In Praise of Cheap Knives

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

They say that all you need to cook well is a good knife. Plonk down a couple hundred dollars and invest in a tool you'll use the rest of your life. It'll feel like an extension of your hand! (Congratulations on your cyborg implant.)

If we're done counting these cookware cliches, I need to come out and say: Keep your good knives. I'm fine right here with my $10 blade from Chinatown.

Spend a couple minutes on a cookware discussion board and you'll almost immediately encounter some fetishists. If you think EU leaders have opinions on the Greek debt crisis, just wait until George from Duluth tells you why he only buys 18/10 stainless steel from a brooding German man who lives in the woods, or Mary in LA explains how she can't live without her Korin blades. Or listen to our very own Daniel, who'll dim the lights in his kitchen for a romantic evening slathering mineral oil over his carbon steel knives.

It's not wrong to love your tools, or to spend what, in the grand scheme of things, is admittedly not an outrageous sum of money on quality, long-lasting kitchen equipment. That's why we've written so extensively about the best knives to have in your kitchen, from chef's knives to santoku knives to bread knives and beyond. But I can't help but wrinkle my nose when someone intimates that you can't cook good food without top-notch steel. Because unless you're slicing up sashimi on the regular, a 10-buck budget blade can work just fine.

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Here's the knife I use for 90% of my kitchen tasks. Actually, it's not my knife—it's my former knife, currently a fixture of the Serious Eats Memorial Drawer of Dull Knives for Assorted Tasks, because I buy a new one every few years when the edge wears down. It costs all of $7—a mighty 10 or so with shipping. And I love it, in all its stamped-blade, not-full-tang, flimsy, coarse-wooden-handled, off-balance glory.

I love how weightless it feels in my hands, how that cheap wood conforms to my grip so readily, how the blade's tall face makes it so easy scoop up fat piles of chopped vegetables. And I love how vicious an edge I can give it with a decent sharpener—a sharpness that may not hold as long as the best knives, but that can cut almost as well, good enough even for the most demanding knife skills.

This knife is mine, but there are many, many like it. Head to your local Chinatown restaurant supply shop and you'll find dozens of brands and styles, most for less than a Jackson. That's a lot cheaper—and frankly just as good if not better—than this Victorinox number that food publications sometimes trot out as their best budget choice. And the quality far exceeds what you'll find in typical supermarkets and big box stores, where they hock what I refer to as the bad kind of cheap knife: flimsy as aluminum foil and usually plagued with serrated edges that wreak havoc on meat.

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Whether you pick up a cheap Kiwi brand like mine, a plastic-handled Dexter Russel, or some nameless blade, take comfort in knowing that you'll be cooking with the very same tools that the vast majority of restaurant cooks are using to serve you a meal that costs far more than the price of your new steel. And if it's good enough for them—people whose very professional work is skillfully making dinner, who put their blades through far more abuse than you and I ever will—I'd say it's good enough for us. Is it as pretty? Nope, but it certainly gets the job done.

I know what you're going to ask: Why spend $10 on a cheap knife every two years when you could spend $200 on a stellar knife that'll last decades? Well, grasshopper, let me count the ways:

Tuition: Sure, experienced cook, you may love your fancy blades now, but think back to when you were first learning to make omelets and hack up chicken breasts for stir fries. Did you need first-class steel? Could you afford it? Chances are you started learning to cook in high school or college, when your cash was tight and your Jedi knife tricks non-existent. Rather than giving a first-time cook a serious blade (that requires serious maintenance), start them out with something cheap and easygoing—and that no one will cry over if it gets stolen by a roommate.

Utility: Knife-lovers treat their fine blades like fragile porcelain figurines, protecting their edges at all costs with elaborate racks, cleaning procedures, and sharpening devices. That's all well and good for nice knives, but sometimes I need a sharp edge for a home improvement project, or I need to hack at a big block of ice. In short: I need something I can abuse. This isn't the time for a Wusthof; it's time for a Chinese meat cleaver. Even if you prefer high-end knives, a few cheapo blades are worth their weight in whatever crummy material they're made of for spur-of-the-moment utility knife tasks.

[Lack of] Maintenance: You may love taking care of your fine blades. I, frankly, couldn't care less, and my patience for using a whet stone or sending knives out to be sharpened is basically zero. Does this mean I have trouble cutting see-through-thin slices of tomatoes with my cheap knives? Sure, but if that doesn't matter to you and you don't want to invest the time, a cheap knife and any old sharpener get you most of the way there.

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I'm sorry, George from Duluth, if I've made a mockery of everything you love about your kitchen tools. But we all pick the things we obsess over. If great steel is your thing, hey, more power to you. And I'll fully grant you that when it comes to fine performance, good spendy knives win every time.

Some of us—this is a very small some—need that level of performance. But I'm not looking to dazzle myself or anyone else with my brunoise—I'm just trying to make dinner. Which is why I'm saving the scratch for something else, like the freakishly overpriced end tables I have my eye on.