To most chefs, a good knife is the essential kitchen tool. Small wonder Top Chef's famous send off is "Chef, please pack your knives and leave." Those contestants may be willing to be parted from their friends, family, and restaurants for weeks, but no one comes between them and their knives.
Surprisingly, though, chefs don't get all sniffy when asked to recommend knives on the less pricey end of the scale. Just as bargain hunters can often discover a perfectly respectable bottle of wine in the $10-and-under bin, the chefs I spoke to agree: Home cooks have plenty of good choices if they want to spend less than $100 – or even a lot less. The trick is knowing what to look for.
Lucinda Scala Quinn, former executive food director for Martha Stewart and founder of the MadHungry website, knew precisely which features were most important to her when she designed her own four-piece knife set, which includes a three-inch bird's beak knife, three-and-a-half-inch paring knife, four-and-a-half-inch serrated utility knife, five-and-a-half-inch petty knife, and protective sheaths — and retails for a beyond-reasonable $49.99 on her site.
"It's all about the true balance," she says. "Whether it costs $2,000 or $20, balance is super important." (Even more so than the overall heft, or weight, of the knife.)
She also recommends choosing a blade of forged rather than stamped steel, observing that the metal in a well-made knife at any price point should extend all the way to the end of the handle with visible rivets holding the handle in place.
Less important, she maintains, is the material of the handle itself or the overall length of the knife. She notes that many women, including herself, actually prefer a smaller chef's knife to a standard eight- or even 10-inch blade — and less metal means a reduced manufacturing cost.
Get Lucinda Scala Quinn's Pick: Mad Hungry 4-Piece Forged Steel Knife Set, $49.99 at Mad Hungry
Other chefs are less concerned about construction and want a blade they can tune up easily. Tyler Florence says the most-used knife on his home rack is one from Wenger's SWIBO line that retails for about $50. The Swiss steel, he says, sharpens well, and he likes that its distinctive orange handle, which "looks and feels like a grip," is different from all his other knives in his batterie de cuisine. Apparently his wife, Tolan, likes it too; the chef claims it's the knife she's most likely to nab when they're cooking together.
Get Tyler Florence's Pick: SWIBO 7-Inch Cook's Knife, $52 at Various Outlets
A Swiss-made knife is also the budget-priced blade of choice for chef Marco Canora, of NYC's Hearth and Zadie's Oyster Room, who praises the chef's knife by Victorinox Forschners as a great first knife for a young cook. He says he uses them himself both at his restaurants and at home.
"They're affordable and easy to sharpen," he notes, and they come in a range of sizes and prices, from the plastic-handled entry-level model (good for those who insist on putting their knives in the dishwasher) to a still relatively affordable high-end line with fully forged blades and more elegant handles.
Get Marco Canora's Pick: Victorinox Forschners 8-Inch Chef's Knife, $44.95 at Cutlery and More
Chef Suvir Saran, whose new modern Indian restaurant, Tapestry, is winning praise from New York diners and critics, is a fan of Rosle's nine-inch, stainless steel-handled universal knife — a true steal at $26. He says it's perfect for most kitchen jobs and "excellent for those times when pomp and ceremony are just not possible." He also recommends Kyocera's Revolution five-and-a-half-inch ceramic santoku knife as especially kind on the hands for those like him who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.
Get Suvir Saran's Pick: Kyocera 5 1/2-Inch Santoku Knife, $49.95 at Kyocera
And if you've only got $10 to spend? No problem. Cookbook author and journalist Mark Bittman loves Kotobuki's wood-handled fruit knives made of Japanese stainless steel. He says the blades are razor-sharp and the included wooden sheath makes them perfect to pack along on a picnic. But at that price, you'll want to have several around for everyday peeling, paring, and other light prep work.
Get Mark Bittman's Pick: Kotobuki Fruit Knife, $10 at Amazon
Do you have a cheap knife you love?