Knife Buying 101: How to Choose?

Here at the shop, we often get customers who are new to cooking and have many questions about how to approach a new knife purchase. The knife world can be complex and esoteric, but it doesn’t have to be - at the end of the day, a knife is a tool used to help you cook delicious foods. We offer a wide variety of knives with different uses and at different price points; we aim to have something for everyone. We’ve put together some frequently asked questions here, which might offer you some guidance. 

 

What kind of knife is best for me? 

If you are working with bigger foods (root veggies, cabbage, pineapple), you need to use a bigger knife. 

If you are working with medium sized foods (onions, cucumbers, broccoli), you’ll want to use a medium sized knife.  

If you are working with smaller foods (fruit, cherry tomatoes, shallots), you’ll want to use a smaller knife. 

 

What size should I get? 

210mm (or about 8.5 inches) is a ‘standard’ length for a gyuto, or chef’s knife. However, 180mm (7 inches) and 240mm (9.5 inches) are also considered standard. Ultimately, you want to have a knife that feels safe in your hand and is appropriate for the size of the food you are working with. 

 

Should I buy a set or purchase knives individually?

Here at Bernal Cutlery, we don’t sell knives in sets, as such. Often, with a set, there are knives that you might not use regularly such as a boning knife or a bird’s beak paring knife. We think it is best to purchase knives individually based on your cooking needs. 

 

What shape is right for my needs?

Santoku:  Wide at the heel and stays wide almost to the rounded tip. It is a versatile knife that is good for most kitchen tasks. 

Nakiri/Vegetable Cleaver: Rectangular with no point. Designed for chopping vegetables.

Gyuto/French/Chef Knife:  Triangular shaped pointy tip all purpose knife. This is the kitchen workhorse knife.

Sujihiki/Slicer: Long and narrow, ideal for slicing raw or cooked protein.

Petty/Utility Knife: Like a small gyuto/chef knife, a petty is nimble and used for precision cutting on a cutting board and small butchery tasks. 

Paring/Office Knife: This small knife is used for in-hand tasks like peeling, taking seeds out of foods, or detail work. 

 

Many of your listings include weights - why?

Different knives are weighted and balanced differently, in addition to certain styles of knife generally being heavier than others - Japanese knives are often lighter than Western knives. Many folks are used to the robust heft of European style knives, which have a full tang, bolster, and thicker spines (see diagram). Japanese knives are generally lighter, owing to being thinner along the spine, having a ‘rat tail’ or stick tang, and no bolster. As a comparison, the 9” K Sabatier Authentique Stainless Chef Knife weighs 226 grams and the 210mm Ashi Hamono Gyuto weighs 108 grams. As a rule, knives under 150 grams are considered quite light. 

 

Single Bevel vs Double Bevel? 

Most knives that we use in our home or work kitchens are double bevel knives, where ‘bevel’ means angled cutting edge. These knives have been shaped and sharpened on both faces, resulting in a symmetrical grind, and giving your knife a robust edge that will cut straight down. Double bevel knives are appropriate for most kitchen tasks we undertake.

Some knives, however, have only a single bevel. This means they have an angled cutting edge only on one side, which gives them a very precise, delicate cutting edge. Single bevel knives are job specific and are primarily used in traditional Japanese cookery. For instance, a yanagiba is for slicing raw boneless proteins, a deba is for whole fish breakdown, and an usuba is for katsuramuki vegetable scrolling. Single bevel knives are not appropriate for general purpose kitchen tasks. 

 

Should I choose a Western-style or a Japanese-style handle?

 Western-style handles are heavier than Japanese-style handles since the steel from the blade extends the full length of the handle (this extension is called the tang), is secured with rivets, and there is often a mass of metal at the base of the blade (called the bolster). Often, Western-style handles are made of denser, heavier materials such as pakka ‘wood’ - a composite - or a polymer resin. Japanese handles, also called Wa handles, are generally lighter as the metal tang only extends part of the way through the handle (called a rat-tail tang). Further, Wa handles are often made from less dense materials, such as magnolia (‘ho’) wood, making them lighter; denser woods such as ebony, rosewood, or laurel will add more weight. Finally, Japanese-style handles do not have bolsters, but a wood or water buffalo horn collar (called a ferrule) to reinforce the handle.

 

Knife Anatomy

So many different types of steel - what is the difference? 

Steel, at its most basic, is an alloy (mixture) of iron and carbon. In addition to being somewhat brittle, this very basic steel is quite reactive to things like water, oxygen, and acid. In order to strengthen the steel, which makes it more practical for use in everyday tools, other elements are added to lend strength and lower reactivity. The addition of chromium makes steel stainless, which is a benefit to most home cooks. Generally, we recommend carbon steels for folks who want to sharpen themselves and stainless for folks who do not; carbon steel is harder, easier to sharpen, and stays sharper longer than stainless steels, which are softer. If you would like to learn more about steels, please click here to see our Steel Primer

 

How long will my knife stay sharp?

In general, we suggest sharpening every 6 months, but some knives can stay sharp much longer. When your knife starts to slide across the skins of vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes, you know it is time for a sharpening. 

Because Japanese knives are made from harder steels, blades often stay sharper longer. Both carbon and stainless steel Japanese knives will hold their edge well.  Conversely Western knives, both carbon and stainless, are made of softer metal and will need to be sharpened more frequently.

 

Should I use a honing rod?

Yes, sometimes. A honing rod will extend the edge life of nearly every type of blade. We like to say that honing your knife is like combing your hair - it keeps you looking sharp! Eventually, though, no matter how much you comb your hair, it will be time for a haircut and sharpening is like getting a haircut. We recommend ceramic honing rods for Japanese steel, owing to their hardness, and find that either metal or ceramic work well for softer Western steel knives.

 

Can I put my knife in the dishwasher? 

No. Water and steel are rivals! Always wash your knives by hand and fully dry them before putting away. Please click here to see our Knife Care Instructions

 

Is a hand made knife better?  A handmade knife is not necessarily better than a factory made knife, but in general you can expect handmade knives to have more attention to detail. Many factors affect price of a knife such as the type of materials that are used, how much hand work is put towards fit and finish, and production volume. Handmade knives are generally more expensive as the cost of the knife supports the livelihood of small craft workshops.  Many makers who run these workshops pride themselves on creating objects of beauty and functionality. As such, handmade knives are more likely to exhibit all of the qualities we prize in terms of sharpness, ease of sharpening, feel in the hand, and often visual beauty. 

 

Does price matter?  We carry, and like, many affordable knives that are very good. The lower costs can be attributed to less time spent on fit and finish and lower cost  materials, especially in the handle. A knife that costs more than $150 likely has features that will make it functionally superior to a less expensive knife such as its edge retention, balance, or aesthetics.  However, what matters most is the enjoyment one has in using a knife to prepare a meal. One can find as much satisfaction using a $50 plastic handled factory knife as $500 handmade knife with an ebony handle.

***

If you still need help, we can set up a 15-30 minute Zoom call with you. Please reach out to info@bernalcutlery.com to set up an appointment.