Galvanized by boredom or out of necessity, everyone — even the most catastrophic home cooks — have been doing a lot more cooking since quarantine started. And that means our kitchen knives are seeing a lot more action than usual. As such, many of us are unfortunately realizing that our knives are complete garbage, barely capable of slicing a grape, let alone a stalwart hunk of meat.
While certain knives, like serrated knives and paring knives, have specialized uses, a good chef’s knife is unparalleled; the ultimate kitchen tool, adept at slicing, dicing, carving, chopping and just about anything else that involves transforming a bigger thing into a smaller thing. If you have a decent one of those — as opposed to the one that you got in a $15 set from Target seven years ago and have never sharpened — you should be able to make your way around the cutting board quickly, easily and safely. (Seriously, the difference between a nice, sharp chef’s knife and a crap, dull one is massive, and will quickly make you realize how chefs slice tomatoes without mashing them into mush.)
But knowing what actually qualifies as a good chef’s knife — and how to take care of your knife — can be daunting, hence the reason why so many of us are meandering around our kitchens with an edgeless piece of metal. So, to help us all enjoy our quarantine cooking a little bit more, I asked a couple knife experts for advice on shopping and caring for chef’s knives.
Consider the Steel
Most chef’s knives are made of steel, and we could nerd out on the various different types and what their unique properties are, but the biggest consideration when knife shopping should be whether you want soft steel or hard steel. As knife reviewer Nick Shabazz explains, “Soft steels can be nice in that they’re, generally speaking, a little bit harder to kill, meaning, if you run up against a bone or somebody uses your knife to cut, and they hit a fork underneath there, they’re less likely to chip, they’re less likely to break and they’re much easier to sharpen back up, because they’re made of freaking tin foil.”
Hard steel, meanwhile, requires less frequent maintenance, but if you drop it or dull it on a tough bone, it will be incredibly hard to sharpen back up. “The harder the steel, the less times you’ll have to sharpen it,” says executive chef Jorge Busso. “However, if the steel is too hard, when it comes time to correct the blade, it’s going to be harder to correct. There’s a give and take there: If you feel like you care for knives really well, the harder the steel, the better, because they’re obviously going to need less maintenance.”
Another consideration is that many hardening treatments reduce corrosion resistance. “There are going to be a whole bunch of steels out there that are very, very hard — they’re very good, great cutters — but they’ll also rust if you put them in the dishwasher, or if you leave them in the sink overnight,” Shabazz explains. “If you’re going to be taking care of your knife like a freaking third child, those are going to be great. But otherwise, you might want something with more stain resistance to it.”
What you most frequently cut can also help you choose between soft and hard steel. “I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not cutting bones,” Shabazz says. “So I can afford to use a very hard hardness steel that will stay sharp forever — not forever, but it will stay sharp for a couple weeks, or a month or so. I’m not going to chip it out, because I’m careful with my knives.” Soft steel, however, might be a safer bet for cutting tough meats and vegetables that would otherwise have the potential to chip your blade.
Know That Damascus Steel and Ceramic Knives Are Kinda Gimmicky
Damascus steel is prized for its pretty, wavy light-and-dark pattern, but that has no effect whatsoever on the blade itself. “I stay away from anything that’s been laser etched with damascus, because they’re trying to take your eye onto the blade and give you some kind of trivial reason to buy the knife, as opposed to its actual functionality and durability,” Busso says.
Ceramic knives are a similar deal. “Ceramics have very high hardness, and as a result, they tend to keep an edge a little bit longer than steels — if it’s really well done ceramic and relatively bad steel,” Shabazz explains. “Ceramic is fine, but it’s kind of a gimmick. The biggest issue with it is that sharpening isn’t something you can ever do at home.” Like hard steel, Shabazz also adds that, because ceramic is so hard, it can be incredibly brittle. “If you drop a ceramic knife, it’s either going to stab your foot or hit the kitchen floor and shatter,” he warns. “Either way, you’re not going to be thrilled.”
Knife Sets and Knife Blocks Are Useless
“Cuisinart is my version of rock bottom,” Busso emphasizes. “The reason why is because you get these companies that are making knife sets, and the fact of the matter is, not one company is good at making everything.” He says one $40 Mercer knife could outlast 20 $9 Cuisinart knives, simply due to the quality of the steel.
“I don’t ever buy sets,” Busso continues. “Those are something that some marketing strategist has found a reason to throw 80 percent garbage into a 20 percent sellable package.”
Shabazz agrees, adding that this is part of the reason why knife blocks are a big waste of money, too. “That’s a completely unnecessary purchase, because you don’t need 18 different knives,” he says. “You need a couple. I’ve got one good 8-inch chef’s knife, a good 6-inch chef’s knife, a good paring knife and that does it. Those are designed to give somebody something fancy on their freaking wedding day, but very often if you buy 12 knives for $300, you get 12 crappy knives, whereas if you buy three knives for $300, you get three really good ones.”
Instead of a knife block, he recommends using a magnetic knife strip mounted on the wall to store your knives.
Mind Where You Cut, and Clean Your Knife Gently
“The biggest thing I see that just makes me cringe are glass cutting boards, or people cutting directly onto a marble countertop, because there’s just no damn good reason to do it,” Shabazz says, adding that wood or plastic cutting boards are always a good bet. “When you sharpen a knife, you’re putting this beautiful, thin, tiny, little edge on the front of it, and then you’re slamming it against a hard, flat surface. No! Of course your knives are getting dull, because you’re freaking dulling them on the countertops. Be kind.”
You should be equally as kind when you clean your knife, ideally hand washing and drying it swiftly, especially if it has a wooden handle. “I try to hand wash as much as possible,” Busso says, since dishwashers can be crowded, too hot and employ extremely potent soap, all of which can dull your blade and damage your handle.
Stay Away From Electric Sharpeners
“Sharpeners are like vacuums: If you plug them in, they suck,” Shabazz says. “There’s no universe in which you should be using an electric sharpener. Generally speaking, they’ll do a worse job in making something sharp, and they’ll remove a lot more steel than is necessary.” Instead, Shabazz suggests using a ceramic honing rod to sharpen your knife as needed — more frequently for soft steel and less frequently for hard steel.
“You’re going to get to a point where that’s not cutting it anymore, quite literally,” Shabazz says. “Then you want to bring it to a professional. There are people who do this for a living. They’ll put an edge on your kitchen knife that will terrify you, which is good.”
A good rule of thumb is to get your knife professionally sharpened once a year or so.
Get What Works for You
On a final note, when shopping for a chef’s knife, it’s important that you get what feels right for you and your kitchen. As Shabazz says, “One of the big questions is, what functional shape do you prefer?” Or as Busso says, “How do you like to hold your knife?” These are all things you should consider and try out before buying.
And if you want to keep your old, shitty knife around, too, that’s fine. “I own crappy and nice knives, and I do that on purpose, because not every knife fits every battle scene,” Busso says. So if you’re chopping into something that’s bound to beat up your knife, maybe a crappy knife is better suited for the job.
But now that you have the right tools, the only thing left to do is, um, learn how to cook?