Choosing a knife

People often ask me about which knives they should buy for their kitchen. Are the knife blocks sold in cooking shops the best way to go, or should they buy individual knives?

As part of my TAFE course we had to provide our own knives. These are the tools of the trade for any chef. You bring your knives to work with you.

So what knives do I own?

About 8 years ago I invested in my first ‘real knife’.  It was a 15cm cooks knife from Mundial.  It’s got a ergonomically shaped handle,  but is quite heavy.  This is still Stephen’s favourite knife to use in our home kitchen, I find the handle a bit too fat, it’s also way past due a sharpening.

A few years later, as a gift my grandma gave me a 10pc knife set from Avanti for Christmas. It came with one of those Christmassy disclaimers ‘if it’s not what you like we can go and change it’. Normally I don’t take up this offer, but Avanti make some of the shortest living kitchen equipment I’ve ever owned. I went along with my grandma to the cooking shop and ended up matching her dollar for dollar and buying a 9 piece knife block from Mundial ($145). Not quite sure which knives to use for which they were more used in order of preference than for any specific task. Using the chef’s knife first and working downwards from there. When it came time for TAFE I packed up my Mundial (5100) Chef’s knife ($60) for classes.

Also on our equipment list we were asked to have:
• Pairing knife
• Bird beak paring knife
• Boning Knife
• Flexible Fish FIlleting Knife
• Serrated Bread Knife
• Crank handled Palette Knife
• Honing Steel

My 3 Chef's knives. Top Ran, Middle Mundial 5100, Bottom Mundial Elegance

For home use you probably only need the Cook’s knife and the pairing knife. Choosing a paring knife is dead simple. Pairing knives are sorts of thing which seem to get tossed out with the veggie scraps way too easily to invest any serious money so buying (several) entry level ones in bright colours is my best advice.

Brands and prices
In Australia a good entry level brand, which most apprentices buy, is Vitorinox. I have 3 of their pairing knives, each of which cost a whopping $4. I also own a flexible filleting knife of theirs ($25.00). Their Cook’s knife will set you back $26. The advantage of these knives is that they’re light weight. The disadvantage is that they’re not a great fit to your hand, the blade doesn’t extend all the way through the handle; making them less durable and the metal used for the blades is poor quality meaning it won’t hold it’s edge and sharpen very well.

For a cook’s knife I advise spending a little more money. When you go a bit higher in price you start seeing two different types of knives. European and Japanese. At a mid-level price range, This is where my Mundial knives sit ($60.00 for the Cook’s knife). These are the knives we have hanging in our kitchen. They’re solidly made and get the job done. On the down side, my knife sharpening guy hates them because of the guard at the end of the blade, but he deals with it! The European knives are generally heavier than the Japanese style ones.

For mid-range Japanese style knives brands such as Furi ($108.00) and Global ($69.00) are worth a try. On Masterchef we had to use Global knives. Their light-weight scared me half to death. I also found the handles a bit small for my hands. Interesting to note is that Furi isn’t actually Japanese, but Australian, with the knives made right here.

Moving up a notch, Wusthof ($190) make some very nice, light-weight European style knives. A fellow chef at TAFE has a full set of Japanese Shun knives but almost exclusively uses his Wusthof for the 40+ hours he spends in the kitchen each work week. The Japanese knives which are popular in this price range are the brands Ran ($260*) and Shun ($170).  For my birthday I was lucky enough to get a Ran Santoku knife and I love it. It’s the perfect shape for my hand, light-weight without feeling flimsy and beautiful. I test drove both the Ran and the Shun and don’t quite remember why I chose one over the other. If you’re not julienning vegetables for 3 hours straight then this level of knife is an indulgence rather than a necessity.

Sharpening & honing
To keep knife slicing smoothly you’ll need to get a honing steel ($68) or a swipe style honer like the Furi Ozitech Diamond Fingers Knife Sharpening System ($30). The advantage of the swipe style is that you don’t have to worry about having the correct angle. These will keep your knife smooth but eventually you’re blade will loose it’s shape will need to put a new edge on it.  Furi make a tool which is fine for mid-range knives (Furi – Tech Edge Pro Sharpener $120) but you might be better off finding out when your butcher is getting their knives sharpened and bringing yours along. My knife guy only charges $5 a knife!

Knives should never be stored where they can bang around against anything else. Ikea sell great magnetic knife racks ($23) which make grabbing a knife a sinch. If you’re renting and can’t go making holes in walls you could copy what Chef’s do in their knife boxes and get a piece of foam cut to the width of a kitchen draw ($5 @ Clarke Rubber) and cut grooves for your knives. Your third option is to buy a wooden knife block ($53). Although most of these come with a whole lot of knives you probably don’t need, you generally get a steel a pairing knife and a cook’s knife. Sometimes this is the most economical way buy. Alternatively you could sharpen them yourself using a whetstone ($66) and some of these handy guides ($9.95) from Global which ensure you keep the correct angle.

Ran knife with knives in foam insert

Don’t put your knives through the dishwasher, please. Washing them in hot soapy water and drying them immediately is crucial to keeping your tools in tip-top condition.

Now that you have a better understanding of what’s available; the next step is to try some out. Grab a few potatoes and head to your nearest knife or cooking shop. Any cooking shop should at least let you handle the knives and many will let you ‘test-drive’ them on a potato.

After your test drive you can smile sweetly and let them know ‘you’ll think about it’, unless the knives are on special. Amazingly buying your knives online is sometimes 40% cheaper. Peters of Kensington, Kitchenware Direct, Your Home Depot and Victorias Basement sell all sell the knives mentioned above $100 less retail outlets such as King of Knives.

All the knives costed above were online price.
“Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find an online supplier who discounts Ran knives.

About Michelle

Michelle is passionate about showing people how easy it is to prepare food that is healthy and packed full of flavour. She has just completed her first recipe book, Healthy Helpings: fast food for fit physiques. She began sharing her love of food in 2007, when she produced two series of the online cooking show ‘Healthy Helpings TV’, making fast food healthy and healthy food fast. In 2008 she competed in bodybuilding as a novice figure shaping competitor and she remains passionate about physique sports. She was a 2009 Australian Masterchef semi-finalist, and contributes articles to Oxygen Magazine Australia. Michelle lives with her husband on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, where she loves to search out new ingredients and food ideas from local farmers markets, health food shops and ethnic grocers, and take her two dogs on long rambles through the vineyards. Find out more about Michelle's book