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Early in our relationship, my boyfriend, Darragh, did a strange thing. He ordered a massive chef’s knife and had it delivered to my apartment (along with a brand new cutting board). This wasn’t a threatening gesture, but it wasn’t an entirely mundane one either; Darragh wasn’t simply having a package of his delivered to my place since it was apt to get stolen from his building lobby. No, he was making a statement. He’d deemed the kitchen knives I owned to be entirely sub-par—and he’d classed my cutting board along with them. Darragh simply couldn’t continue our relationship without rectifying this issue immediately. (Or at least, he couldn’t stand the thought of cooking in my kitchen until the set-up was more to his liking.)
I’ve learned a great many things over the course of our relationship. Darragh’s taught me about the economy, about art, about literature. He’s challenged me to think more critically about politics, and he’s introduced me to at least two entrepreneurship podcasts I’ve binged in full. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been filling my head with more information about kitchen knives than I ever needed or wanted to know.
For example, did you realize that most of those multi-part knife sets are basically overrated (or, as Darragh would put it, “a scam”)? And that you really only need three knives to get by? “One good chef’s knife is better than 20 mediocre knives,” Darragh (who spent years working in restaurant kitchens, FWIW) says. “BUT a reasonable amount of knives is three.” Darragh’s three-knife kit would include one chef’s knife (a massive, straight-edge blade used for everything from slicing meat to mincing garlic), one bread knife (a longer blade with a serrated edge, perfect for slicing loaves and baguettes), and a paring knife (a smaller, straight-edge blade meant for fruit and other small tasks). “Many people buy those massive sets that have, like, 20 knives. Which is completely stupid, because they don’t know which knives to use for what,” he adds. “If you can’t name each knife in the set, don’t buy it.”
“The other thing people get wrong: They buy knife sets where all the knives are serrated,” he says. “You can’t sharpen serrated knives. And they’re almost always made from the cheapest steel possible.” Apparently, serrated knives are really only the move for bread.
If you, like me, had no idea there was this much to know about knives, keep reading. I’m turning over the rest of this article to Darragh, so he can share his near-endless knife wisdom and offer his best kitchen knife picks first-hand.
Darragh’s favorite multi-knife set:
Amateur cooks often think sharp means dangerous, but anyone who’s worked in a kitchen knows it’s wrestling with a dull knife that causes the real problems. Some knife brands, like Misen, offer properly sharp knives, along with free lifetime sharpening. (Just mail them your dull knives, and they’ll mail them back totally sharpened.)
Which reminds me: A sharp knife is completely safe, but only if you use it properly. If you spend 10 minutes on YouTube learning how to hold the knife properly, you’ll save yourself hours in the kitchen, impress people, and finish cooking with the same number of fingers you began with. I know it sounds fussy, but it will really transform your cooking. This video is a simple introduction:
Now, onto the good stuff.
Misen must have heard my rant about giant knife sets because they offer the perfect starter set with—you guessed it—a chef’s knife, paring knife and bread knife. (And remember, Misen offers free lifetime sharpening.) I’m really impressed with Misen. Their knives are amazing for the price.
Darragh’s chef’s knife recommendations for amateur cooks:
Perhaps one of the reasons people buy those 20-piece knife sets is price. It’s easier to justify spending $100 on 20 knives, because that’s just $5/knife. But it’s also a waste of $100.
If you’re price-conscious, limit yourself to one good chef’s knife made from good steel. (It can do the work of a bread knife and a paring knife with ease if you keep it sharp.) And remember, it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. Mercer is a top choice at culinary schools precisely because their prices are student-friendly.
You can’t go wrong with this Mercer 8-inch knife. It’s the sort of thing you’d find in a commercial kitchen—and it’s not even $15.
If you think the $15 option looks cheap, you can go for the Mercer Renaissance 8-Inch Forged Chef’s Knife, instead. It looks and feels as good as something you’d spend $150 on at Williams Sonoma, and it’s under $40.
Darragh’s chef’s knife recommendations for those who want to level up:
The Bob Kramer by Zwilling is beautiful—and it’s crafted from carbon steel! Bob Kramer is a legendary American knife maker. If you don’t want to spend thousands at an auction trying to get an original, his collaboration with Zwilling is a great option.
In the knife nerd community, there’s a lot of talk about types of steel. Each material has trade-offs. With stainless steel, harder knives are typically better. But the problem with ultra-hard knives is that they’re brittle and they often chip. The other trade-off is the blade angle. The narrower the angle, the sharper it feels. If you’d like to start shaving with your kitchen knives (just kidding, please don’t), carbon steel can really hold an edge. Again, it’s all about trade-offs. Carbon steel isn’t as popular as stainless steel because it takes a lot of maintenance. If you don’t wash and dry it immediately after use, you’re pretty much out $300. If you don’t mind the fuss, it can make cooking feel a little more ceremonial—which isn’t such a bad thing.
Dalstrong gets a lot of love from the knife nerd community. If you’re spending more than $100 on a knife, and aren’t buying from a Japanese artisan, I’d go with this one. It has the funky “Damascus” layered steel, which allows Dalstrong to sandwich ultra-hard steel in the middle of the blade toward the cutting edge, while creating a stronger knife overall. It’s also got what looks like a hand-hammered finish. This apparently stops food from sticking to the blade while you’re cutting, and it gives it a bit of an artisan-made look. Like Damascus steel, I suspect that this element is more about appearance than function.
Darragh’s paring knife recommendations for amateurs and experts, alike:
Paring knives are not as vital as chef’s knives. You won’t use them as often (they’re much less versatile), so I wouldn’t invest too much in them. Get something that matches your chef’s knife if you’re so inclined. Stay with the basic straight-edge shape (not the “sheep’s-foot” style knife with the curved blade).
This Mercer paring knife is a great option, and it’s under $7.
This one is slightly sleeker and nicer than the other Mercer option.
If you want to go all in, this Dalstrong option is particularly nice—and it’s not even $30.
Darragh’s bread knife recommendations for amateurs and experts, alike:
Again, you’ll use a bread knife much less than your chef’s knife, so don’t break the bank. Get something that’s sharp—and longer than 8-inches (it’s a pain when you can’t comfortably cut across the entire loaf of bread).
This 10-inch bread knife from Mercer is a solid (and affordable) option.
Another great Mercer option, if you’re looking for something slightly nicer.
And of course, an even nicer option for those of you who are now knife-obsessed.
Some other notes:
For the love of god, don’t use a glass cutting board. (Lindsey here. Remember when I said Darragh sent a chef’s knife and a cutting board to my place early in our relationship? That’s because I had a glass cutting board, and apparently glass cutting boards dull knives. Who knew? When he invested in a nicer knife for me, he wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be rendered completely useless after a couple meals. So he got me a plastic cutting board to go along with it. He recommends a larger cutting board, like this plastic version from OXO Good Grips:
If you want something made out of wood, he advises staying away from bamboo or end grain cutting boards, which tend to warp and splinter. Go with teak if you can.)
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