Whittler -- scaled in Mammoth Ivory, of course -- and a matching Chris Reeve Sebenza. That's about $800 worth of knives, and yet the only use they get is opening mail and cleaning fingernails. Every now and then, maybe he peels an apple.

Once a year, on opening day of deer gun season, he goes hunting with his buds. Naturally, he brings along two or three custom fixed-blade knives. When he goes camping with his wife and kids, he has a custom bushcrafter, a premium folder and a high-end pocketknife -- and like his other blades, they open packages of hot dogs, sharpen sticks for roasting marshmallows, and that's about it.

As you might've guessed, he has lots more knives, quite a collection -- folders and fixed-blades, production knives and customs, plus an everyday "rotation" to add variety to his office-carry routine.

Sound like my kind of knife guy? You bet -- except for one thing.

If I were to walk into this fellow's kitchen, I wouldn't even see a hardwood block on the counter. He keeps all of his kitchen blades in a drawer -- a muddle of cheap, crappy knives.

And that's what I don't understand.

Yeah, I realize that many of us watched our elders use dime-store kitchen knives when we were kids. The family knife drawer probably was a clutter of worn, tired blades, especially if our parents passed through the trial of the Great Depression. And now, even if we're picky about our hunting knives and slipjoints, we're living the legacy of using cheap kitchen knives.

Did I just describe you? If so, don't be embarrassed -- there was a time when I was that way myself.

And then I got to thinking: The knives I use most are my kitchen knives. They get worked a whole lot more than my pocketknives -- why in the world am I going cheap in the kitchen?

High-quality kitchen knives: You can do this.

Owning professional-grade kitchen cutlery will change you -- and I'm straight-up serious about that. The right knife can make even the most mundane kitchen task a true pleasure. Even if you never graduated from mac-in-a-box, with great food-prep blades you'll become a person who enjoys preparing actual meals.

First, make the commitment -- there's no reason that the knives you use most shouldn't be the best they can be, the best you can afford.

Second, relax -- you're a knife person. You already know pretty much all you need to know to choose good kitchen cutlery.

Decision time: German or Japanese?

I want to take a moment here to divide the kitchen-knife world into two parts -- German (European) and Japanese -- and discuss the differences. The information will be useful as you choose your first fine kitchen cutlery.

German (European) blades are the tanks of the kitchen-knife world. The cutlery produced by companies like Wüsthof and Henckels is, in a word, overbuilt, designed to withstand hard use.

It's also made of relatively soft steel. A German knife's toughness means it's less likely to chip, the tradeoff being that you may use your sharpening steel a bit more often.

If German knives are armored artillery, Japanese kitchen knives are laser-guided scalpels -- more precise and, generally speaking, better at slicing. They tend to use ultra-hard "super steels," which increase edge-holding but (if they're abused) can make them susceptible to chipping.

So which would I recommend? That's easy.

If you appreciate fine knives in general, you'll love Japanese kitchen cutlery -- but you need at least one German chef’s knife to handle tough stuff and abuse.

What's that you say? You have teenagers in the house? Then just get all German kitchen knives and be done with it. (Don't ask me how I know.)

Taking the step: Choose your first (fine) kitchen knives.

According to most kitchen-cutlery aficionados -- and this agrees with my own experience, by the way -- everyone needs three basic kitchen knives.

Chef's knife: This will be the most important knife in your kitchen. Start with a European-style chef's knife (or, if you prefer Japanese patterns, a Santoku) of eight or ten inches, and it'll become your go-to blade for virtually all food-prep tasks -- slicing and dicing, including fruits and vegetables, meat and fish.

Paring knife: This will be the blade you'll reach for when you want to slice or mince berries, garlic cloves, or any food too small for your chef's knife. The typical paring knife will be between three and four inches. (As an alternative to a parer, you might consider a kitchen pattern called a "petty.")

Boning knife: More precise than a chef's knife but longer and sturdier than a parer, you'll use a boning knife for cutting and boning meat, fish and poultry. The blade will flex a bit, and you'll find that quality useful in a variety of tasks.

Now I'd like to add one more recommendation.

If you buy un-sliced bread (or even bagels) from your local bakery, you need a great bread knife. And the best bread knives I know of, by far, come from Shun. I find myself using mine on much more than bread -- flatiron steak, tomatoes, and other ingredients that yield more easily to a serrated edge.

Yes, you'll discover that real-deal kitchen steel costs more than the knives you used to buy at the mega-mart -- but remember, you're a knife lover, so you've solved that equation many times before.

If money is tight and you can't afford your ideal kitchen set right away, start with a small blade like a parer, a petty or a utility knife. Then move up to a boning knife, a carver, a chef's knife or a Santoku.

We have to say it: Take care of your own kitchen knives.

The first rule of caring for kitchen cutlery is pretty straightforward: Never clean your fine kitchen knives in a dishwasher.

I mean it -- don't ever do that with your fine cutlery.

You'll want to keep your kitchen cutlery sharp, of course. And although a honing steel isn't a sharpening tool, really, park one in your knife block and use it to dress (or align) the edge as you work.

When sharpening your kitchen knives, theoretically you're aiming for the lowest possible angle that the steel can support while still being able to perform the task at hand. By changing the angle, you can balance the precision of your cuts with the durability of the edge.

That said, German (European) kitchen knives tend to perform best at 30° inclusive (15° on each side, that is), while Japanese knives generally prefer 20° inclusive or less.

A final word: The payoff.

I'll close with a promise: When you expand your love of edged tools to include kitchen cutlery, the blades you use most, it'll take your appreciation of fine knives to a whole new level.

You'll develop a better understanding of things like edge geometry, the properties of different steels, and the importance of balance and ergonomics. Your ability to sharpen your own knives will improve, because you'll have a better sense of what it takes to make an edge perform.

And if you're anything like me, your bladesmanship skills outside the kitchen will benefit, too.

I learned all these lessons (and more) many years ago. It's my privilege to pass them along to you, my fellow knife knuts -- now get to the kitchen and play with knives!


Kitchen Knives: Helpful Links

German Kitchen Knives

Japanese Kitchen Knives

Bark River Kitchen Knives

Sharpening Supplies

Knife Sharpening: A KnivesShipFree Guide