It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
These are my knives. There are many like them, but these ones are mine.
As a cook, your knives are the most important tools in the kitchen. There's a reason why your first job at a restaurant is on the garde manger station, where all you do is knife work, day in and day out. There's a reason why knife skills is the first course you'll take at culinary school. Good knife work improves every part of your downstream cooking. Evenly sliced vegetables sauté more easily. Properly butchered chicken is more tender and yields bones to make tasty stocks and sauces with. Finely chopped herbs are more evenly incorporated into your dishes.
You can see why having a good, comfortable knife is so important.
Now I may take my love of knives to the extreme—I collect them like stamps—but every chef I've ever met who's worth his or her salt is proud of their knives. They take care of them like family members, like essential organs. A good knife should be a natural extension of your hand.
There are few hard and fast rules when purchasing a knife. The most important one is that you should buy something that feels comfortable to you, something that you'll not only use, but look forward to using. Slicing an onion should be an absolute pleasure. You should yearn for the feel of a carrot yielding to the slightest pressure under a sharper-than-razor-sharp blade.
I often get asked for knife recommendations, and honestly, picking just one of my knives over the others would be as difficult as picking a favorite Beatles album. It all depends on what I'm in the mood for.
But here are some of the knives in my collection. These are a mix of the ones I use the most often, the ones that have the most sentimental value for me, and the ones that I think are just plain cool.
Kansai-Style Usuba bocho
The Details: 6-inch blade made from high-carbon steel. Usuba are Japanese vegetable knives with a single bevel and a slightly hollowed back. Kanto-style usuba have a square tip, making them a little stronger, where as Kansai-style usuba have a rounded tip that allows you to do more delicate knife work. They are the knife of choice for many chefs in the vegetable-heavy cuisine of Kyoto.
The Story: This knife was a gift on our wedding registry. I put it on the list back when I thought I'd become a master at traditional Japanese blades because, well, it seemed like a cool thing to do. Unfortunately it never really happened and I pull this knife out now every once in a while to feel how incredibly sharp a single-beveled blade can get, then to fumble around with some carrots for a bit before realizing that it's going to take way more effort than I can muster to become proficient with it.
What I Use it For: (Trying) to look cool.
The Details: The blade is multi-layered damascus steel made from hundreds of layers of hard and soft carbon steel, designed to give the knife an edge that is easy to sharpen, while still maintaining a good level of strength. The handle is fitted for the right hand and is the most comfortable and natural of all the knife I own.
The Story: My mother bought me this knife from a small shop on Tokyo's Kappabashi-dori back in 2006. It was actually a pretty big deal for me, because, well, my mom hated the fact that I was a cook. "A cook is a cook is a cook. You might as well be flipping burgers at McDonald's" is what she used to say. She's come around and faced the facts since then, and this knife was sort of symbolic of the beginning of that era.
What I Use it For: This is my sharpest, most nimble blade. It flies through delicate vegetable work. You want perfect half millimeter brunoise of garlic or ginger? This knife will deliver it. It chokes a bit on bigger vegetables (I wouldn't use it to split a butternut squash), but man, is it fun to use.
Misono UX10 Santoku
The Details: A 7-inch stainless steel Swedish blade and a fully-riveted composite handle. The blade is asymmetrically beveled for greater sharpness.
The Story: This knife is my workhorse. I remember trying one for the first time when a co-worker at Cook's Illustrated was working on a story about Santoku knives. The instant it slipped into my hand and I felt its handle and the way the blade balanced, I knew it was the knife for me the same way my wife knows when she's found the right pillow or the way my dog Jamón knows when he's found the right spot to do his business. I immediately went out and got one for myself and it's become the most widely-used knife in my collection.
What I Use it For: Everything from heavy vegetable prep to breaking down chickens to mincing herbs. It's usually the first knife I reach for in my knife block.
Wüsthof Classic 5-Inch Hollow Ground Santoku
The Details: Stainless steel with a granton (hollowed) edge to help keep wide foods like potato or carrot slices from sticking as you slice. The handle is fully riveted synthetic polymer.
The Story: This knife carried me through a year of garde manger vegetable-heavy prep work in the kitchen at Clio. It's small and light, which makes it great for precision cuts. You might also note that the cutting edge is completely flat. It did not come like this, but that's what a year's worth of almost daily sharpening will get you.
What I Use it For: I keep the knife around for nostalgic reasons, but I don't use it much any more now that I have my handmade santoku, which does everything this guy does, but better.
Global G-7 Oriental Deba
The Details: Solid molybdenum/vanadium stainless steel, single-piece construction with a hollow, sand-filled handle. This knife has a single bevel, like my usuba, but with a much heavier curve on it.
The Story: I can tell you exactly why I bought this knife: It's because my buddy and former co-worker John Paul Carmona bought one for himself when we were working together in a restaurant many years ago and I got jealous of how cool it looked and felt. I tried to use it for several months, but never really fell in love with the action. The blade is just a little too curved to work as a real Japanese-style knife, but not curved enough to use as a Western-style knife.
The last real night of action it got was at a late-night backyard barbecue. I was using the knife to split lamb racks in the dark and accidentally made several huge chips in the blade when I get it stuck in some bones. It took me a solid hour of grinding to get them out, and you can still see the very edges of a couple of them on the blade.
What I Use it For: Not much. I grab it from time to time to see if I might come around to liking it, but it hasn't happened yet.
The Details: Korin is one of the finest knife retailers in New York. This is their house-brand gyutou knife made from Inox stainless steel. Unlike western chef's knives, this blade is extremely light and nimble.
The Story: This was a gift from the folks at Korin. I generally don't accept gifts from any professional acquaintances, but as a kid raised by a Japanese mother, it's also nearly impossible for me to reject a gift offered to me by a nice Japanese lady. Especially when that gift is a gorgeous knife.
What I Use it For: It's not my go-to at home, but this is the knife I keep in my travel kit. It's a great universal knife that can be used for chopping herbs, fine vegetable work, and light meat and poultry work. It can also take and hold an edge like a motherf*&ker.
Vintage Wüsthof 14-Inch Chef's Knife
The Details: This is the oldest knife I own, produced some time in WWII-era Germany. It has a heavy-duty 14-inch carbon-steel blade and a hardwood handle. The blade discolors very easily, but you can rub it right off with a rust eraser.
The Story: I spotted this knife at a flea market in New York. I hit the market early, around 11AM. The seller was asking $80 for the knife, which was a good deal, but I was a poor cook earning minimum wage so tried to talk him down. He refused. I walked back three more times over the course of the day, and every time he refused to back down. "Hey kid, I know what this thing is worth. That's some serious metal here."
Finally, at 4pm, when the flea market was closing and everything was wrapping up, I made one last pass. The man spotted me and said, "OK kid. I'll sell it to you for $50."
"I'll take it for $49.99 and not a penny more," I told him. We made a deal.
I later took it to a knife shop in Boston to have it appraised and see if I could learn a little more about its history. From the specific shape of the Wüsthof symbol stamped onto the blade, he could tell me that it was manufactured during a very brief few year window and estimated the date as some time in 1943 and a collector's value of around $800 or so. Not a bad deal!
It's earned the nickname Excalibur.
What I Use it For: Looking like a total badass.
Vintage Sabatier 8-Inch Chef's Knife
The Details: A high-carbon-steel blade, wooden handle, and French-style blade shape differentiate this guy from my others.
The Story: Another flea market case, though this time I had a few more bucks in my pocket and shelled out the $75 asking price. The real wood handle and long, gentle slope of the blade just felt so nice in my hands, I had to have it. It's made of very soft carbon steel so has the ability to take an extremely sharp edge, though it doesn't maintain it for very long before you have to sharpen it again.
What I Use it For: Heavy vegetable work. If I'm making a big batch of onion soup, this is the guy I'll grab to slice my way through 10 pounds of onions in a breeze.
Global G-2 Chef's Knife
The Details: Solid molybdenum/vanadium stainless steel, single-piece construction with a hollow, sand-filled handle. Lightweight and sharp.
The Story: The year was 1999. I'd just finished reading Kitchen Confidential and only had one thing on my mind: I want to become a chef. My college girlfriend tried to do her best to tell me I was being silly and that no, of course I don't want to be a chef, and Anthony Bourdain makes it all sound like drugs sex and rock and roll but it's really hard work and wouldn't I rather be an architect? The answer was a firm no, so for my birthday that year, she bought me this knife. It was the first really high quality knife I ever owned, and it still has a place in my regular knife rotation.
What I Use it For: It's a great all-around vegetable-prep knife. I especially like using it for chopping herbs because it rocks so nicely. The all-metal construction means it can get a little slippery if you have meat juices on your hands.
Wüsthof Gourmet 10-Inch Hollow-Ground Roast-Beef Slicer
The Details: A super-thin and straight blade with a granton edge so slices of meat fall off of it easily. This guy is from Wüsthof's "Gourmet" line, which is on the lower end of their quality scale. No matter, I don't use a carver so often that I'd need a fancier one.
The Story: I bought this guy from a knife store in Brussels (and yes, I had just finished a big bowl of mussels when I made the purchase). It was a short trip with my mom, and I was in the market for a good thin slicer to use for cutting slices of the duck liver mousse I was making at No. 9 Park. It's one of the older knives in my collection and still as good as new.
What I Use it For: Slicing charcuterie and roasts. This is the one that I pull out on the holidays.
Wüsthof Classic 6-Inch Flexible Boning Knife
The Details: A forged high-carbon stainless steel blade with a fat bolster for scraping bones clean and a fully-riveted composite handle. Flexible and strong.
The Story: When I was still working in restaurants, this boning knife was one of my most-used tools. I first bought it to trim lamb shanks, using its fine point for cutting out tough connective tissue and the heavy bolster for scraping bones completely clean. It's seen its share of full-animal butchery through the years, though these days, I eat much less meat so it collects a bit of dust between uses.
Fun story: In a former life working at a magazine, I once suggested doing a story on boning knives at an all-staff Editorial meeting. Our Deputy Editor was at the meeting via a speakerphone call from his home in Long Island. His reaction to the suggestion? "Kenji, I don't know about you, but we don't do an awful lot of boning at my house." I wish he could have seen the faces on the other end of the line.
What I Use it For: boning out pork shoulders or lamb shanks or turkeys or chickens or anything that has bones, really.
Zwilling J.A. Henckel's Four Star 8-Inch Bread Knife
The Details: 8-Inch stainless steel forged blade with scalloped teeth and a plastic handle.
The Story: This was the first bread knife I bought, back when I believed 100% of what Anthony Bourdain says and thought that a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife would be the three most important ones in my kit (I believe it was Bourdain who said that, I might be mistaken). This knife was the one I used for years to slice baguettes and brioche into croutons to serve with charcuterie at various restaurants I worked at. It finally retired to my travel kit after the scalloped teeth lost so many edges that they can't rip into a hard crust like they used to be able to.
What I Use it For: Slicing bread in my travel kit.
F. Dick 10-Inch Bread Knife
The Details: Another knife that seems to have been discontinued. Forged stainless steel, very sharp teeth, and a composite handle.
The Story: This is a much heavier-duty knife than the Wusthof, and I really enjoy it, though to be honest, I only use it perhaps a half dozen times per year. It's good for hearty, crusty loaves and for dissecting sandwiches, but a very sharp chef's knife is a better choice for softer breads if you want to slice without tearing.
Here's a tip: don't spend too much money on a bread knife. Unlike a chef's knife which can be sharpened over and over, a bread knife has a relatively limited lifespan and once those teeth are gone, they aren't coming back. You should plan on replacing yours ever decade or so with moderate use.
What I Use it For: Slicing crusty bread and splitting sandwiches.
Dexter-Russel Narrow Fillet Knife
The Details: Very flexible thin stainless steel blade with a grippy plastic handle.
The Story: I received this one on a fishing trip and fishery tour in Alaska last year. My dad is a big-time fisherman and heads out on the water at least every other day during the season in his little boat out of Boston Harbor. I try and make it up for a couple of those trips whenever I can, hitting the stripers, tuna, and blues. In Alaska I discovered that halibut, while very tasty to eat, is just about the most boring fish in the world to catch. It's like hauling up a wet, 100-pound bath mat through 500 feet of cold ocean water. Talk about tiring!
What I Use it For: This is gonna be my new fishing knife—the one I take with me on the boat or to the river for in-the-field butchery. It's relatively sharp, but more importantly, it's got a handle that stays grippy even when covered in fish guts, and it's cheap enough that I won't shed a tear if I accidentally lose it overboard.
A Pair of Paring Knives
The Story: I've gone through many paring knives, particularly in my restaurant days. Not all kitchens have problems with equipment and personal belongings going missing, but I must have had at least 4 paring knives disappear from my station to never return. Eventually I smartened up and marked my paring knife by pressing the handle against a red-hot metal burner to score a line into it. Once it had that identifying mark, it magically stopped disappearing.
Classic paring knives look like miniature chef's knives, but I find the flat, sheep's foot-style knives are much more useful. Read up a bit more about that here.
What I Use it For: Read any beginner's book on Western cooking and it'll tell you that a paring knife is one of the basic essentials in your knife kit. For some folks, this is true. My wife is more comfortable doing small-scale kitchen work like slicing garlic or shallots with a small paring knife. Personally, I can count on one hand the number of times a year my paring knives get used. I use them to peel pearl onions and score chestnuts and... is that it?
The Details: Yanagi are knives specifically made for slicing fish for sashimi and sushi. My knives are all soft high-carbon steel with a single heavy bevel and a lightly hollowed back. The handles are all solid wood, and all are hand-made with hundreds of sandwiched layers of steel, pounded in the same way that samurai swords are made for strength and sharpness.
The Story: While I was working at Clio in Boston, I spent as many days as I could working shifts at Uni, the adjoining sashimi bar under the tutelage of sashimi master Chris Chung. He was the man who taught me how to properly care for Japanese steel and how to slice with a Yanagi.
The smallest of the three—the one with rust and huge pitting on it—is actually my mother's knife which she gave to me several years ago. It's a small, utilitarian number and I don't really use it, but keep it for its family significance. The largest of the three was my first Yanagi. I cared for that knife like a newborn baby, polishing it after each use and carefully rubbing it down with mineral oil to protect it from pitting and rusting.
Eventually, I came to realize that it was too long for my station at Uni—the tip would bang against the back of the counter, so I put it into early retirement and replaced it with the shorter version (the middle one in the photo). I bought both of the knives off of an independent knife-maker on Tokyo's Kappabashi-dori (same street I bought my santoku from), though I couldn't tell you the name now. I should get my mom to read the engraved signature of the maker some time.
What I Use it For: Exclusively for slicing fish for sashimi and sushi, which, given how much fresh fish my dad brings around during striper season, is actually relatively frequently.
A Big-Ass Cleaver
The Details: By far the heaviest knife I own. The blade is about 8 inches long and 4 inches wide and a good 1/6th of an inch thick along the spine. It has a full tang that's attached to a riveted wood handle with a heavy brass bolster. It weighs in at a full 1 1/2 pounds.
The Story: This monster of a knife I picked up in Boston's chinatown for about $15, and I unfortunately can't point you to it, because it closed years ago. That said, I do have a whole article on selecting a cleaver
What I Use it For: Smashing, crashing, and general bashing. It makes short work of chicken carcasses for stock, and is great if you want to hand-chop meat for burgers or dumpling fillings.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.
Your purchase on Amazon helps support Serious Eats.