Being “the dullest knife in the drawer” isn’t exactly a compliment. HAVING the dullest knife in your drawer is not only an insult to your culinary prowess but also downright dangerous.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, dull knives cause more accidental cuts than sharp ones because of the additional force and effort you have to use. A dull knife may not have the edge to cut an onion, but it still has quite an edge left to cut your finger.
So why do so many people have dull knives in their kitchen drawers?
One reason people neglect their knives’ sharpness is that they hate using the knives they own.
They just don’t feel comfortable holding them in their hands. They’re either too small, too big, too heavy, too light, too slippery, or some other thing.
People’s aversion to knives are just another reason why you see so many ads for automatic dicers, choppers, and food processors.
I can help you solve this! Here are the basics:
There was a time when kitchen knives were only made out of carbon steel. Carbon steel is a decent enough metal to make knives from, but it has two drawbacks. The metal is (from a metallurgist’s perspective) rather soft and dulls easily, but even worse, carbon steel rusts.
The next popular metal was stainless steel. Stainless steel is an extremely hard metal and doesn’t (as the name suggests) rust. The main problem with stainless steel, however, is that it’s just the opposite. It’s TOO hard, and once it becomes dull, it’s very difficult to sharpen at home. Thus, it becomes a dull knife.
As you can imagine, like Goldilocks and the three bears, the BEST solution was something not too hard or too soft but something JUST right. What resulted were tri-alloy, and now, multi-alloy knives, which have the best properties of both.
Here’s “The Skinny”
Both European/Western (mostly German) and Asian (mostly Japanese) knife manufacturers have their own “recipes” for metal blends, and in some cases, exotic casting or forging techniques. My advice for the average consumer is that I wouldn’t waste too much time researching the attributes of the various metal recipes (as long as you know it is a multiple-alloy blend), or for that matter, the details of the patented forging processes. They will ALL suit you just fine.
Once you know you’re buying a knife with a good-quality metal composition, there are really only two other things to concern yourself with, and they BOTH have to do with performance.
European or Asian? Some Sharp Words
As it turns out, these two opposite sides of the planet have different ideas about how a knife blade’s edge should be ground. The European manufacturers grind their double-honed blades at approximately 20 to 22 degrees on each side while the Asian manufacturers choose about 15 degrees.
This may not seem like a big difference, but you may prefer the more “robust” thickness and stouter angle of the cutting edge of a German-manufactured knife if you more often find yourself chopping root vegetables. However, a more slender blade with a more narrow edge may “suit your style” if you are cutting more tender foods, such as leafy greens or fish, with greater precision. It’s not a coincidence that sushi chefs use Japanese-honed blades.
The second most important thing to consider and decide on is the “fit,” or more importantly, the “balance” of the knife in your hand and how it works.
If you think of cutting or chopping with a knife in your hand, it’s basically a teeter totter motion, and just like a teeter totter, each side should be of equal weight so that neither side works any harder than the other. This makes the cutting effort easier and cooking more enjoyable.
The center “fulcrum” point of a well-balanced knife isn’t in the middle (like a playground teeter totter), however. It’s where the blade meets the handle, closer to the real fulcrum, which is your wrist.
Choosing both the right edge and a well-balanced knife reduces your effort, and THAT can make a BIG difference in how much you enjoy your new knife.
Whichever knife you choose, be sure to keep it sharp. If you buy an electric knife sharpener and you have an Asian/Japanese manufactured knife, BE SURE you buy one that will sharpen your new knife at the correct angle! Not all electric sharpeners will do this, and older ones do not.
Sharpening a Japanese knife blade at a European angle will not ruin the knife, but you will not take advantage of its true design.
Also, you may see knife blades (mostly Asian) that have vertical grooves or swirl designs in the blades, and you may wonder what they do. To a small degree, they allow the blade to be stronger with less weight, but more importantly, a blade of this style reduces the actual physical contact of the product to the blade itself, which allows you to cut with less effort. It’s nice to own one, but it’s not critical.
I personally have both European- and Asian-manufactured knives that I use both in my home and professionally. My Japanese knives are Global. You have no doubt seen them in cookware stores because they look much different from the others. They’re among the very few knives with metal handles and blades all in one. And the handles have little black dimples.
I like Global knives because they are VERY light and have a wonderful balance. I especially recommend them for women for this reason.
My European (German) knives are the (Four Star) Zwilling J.A. Henckels.
These knives are my general “workhouse” knives for everyday use, especially if I am going to be cutting a lot of product. They’re sturdy and can take a lifetime of use (and abuse). I also have always loved the molded handle design of this line versus the laminated wood handle of others.
Having given these recommendations, I can also say with confidence that I have used many other knives in my career and also like many other brands, such as:
Shun Just a phenomenal knife (with a price to match.) I’d be more tempted to mount it on my kitchen “trophy” wall than to use it, however. If you don’t mind spending $300+ on a single knife, I know you won’t be disappointed.
Wusthof Probably owned by more professional chefs than any other brand. They have many different “lines” and are of superior quality. Very similar to Zwilling J.A. Henckels.
My VERY last word (I promise)
Like many products, companies will produce lesser-quality lines of their brands for “value” distributors like BIG box stores and supercenters. To be sure you’re getting the quality you’re expecting from my reviews, be sure to buy your knifes at a reputable kitchen-wares shop like William Sonoma, Sur La Table, Crate & Barrel, or a similar premium retailer.