10 Knife-Buying Tips

10 Knife-Buying Tips


No tools define a cook more than his or her knives. Why do you think we carry them around in rolls instead of hauling backpacks full of pots and pans? Exactly. 

Here are some random tips when shopping for kitchen knives:

1. You don’t need many. Honest. If you’re just starting out look for a chef’s knife in the 8-10″ range, a large serrated bread knife and a utility blade blade in the 4-6″ range. What? No paring knife? Actually, I hate paring knives. I don’t even own one any more. When you’re ready to move on, contemplate a semi-flexible boning knife for butchery duties and a long slicer for thinly dispatching roasts and the like. Also, I’d get a decent pair of kitchen shears, the kind that come apart into two pieces. I never cut with a knife what I can cut with scissors. After all, I’ve been using those things since kindergarten. 

2. By and large I think the Japanese manufacture the best cutlery in the world, much better than the big European brands that came to dominate the American market in the 90s. Superior steel aside, many find that Japanese shapes such as those of the santoku, with it’s dropped point, and the cleaver-like nakiri, are handier in the modern kitchen.   

3. That said, when you’re ready to invest in R.G.S. (really good s***) I’d look to America. For my money, Cut Brooklyn and Murray Carter Cutlery (made in New York and Oregon respectively) are as good as any knives in the world. Both can be sought out on the interwebs. Cheap … no. Worth it? Totally.

4. Steer clear of sets … period. No exceptions. Ever.

5. When it comes to storage, I have two words: magnetic strips.  

6. Cutting is a system involving your hand, a knife, some food and a cutting board. I cannot over-empasize the importance of the omega component. I’ve seen people buy $300 blades and then run them on a cheap board and curse the knife. Your board needs to be heavy and it needs to be rock maple. Plastic boards are fine for butchery, but when it comes to serious slicing and dicing (not to mention chopping and mincing) you want wood. Bamboo? I’m not a fan. Give me a maple board from the John Boos company every time. And no, they don’t pay me to say that.

7. Want to know how to turn a quality knife into a box cutter? Cut a box. It’s just that simple.

8. Want to know another way to turn a quality knife into a box cutter? Put it in the dishwasher. Once is all it takes. 

9. If you like your knives sharp, have those edges maintained regularly by a professional knife sharpener once or twice a year. Do not use a honing steel. You’ll put your eye out!

10. Never, ever, ever run with knives.  

Pictured above: A few of my favorite things including two Carter knives, two Cut Brooklyn knives and one very old Sabatier knife. All are made of carbon steel which can be sharpened to near light saber sharpness. They tend to discolor, however, and require more sharpening. The bottom is a good example of a nakiri, and the second from the top is a utility knife with a santoku-style tip.

155 Comments

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  1. 1
    Henry

    Are you really alton brown? You used to be all about the knifes dam you even made a episode on good eat about proper care for your knifes. You even had the set o.o what happen to you man o.o

  2. 2
    Colleen Marble

    I agree with other reviewers re: Cutco knives. I own several and love them. I’m an above-average, higher-volume home chef and they suit just fine. They keep their edge well enough for the amount of cooking I do, and I can send them in for free sharpening and/or replacement (if needed) at any time. Their forever guarantee is exactly that. My mother in law has been married more than 50 years and got her complete set as a newlywed. She had forgotten about the guarantee, and when I started buying Cutco it reminded her. She sent her knives in and they replaced more than half of them, and reconditioned the other half to look like new — all at zero charge to her. Later, she broke the tip off of a paring knife while using it to pry something up. Cutco even replaced that, free of charge. Pay and say what you want about those other knives; for home chefs, nothing beats Cutco for durability, ease of maintenance and product guarantee. And for the record, I run my dishwasher almost daily, and it always has knives in it. They are none the worse for wear.

    • 6
      Tim

      I’m with you. No steel? I have an 8″ Chef’s that I received as a gift in the 1980s. I religiously steel it every time I use it. I have never had to have it sharpened, and I can still practically shave with it.

  3. 7
    Justin

    This article states that Alton hates paring knives. However, in his book “Gear For Your Kitchen,” he states that a paring knife’s importance is second only to the chef’s knife.

  4. 8
    C.D.

    Chanel, the deal with the dishwasher is your knives will bang around in there, probably hit something else in the dishwasher, and it can cause damage to the knife. Plus, it’s bad for the knive’s finish, which hurts aesthetics, and can make the handle of the knife feel weird because of the abrasive soap and higher water temperatures.

    • 9
      Stephen

      I will occasionally run my knives through the dishwasher, however mostly i don’t feel too bad because it avoids the problems you mentioned. My dishwasher has a ‘top shelf’ its a tray at the very top of the washer wish ONLY holds my knives, and they are held flat and stable in the wrack, its nice.

      • 10
        J F

        It’s not just the banging around… it’s also the super corrosive properties of the detergent which is probably worse for your knives than the banging around (you’re basically changing the chemistry of the steel and you’re changing it most at the sharp and super vulnerable to corrosion, pointy bits).

        Knives are super easy to hand wash, so just hand wash them… or at least buy a crap stainless knife at Walmart and use that whenever you don’t want to hand wash.

  5. 11
    C.D.

    In general, this is a pretty good rundown of knives. I take issue with a couple points that could lead a consumer astray, however. First, Japanese and German knives are simply on par with one another, because they each bring a different thing to the table. German blades tend to be more substantial, heavier, meant for more abuse. Japanese blades tend to be much thinner, much lighter, with a more delicate feel to them. I use both in my kitchen on every style of knife, and tend to reach for the German blade when I’m butchering up large cuts or working with something denser, and my Japanese blades when I either want speed or a more precise, delicate touch. As a matter of fact, one of my Japanese santokus from Shun explicitly states to not cut anything that had a bone with it. Another thing I’d take exception with is the claim that those American blades you referenced are “as good” as the Japanese/German counterparts. The best knife is one that fits comfortably in your hand. For me, neither one of those vendors you referenced makes a blade that feels good in my grip. If you look at the image provided, both of the American vendors have very similar handles. Not only that, but the carbon steel blade is finnicky to take care of, has no aesthetic appeal if that matters to you, isn’t as versatile as my TITANIUM blades (from Kasumi), and isn’t as sharp as any of my ceramic blades. The quality just isn’t on par with that of the greats for the typical, non-hipster home cook who doesn’t care about having a blade from “someone you’ve probably never heard of”

  6. 13
    MaryAnn Jackman

    I totally agree. Carbon steel knives are the best, even though they look skuzzy after a while — they cut like razors and are worth their weight in gold. Your selection of what’s really needed is exactly the same as mine. I’ve been cooking (at home) for about 60 years, and this is what I’ve figured out for myself. Very excellent advice, as usual. Thank you.

  7. 14
    Nick

    “4. Steer clear of sets … period. No exceptions. Ever.” Someone please explain this to me. I have a set of Sakai Takayuki 45-Layer Damascus patterned knives.. Love them. Beautiful. Use them daily. They hold an edge very nicely. Sharpened monthly ( OCD! Just a little ). Knife #1, a 150mm petty knife. #2, 160mm nakiri. And, knife #3, a 210mm chef’s knife.
    In the near future, I’m looking to add the 240mm sujihiki knife. Or, maybe my first high carbon steel. Any thoughts?

  8. 16
    Elliot

    Have the 8″ and 6″ versions of that Sabatier, and believe it or not, with the old carbon steel (softer) knives, using a razor strop is the way to go. Alton was, I’m sure, kidding about never using a steel, but with carbon steel, you often only need to strop and not straighten. My workhorse knives are modern Japanese (3 Shun and 3 Miyabi) that require few straightenings and sharpening only every nine months or so, but the pleasure of using the Sabatier knives with their absolutely silken feel and despite their (by today’s standards) ridiculously narrow width, is a treat when I’m cooking for just myself.

  9. 17
    Vivian Warshaw

    I have used magnetic strips for years. We just moved and there is no place to install the magnetic strips so I taped them to the bottom of a drawer, and the knives are held firmly in place till i need them.

  10. 19
    Nora C

    I have the Sabatier knife pictured above and I’ve owned it for nearly 45 years. No stainless knife can get and hold an edge as well as carbon steel in my experience.

  11. 22
    Kim

    Most of my cutlery stock have been thrift store finds. I use multiple small rectangular ceramic magnets on the side of my fridge as knife storage. Being a raw meaty bone pet feeder I use scissors for cutting through chicken, turkey and rabbit raw carcasses and am very interested in locating a more durable and higher leverage pair. Currently using Farberware red handled that separate. But the pivot points wear out. I admit to liking the plastic mat cutting sheets, as well as being OCD about sharpening my knives after each use. I just wipe clean, re-edge and stick to fridge.

  12. 24
    Wilson

    Can you make a list of suggested brands for japanese and other knives?

    also can you make a list, if any, of affordable average joe knives? nothing costing over 50?

    • 25
      Chris

      For amazing performance and value I suggest Kai Knives… Its a company owned by Kershaw who also owns Shun. $25/knife and performance that matches my high end Chef Knives.

  13. 26
    Andrew

    I saw somewhere someone was asking for recommendations “on a college budget”. I’d put my two cents in on the Bakers & Chefs Santoku set. They are hands down the best knives I’ve held under $100 and if you learn how to put and edge on them they take a really good edge. They just don’t hold it like a Shun or a Kanetsuni and need to be touched up every 2-3 months depending on use.

    Which brings me to my second thought. Namely my longtime disagreement with Mr. Brown as to sharpening your own knives. The act of sharpening one’s own knives isn’t brain surgery.
    Lansky makes a no brainpower sharpening system. Don’t go for the desktop or v-block things. Just stick with their clamp on sharpening system, follow the instructions, go for the shallowest angle.

    Or if you’re feeling math-y and want to really get to know your knives pick up a Norton Fine/Course India combo stone. It is a great all around kitchen stone, not exactly sushi chef grade but it’s still my favorite. Plus it will keep one of those Bakers & Chefs knives sharp enough to be my go to knife for most mundane cutting and chopping.

    For the above knives I sharpen to about 20 degrees OVERALL angle which is about 10 degrees a side. Since the Santoku knives are just shy of 3″ wide one figures
    3″ x sin (10degrees) =.52…
    or just a hair over half an inch, which is the distance the spine needs to be off the stone. This puts it about half way up my massive thumb (3/4 way for my wife). Thus one hand securely holds the handle while the thumb on my other hand is resting on the stone with the spine or back of the blade on the middle. Then I act like I’m slicing a very thin slice of melon or root plant while keeping the angle of the blade with my thumb. Switch hands for the other side make the “slice” swap back. Start with knives that are the same width most of the way along the blade, when you get a better feel for angle work on the more tapered ones as you would have to change the position of the blade on your thumb as it gets narrower. Keep doing this on the course side until a “wire” forms on the edge. It is easily seen under a magnifying lens and can often be seen with the naked eye (as a slight glint along the edge when in good light). If you run your thumb from the spine (back) to the edge of the knife you can feel it (Don’t run ALONG the edge or you WILL cut yourself but from the back to the front and then off the knife). One side will “feel” sharper than the other and that side will change with whatever side you last ran against the stone. Once you have this wire along the entire length of the blade flip the stone over to the fine side and continue until the wire pretty much vanishes from sight but is still felt. For me this takes 20-30 passes each side but it all depends on how much pressure you use. At this point make a pass or three over a honing steel (or the back of another knife). Use almost no pressure and use the thumb rule until you get a feel for the right angle. This will realign the micro edge that is left with the blade. Both sides will feel equally sharp/dull to the thumb. Then make a few test cuts on newspaper using almost no pressure but dragging the blade across the paper and see how you did. With this you can see if you messed up or if the edge isn’t straight. Over time you will get a feel for your knives and what angle / method works best.
    Like my fillet knife that has 12degree overall (the same as my straight razors) and at about an inch wide I’m just shy of laying the blade on the stone (1/8 inch). If you have one of the old Smith triple stone kits just throw away the yellow plastic wedge. It’s 23 degrees which gives you a 46 degree overall angle. Great for hatchets and axes not so much for kitchen knives. Natural stones are great but the synthetic stones work a lot faster.

  14. 27
    Julez

    I have a couple of Ginsu’s that I Have used for years. They have lasted me forever and I couldn’t be happier. They are my goto blades and I stone sharpen them every now and then but I couldn’t be happier.

  15. 28
    Jonathan

    I partially agree with all of this.

    I agree entirely that you don’t need a lot of different types of knives to get along just fine. I also would say that I agree that there are a lot of good knives, great knives, and crap knives out there, and I’m sure the brands he names are absolutely fine; as such, a good recommendation of course.

    Disagree somewhat on the cutting board. I have three boards. One for slicing bread, a plastic one for slicing stuff I’m not going to cook that can be truly cleaned and disinfected, and a wooden one (yes, wood) for cutting meats and the like. I don’t worry about bacteria mumbo jumbo. That’s what cooking is for.

    Where I disagree is on sharpening. Now, don’t get me wrong, a lot of people don’t know HOW to sharpen a knife and end up just damaging it. And like knives, there are good knife sharpening tools, great ones, and really crappy ones available. However, investing in a good honing tool to use once every year or two and a good sharpening steel or fine grain whetstone and learning HOW to use them (some goodwill knives will work for practice) is a skill every CHEF should have and should recommend to his followers.

  16. 29
    Naomi Yoshida

    2. I also think the Japanese manufactures make the best cutlery in the world.
    Mind you most of their knives are made for right-handed users.

    5. I would like to share how my mother store her carbon steel “Gyuto” to avoid discoloration.
    5.1 Dry completely.
    5.2 Apply very thin coating of vegetable oil with paper towel to the blade.
    5.3 Wrap the blade very tightly with dry newspaper to shut out moisture.
    5.4 Wrap 5.3 with plastic wrap very tightly to shut out air. //

    • 30
      Naomi Yoshida

      Additional note on 5.2: For longer storage, camellia oil is preferred. Olive oil can be substituted, as they are both non-drying oil.

  17. 31
    Erin Zahara

    A point to know if you are gifting any blads to anyone give a loony ($1) with it to not sever the friendship. It is an old superstition but it is nice to have the gester.

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