I’ve interviewed dozens of home cooks and hands down (pun intended), and knife skills are the most valuable thing to learn. If you’re new to cooking or looking to up your game, get yourself a decent chef’s knife and develop your knife skills. Below, you’ll find a quick knife skills video lesson. After that, you’ll find basics on buying and caring for a chef’s knife.
Developing good knife skills is a worthwhile investment. If you buy a quality knife and take care of it, you will have it for a lifetime and it will easily pay for itself over time. Cooking will be much more enjoyable, so you’ll spend less money on restaurants and takeouts. A good knife is also safer, so you’ll spend less on bandages.
What Kind of Knives Do You Need?
I personally believe that most home cooks need only a few knives. A chef’s knife would be the first one I’d suggest purchasing, followed by a serrated bread knife and then a paring knife. After that, it depends on what your life is like. Plan on filleting a lot of fish? Get a filet knife. Eat a lot of red meat? Get a set of steak knives. Most people never use the bulk of the knives in a knife block if they’ve got one. I personally think they’re a waste of money.
How to Care for a Knife
Next, never put a sharp knife in the dishwasher. Repeat that out loud. Dishwashers clean by essentially sand blasting an abrasive detergent. This will dull the edges of your knives and potentially damage it to the point it can no longer be sharpened.
The steam setting that dries your dishes isn’t going to do the metal any favors. Neither aspect will do much for the handle, especially if it’s made of wood or involves glue to keep it together. No matter how proficient your knife skills, a dull knife will make work harder.
I keep my knives on the wall with a magnetic holder. If you have only a few knives, a small drawer knife organizer will work just fine.
Keep Your Knives Sharp
If you already own a good chef’s knife, get it sharpened. Kitchenware, restaurant supply and hunting supply stores should be able to recommend a professional sharpener. Some supermarkets and hardware stores also do professional knife sharpening. It will cost about $5 to $7. Depending on how much you cook, you’ll need to get it sharpened once or twice a year.
You can also invest in an inexpensive at-home sharpener but it won’t get your blade as sharp as a pro.
Buying a Knife
Before you buy knives, learn their anatomy. Knives are made up of four parts: the blade, the handle, the bolster, and the tang.
The blade can be made of stainless steel, carbon steel, high-carbon steel or ceramic. Metal blades can either be stamped (pressed out of metal) or forged (molded under high heat). Forged knives are heftier and tend to last longer, though stamped blades are useful for lighter work like filleting.
- Stainless steel knives are inexpensive, but cannot be sharpened once they lose their edge.
- Carbon steel knives hold their edges remarkably well, require careful cleaning and drying, and will eventually discolor, turning black over time. There’s nothing bad about the discoloration; it’s a matter of preference.
- High-carbon steel gives you the sharpen-ability of carbon steel without the discoloration. Most professional knives are made of this material.
- Ceramic knives stay sharp the longest but can break easily.
The handle can be made of wood, plastic, rubber or metal. Though wood can be beautiful, the other materials are more durable. The handle can either be riveted to the blade or molded around it. Riveted ones are believed to be the strongest, but the most important thing about a handle is that it feels good in your hand and you feel comfortable holding it.
The bolster is the thick ridge between the blade and the handle. It’s standard on forged knives and rare on stamped knives. It’s usually ground down towards the bottom to make sharpening easier.
The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. “Full-tang” knives are made out of one piece of metal that extends all the way back to the handle. This is the heftiest and priciest option, but the tang shouldn’t be a deciding factor unless you plan on regularly using the knife for heavy-duty chopping (say, bones).
You can spend a lot of money on a knife, but you don’t have to. Right now, my go-to knife suggestion are Misen brand knives – they’ve got twice the carbon of other knives in the under $90 price range so they will keep an edge longer. I prefer the Misen to the entry-level German knife brands; I feel you getter a better blad for your money.
On a tight budget? The IKEA 365 8-inch knife will get the job done for around $25; check out this review.
I’m fairly agnostic on paring knives. I have some that cost $80 and frankly, they work only marginally better than my four-inch $15 Victorinox or their smaller 3.25 inch ones which cost $12 for a pack of four.
Whatever you buy, just keep practicing your knife skills.
This post contains affiliate links; I may earn a small commission on anything purchased via the link. Originally published in 2014, this page has been updated.
Love that your video doesn’t sound as if you’re in a giant tin can!
Good basic knife skills are something so many people need refreshers on. (Is there a Share button for this post? )
Thanks! I find that when I visit home cooks in their kitchens (something I’ve done a lot of in the past few years), the first thing I notice and we talk about comes down to knives. They don’t feel confident, they never learned, they apologize for not having fancier knives. But it’s so essential. After all, you can eat “whole foods” until you cut them up first! 🙂
I took a knife skills class a few years ago and it truly was the BEST thing I could have done for motivating me to cook. I also only own three knifes (chefs, serrated, and paring) – it feels good to have affirmation that that is all I need!
It’s amazing what knife skills can do. Although I cooked a lot, until I went to Le Cordon Bleu, I didn’t know how to hold a knife correctly. It was literally life changing.
Karen Shannon-Wilson says
I have read both of your books but still couldn’t “see” how to hold the knife and cut the onion properly. I guess I am a visual learner so the video is great for me. I’ll have to watch it again when I am in the kitchen so I cab practice right along with you! Thank you!
I agree, sometimes you have to “see” it. I’m so glad this was helpful!
Do you have a shopping list of what the essentials are when stocking a pantry? I’m exactly the kind of person you wrote for: not a terribly bad cook, but unsure and insecure in the kitchen. I loved Kitchen Counter, and am inspired to try on my own, but I’m not sure what staples I should have on hand. Please help!
That’s a great question! I have posed it to some of my fearless friends and I’ll be posting it as a blog post, probably next week. Thanks for the kind words on Kitchen Counter!