Ah, the world of cutlery - namely those sharp-edged blades so indispensible in the kitchen - can be daunting. What, exactly, is a good knife made of, and does it make a difference, anyway? To that, I offer an unequivocale YES! Quality knives make a tremendous difference in the process of slicing and dicing. As for what makes a good knife? I'm happy to explain.
In general terms, a quality knife is made of forged, high carbon steel with a full horizontal tang and bolster. The tang is the steel portion of the knife that is embedded in the handle; the bolster is the point where the blade widens to meet the handle. Quality knives have a full tang that extends through the entire handle from bolster to end. This provides for superior integration of blade and handle and gives the knife proper balance and greater strength from tip to butt. Forged blades are wedge-shaped with the top of the blade wider, then narrowing down toward the knife's sharp edge. Inferior knives have blades that are stamped from a sheet of steel. These knives have little-to-no wedge, no bolster, and often, no full tang.
Because they are the makers of the knives I own and use, I will spotlight here German company Zwilling J.A. Henckels. In 1731, Peter Henckels registered the now world-famous Zwilling as a trademark with the Cutlery Guild in Solingen, Germany. Zwilling has become one of the world's best-known knife brands and has been synonymous with the ultimate in quality cutlery for centuries. Zwilling's German-made forged knives have the following features:
- Sigmaforge one-piece precision-forged construction: Provides perfect geometry, high precision, and improved stability of the blade and steel structure, thus improving cutting-edge retention for lasting sharpness.
- Laser-controlled edge: Is sharper and stays sharper longer. Has a more consistent blade angle.
- Friodur ice hardening: Maximum no-stain properties and more blade strength. Improved resistance to corrosion and pitting.
- Super bolster: Provides weight, insures safety, and adds balance.
- Full tang construction: Provides proper balance and greater strength.
- High-carbon no-stain steel, an exclusive J.A. Henckels formula: Nonstaining, nonrusting.
- Precision honed: Is sharper and stays sharper longer.
- Novodur handles: Durable, strong, and smooth, these comfortable handles are perfectly balanced.
- Dishwasher-safe: Easy care (though hand washing is recommended by J.A. Henckels).
- Full warranty: J.A. Henckels stands behind all its knives.
A note, here, to clear up something that can be confusing: not all Zwilling knives are made in Germany. If you see their signature logo featuring a single man, this indicates knives manufactured in countries other than Germany. The twin man logo indicates German-made knives. I'm featuring Zwilling's Pro S series here, as it features their classic three-rivet handle style and is the series that I own. Other recommended German-made Zwilling knife series include Zwilling Pro, Pure, Four Star, and Four Star II - all high quality knives, each with a different handle style. Top picks of forged series made outside of Germany, are J.A. Henckels International Classic (Spain) or J.A. Henckels International Forged Primo (China).
Let's talk about which knives to have in your kitchen. First off, I'm showing sets with knife blocks, in options from 20 pieces to 7 pieces. Purchasing knives in sets offers you less cost per knife - something to consider for sure, and the knife block provides easily accessible countertop storage that protects your knife investment. But if accrueing a set over time is where you're at, that can be done as well by purchasing open stock pieces. The 2-piece Chef's Set is an excellent place to start. In fact, this set plus the honing steel and the bread knife may be all you need (you'll need to take your knives to a professional sharpener for stoning). If you'd like to keep adding to your collection, I'd recommend the kitchen shears and twin sharpening stone next. (With the honing steel and the sharpening stone, you'll have everything you need to sharpen your knives at home.) From there, the options for adding to your collection are wide open, depending on your needs and desires. You might find helpful these slides with information about each type of knife and it's use.
A bit about sharpening: I've included essential sharpening tools here because I can't recommend knives without recommending the tools that keep them in top performance. Quality knives and sharpening tools together make for a superior cooking experience. If you're wondering what a sharp knife is and how to keep it that way, here's a short three video mini-education by Zwilling, with all the details. Highly recommend. What Is Sharp?, Honing and Stoning.
I purchased this set of Tramontina steak knives when the boys were little simply because the knives were serrated and had blunt tips - perfect for boys who were very much into sawing up cardboard boxes for houses and ships and stables. What I didn't expect was how much we'd like them for their intended purpose. The handles are smooth and full in the palm and the blades are polished with a sharp cutting edge.
If you need an all-around picnic knife, this is it. Made in France by Opinel, it features a folding blade and corkscrew.
The Speedy Sharp is my husband's favorite knife sharpener. Bonus: it's made in the USA. Curious how to use it? Here's a video.
Cutting boards are necessary for protecting your counters and protecting your knives. I recommend wooden ones, regularly sealed with a beeswax polish. This assortment of different shapes and sizes are from US companies JK Adams and Virginia Boys Kitchens.
Proper knife storage will protect your knives from abuse in a utensil drawer. A countertop knife block is a great option, but if counter space is at a premium, a magnetic wall rack may be your choice. I prefer a magnetic bar made from wood so the knife blades don't get scratched. If you have drawer space or prefer to keep your knives out of sight, a drawer block is a good pick. This one holds 12 knives and a steel (note: six slots are for steak knives). Another storage option is to do as I've done, and have your countertop fabricator cut knife slots right into the countertop.
If you're just starting out, I recommend: the Pro S Chef's Set, honing steel, bread knife, a folding Opinel, a large cutting board, and a magnetic wall rack. If you'd like to get a set but the Pro S sets are out of reach, I'd go with the J.A. Henckels International Classic.