Eating plenty of whole, plant-based foods is critical for optimal health. However, that does mean you’ll be spending a lot of time in the kitchen, prepping and cooking food.
There are many tools that can make healthy eating easier, but one of the most important is also one of the most basic: a good knife.
Quality knives make cooking and food prep quick and enjoyable. On the other hand, a bad knife will swiftly make you frustrated and may lead to injury.
How do you choose the best knives for your kitchen?
Many people find themselves lost at sea when it comes to knife selection, so here’s a straightforward guide to choosing the right knives, including a newer knife option you may not have heard of.
Knives: A Chef’s Secret Weapon
Most of us will never be world-class chefs, but we can learn something from the masters of this craft: A sharp, effective knife is one of the cornerstones of great tasting food.
Before we get into the basics of how to choose a good knife, here’s a quick look at some knife terminology to help you feel (and be) more professional in your selection.
There are two basic parts to a knife— the handle and the blade. Obviously, the blade is most important from a cutting and chopping perspective, but the handle also needs to be considered because it keeps your hand comfortable (or not) as you work.
The sharp side of the blade is known as the edge, while the top (non-sharp) side is known as the spine. Many knives have a bolster, which is a thicker band that connects the blade and the handle. Other knives (particularly Japanese-style) lack this piece.
Knives also have a heel, which is typically the broadest and thickest part of the knife, found at the base of the blade. This part helps you to get extra force when cutting tough ingredients, like the rind of winter squash.
A Tip for Saving Your Fingers
Choosing a good quality knife may save you a trip to the emergency room. Dull, poor quality knives are harder to work with, which increases your chances of slipping as you cut through produce and slicing your finger.
However, it’s also a good idea to brush up on a few basic knife skills to go with your carefully chosen knives. Learning how to hold and chop fruits, veggies, etc. is another way to keep all your fingers intact.
Here’s an example to consider…
The most dangerous piece of food to cut is none other than the avocado. There have been an estimated 50,413 emergency room visits due to knife-related avocado injuries over the last 20 years. That’s over 2500 hospital trips per year!
The bottom line: Get quality knives, learn how to use them, and save on medical bills. (Plus, consider using a spoon to take out an avocado pit.)
Key Considerations for Choosing the Right Knives
Sharpness & Hardness
Sharpness is one of the biggest hallmarks of a quality knife. This is what allows you to cut through food quickly and efficiently, making food prep much easier.
Now, most knives will come to you sharp, but the question is: How long will they maintain that sharpness?
A knife that goes dull quickly is a recipe for frustration. You will either be forced to sharpen it constantly, or you’ll be using a lot more muscle to cut produce with a dull blade. (Or you’ll be looking for a new knife set.)
In general, the harder the material used to make a knife is, the longer it will stay sharp.
The best way to find out this crucial information is to ask before buying. You can do so by requesting the Rockwell rating of a specific knife. This refers to a number given by the Rockwell hardness test, which is an industry standard for testing the hardness of knives.
A higher Rockwell number indicates a harder blade. Generally, anything over 56 is considered hard with premium steel falling in the range of 59-66.
Something else to consider when choosing a knife is how much care it will require. Most knives need at least a little maintenance to stay in good working order, but you don’t want to be fussing over them all the time.
Obviously, one aspect of this is getting a knife that doesn’t need to be sharpened constantly. A harder knife should keep its edge longer, although a super hard knife will be more difficult to sharpen when it does go dull.
Another consideration is cleaning.
Steel, which is the material used in most blades, will rust if not properly cleaned and dried. Stainless steel is more resistant to rust and stains (as the name indicates) than other types of steel. Carbon steel, on the other hand, is more prone to rust but holds a better edge.
You can also go with a combination of stainless and carbon steel to get “the best of both worlds”. Or you can opt for a non-metallic ceramic knife that is easier to care for than any type of steel.
Weight & Balance
Finding the right weight and balance in a knife is important, especially if you do a lot of chopping. However, this is also a very subjective part of knife selection— something everyone will differ on in some way.
Many people prefer a more lightweight knife because it’s easier to handle, but some think a heavier knife cuts better because it has more force. This is very much a personal preference, and it’s not a bad idea to experiment with different weights to see which works better for you.
Balance refers to how a knife feels in your palm. It shouldn’t feel like there is too much weight forward on the blade or back in the handle. Essentially, you want a knife that feels stable when you cut with it, not one you feel like you have to keep in check.
If you’ve ever had a hand cramp after holding a knife, you know the importance of a good handle. You want your knives to feel comfortable, even after using them for long periods of time.
Generally speaking, smooth handles tend to be the most ergonomic. Those with grooves or indentations cause awkward finger placement for the majority of users, even though they are meant to be helpful.
That being said, you don’t want a handle that feels slippery. Plastic and synthetic materials fall on the slippery side (and are made with toxic chemicals), while wood and metal give you a better grip. You should also have plenty of clearance under the knife when you chop— no fingers banging into the counter.
The size of the handle is mostly a personal preference. Larger hands may need a larger handle, smaller hands a smaller one, and so on.
Having knives in a few different lengths is ideal for cutting different types of foods. Longer knives can go through something large, like a watermelon, but are harder to control. The reverse is true for smaller knives.
Chef’s knives typically come in a range of 6-10″. The sweet spot for many people is an 8″ blade because it falls right in the middle of control and length.
You may want to add in a longer knife if you tend to work with large, tough produce. A small (4″) paring knife is also very useful for cutting and peeling smaller fruits and vegetables.
Once you go through the hard work of choosing the right knives, you want them to last for a long time.
To give you some more knife terminology, there are two main types of steel knives: forged and stamped.
Forged knives are created out of a single piece of molten steel that is cut and beaten into the right shape. They are less likely to bend than stamped knives and are usually the higher quality and more durable of the two.
Stamped knives are more of a “cookie cutter” option created by a machine. It’s not impossible to find a good quality stamped knife, but overall they tend to bend more easily and wear out more quickly than forged knives.
Another type of knife that will last through many years of use is ceramic (more on this material shortly). Quality ceramic knives have both good durability and exceptional hardness with the potential to outlast steel.
Most knife blades are made out of steel. As mentioned earlier, stainless steel is the best option for easy cleaning, while carbon steel is harder and holds a better edge. A good mix of the two qualities is a high-carbon stainless steel knife, which resists rust and is fairly hard.
Many people are comfortable with a classic German-style steel knife, but Japanese-style options are growing in popularity.
Japanese-style knives are typically much lighter than German-style with a thinner blade. They tend to have a straighter edge and can be very precise, but don’t always rock as smoothly as more rounded blades.
Another option that deserves your attention is ceramic knives.
You may never have thought of using a ceramic knife, but they have some fantastic benefits, including being much harder and holding a better edge than steel. In fact, they deserve their own section to fully fill you in on the details…
Ceramic Knives: The Sharpest You’ll Find
Ceramic may seem like a surprising choice for knife material— until you learn what all it can do.
Now, to begin with, ceramic knives are not made of the same material you would find in a ceramic mug. They are made from zirconia, which is a natural material that can be up to 10 times harder than steel. In fact, the only harder known material than zirconium ceramic is a diamond.
This hardness translates to a sharper blade that lasts 10 times longer than a steel blade. A quality ceramic blade can cut through a tomato or a watermelon with the same ease.
Despite this incredible sharpness and durability, ceramic knives are extremely lightweight. This makes them very easy to handle and excellent for precision cutting.
Because there is no metal in the blade, you’ll never have to worry about rust with a ceramic knife. The blade itself is dense, rather than porous, which means odors won’t transfer from one ingredient to another. Ceramic also naturally resists bacterial growth and won’t stain.
A final huge benefit to ceramic knives is the price. A high quality set made from ceramic costs significantly less than a high quality steel set, which makes them affordable for almost everyone.
Top Recommendation: P600 Ceramic Knives from Chefs Foundry
If you are interested in trying a top quality ceramic knife set, look into the P600 Ceramic Knives from Chefs Foundry, which is why my wife and I now use.
These ultra-sharp knives are lightweight, easy to handle, and versatile for all kinds of chopping, slicing, dicing, etc. They are significantly harder and sharper than steel and make everyday food prep fast and easy. The set includes an 8″ chef’s knife, 6″ utility knife, and 4″ paring knife.
Head here to learn more about the P600 Ceramic Knife Set and trade in dull, inefficient knives for something that makes cooking healthy food enjoyable.