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How To Buy High-Quality Kitchen Knives

March 15th, 2012 Cooking

If you've been working in the kitchen for a while, you may have considered the prospect of buying a new set of kitchen knives at some point. You also might have noticed a surprising variation in price - some complete sets can be found for as little as $30, while single knives might go for hundreds of dollars. What's the difference? It's all the same material, right? Well, as it turns out, there's a lot that goes into the craft of cutlery. If you're in the market for new kitchen knives, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with how they work and what distinguishes the high-end from the low. Here's a quick guide on the basics, courtesy of the Reluctant Gourmet.

1. Knife parts. There are four main components to the majority of kitchen knives out there - the front, the tang, the bolster and the handle. The front of the knife is more or less the blade, which can be separated into the spine, tip and heel. The tip speaks for itself. The spine is the length of metal that runs opposite the blade. This tends to be somewhat heavier, adding weight to the knife. The heel is the corner where the sharp point of the blade terminates, joining with the bolster.

The little "collar" where your index finger rests while gripping the knife is known as the bolster. It separates the blade from the handle and acts as a counterweight so the knife isn't too top-heavy. More importantly, it prevents you from slicing your finger open when working with the knife! The presence (or lack thereof) of a bolster is a good preliminary way of judging the quality of a knife. Top-tier cutlery tends to have bolsters that extend the entire width of the blade, from spine to blade.

The tang is another reliable way of determining how good a knife is. It's that small strip of metal that extends beyond the knife and into the handle. Full tang is the ideal for a serious cutting knife - the piece of metal extends through the entire handle. However, some budget-priced knives have half-tang, which only extends partway down, while others have none at all.

Finally, there's the handle. There isn't too much to a knife handle, but it's important that it feels comfortable in your grip, so don't be afraid to try it out at the store.

2. Materials. According to Food Network, most kitchen knives are made from one of four different materials - stainless steel, carbon steel, high-carbon steel and ceramic. The metal you choose will affect how the knife performs in the long-term and can be a major influence on its price.

Stainless steel knives tend to be the cheapest of the bunch. If you're a casual cook, this may be what you're looking for. However, note that stainless steel cannot be sharpened, so once the knives lose their edge, that's it.

Carbon steel is capable of maintaining its sharpness for quite a long time, but they require disciplined cleaning and drying. Also note that carbon steel knives will eventually discolor, turning black. This doesn't affect the knife at all, but you may not prefer the coloring. High-carbon steel is similar, except it doesn't discolor, which is why professional chefs tend to use it.

Ceramic knives stay sharp the longest, but they tend to break easier than the others.