What Defines the Right Knife for You? 6 Questions to Ask Before Investing

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

So you’re in the market for a new knife. Or maybe you’re thinking ahead to the holidays when something shiny and sharp will be at the top of your wish list. Whatever the case, whether you’re buying a blade for yourself or hoping someone will gift you one, research is key. Knives don’t come cheap and you want to make your dollars work for you. It’s also true that a good knife should last you a lifetime (and then some), so this is a decision that may well be with you forever. Isn’t it worth making sure you pick the right one?

But what defines a great knife for you? The answer, as with so many things, is it depends. You might say it’s not cut and dried. “There’s no one right knife,” explains Taylor Erkinnen, founder and chief creative officer of Brooklyn Kitchen. “I have far too many knives that don’t all fit on the knife bar.”

Still, that doesn’t mean you should just pick any old knife. Here are six questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge.

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)

1. What’s your current knife status?

Are you looking to buy your very first knife? If yes, you’ll probably want to start with an all-purpose knife that doesn’t take a ton of maintenance and doesn’t break the bank. Your first car probably wasn’t a Ferrari; your first knife probably shouldn’t be a custom-made Damascus steel blade with a hefty price tag.

If you already own a knife, are you upgrading your existing knife or adding a second or third knife to your collection? If you’re upgrading, think about what you like and what you don’t like about your current knife. That will help inform you in your decision.

If you’re expanding your tool kit, you should also consider your current knife (or knives) and what you use them for. It makes sense to look for a knife that offers additional functionality rather than buying a knife that performs the task that your current knife is already able to get done.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

2. What will you use it for?

For most people, the answer to this question is probably everything from prepping vegetables to trimming meat. Some, however, will be looking for something a bit more specialized. Either way, you want the right tool for the right job.

Bryan Mayer, director of butchery education for Fleishers Craft Butchery explains that you want a different blade for boning a lamb leg or chicken thigh than you do for cutting a large steak. For the former, “you want a smaller knife, something around five to six inches, and with a little bit of flex in it.” For the latter, “you want nice and straight, a more rigid knife, and a longer knife — something more like a chef’s knife.”

If your focus is vegetables, Cara Mangini, author of the new cookbook The Vegetable Butcher, suggests an eight- or 10-inch chef’s knife.

The essential knife for vegetable prep is an eight-inch chef’s knife. It is an all-purpose utility knife that can take on most jobs. The size of this blade will give you the leverage you need to cut vegetables of all shapes and sizes.

A 10-inch knife is also especially great for winter squashes and large, sometimes stubborn roots like celery root and rutabaga, but it tends to be too big for most people and is more knife than you need for everyday jobs.

And if you’re a pastry chef looking a blade that will cut through cold butter like it’s hot butter, a ceramic knife may be the way to go.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

3. What’s your cutting style?

It’s also a good idea to consider how you will use it. In other words, what’s your cutting style? Because of the shape of the blades, different knives hit the board differently, notes Erkkinen. “With a Western-style chef’s knife, you get the back-and-forth rocking motion; the santoku is a more abrupt chop-chop-chop.”

(Image credit: Brian C. Grobleski)

4. How high (or low) maintenance are you?

Fact: Some knives need more regular maintenance than others. And while many of our experts emphasize the importance of sharpening your own knives, not all of us are comfortable doing so (and there’s also an argument to be made for taking your knives to a pro).

So, ask yourself, suggests Erkkinen: What kind of person are you? And how much time are you willing to spend maintaining your knife? If you’re looking for a blade you don’t have to think about too often, a harder steel is probably the way to go. If you’re a seasoned pro at home sharpening — or looking to become one — a softer stainless steel or even carbon steel may be the right option.

(Image credit: Bridget Pizzo)

5. How important are looks?

Let’s be honest — looks matter (at least to some of us), and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you love the way your knife looks and that gets you into the kitchen, it’s totally worth it to find (and probably pay a little extra for) a knife that makes your heart skip a beat when you see it on your magnetic strip.

“If I’m going to get a new knife, I want it to be unlike any other knife in the world,” says Eivin Kilcher, Alaskan homesteader, knife-maker, and co-star of Discovery’s Alaska: The Last Frontier. “For me, all the knives in my kitchen or most of them are handmade. They’re works of art. I love practical art and I’m a craftsman, so I appreciate the time. If a knife really speaks to you, then it’s worth paying for.”

(Image credit: Samara Vise)

6. What’s your budget?

You can pay basically whatever you’re comfortable paying for a knife. From $10 to over $300, there are knives for every budget. “The knives I use in the restaurant cost around $2,000 to 3,000 each,” notes chef Hiroshi Shima of LA’s Sushi Roku. That said, there is definitely a sweet spot. “A good stainless steel knife costs about $50 to $100,” he adds.

A Great Knife — for You

The answers to these questions will help lead you to a great knife that also happens to be right for you. There is no one good knife for every cook; what really matters is that it works for you. Look for more advice on the answers to these questions in our Sharpen Up series this month.

And, in the meantime, try to get your hands on as many knives as possible. Try your friends’ knives, or go to a kitchen store and get the feel of a few different blades.

Do you have a favorite knife? What makes it great? Share with us in the comments.