Few things that will level up your cooking game like a good chef’s knife. A single, well-maintained blade can slice through a long list of cooking tasks, from chopping up a few vegetables to breaking down an entire fish. Just ask James McNeal, executive chef at Over Under in Miami, which was recently named one of the best new restaurants in America by Eater.
“It’s the one tool that you use the most in the kitchen—sometimes for hours on end,” McNeal tells Men’s Journal.
We’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill kitchen knives from Walmart or Ikea, of course. We’re talking about high-quality knives designed for serious cooks. You’ve probably seen them in stores or in the kitchens of your more culinarily inclined friends, but buying one for yourself can be a little intimidating. There’s a huge array of chef’s knives available, and many of them are quite expensive.
Luckily, McNeal shared some of his hard-earned wisdom with us. Keep scrolling for his tips on buying your first chef’s knife.
Expert Tips for Buying Your First Chef’s Knife
1. Why Is a Good Knife Important?
A sharp, high-quality knife will make your time in the kitchen easier in many ways: It’ll preserve the integrity of your ingredients, for example, and protect your fingers.
“A good knife—more importantly a sharp knife—makes performing tasks so much more enjoyable,” McNeal says.
A quality knife will slice through delicate herbs and vegetables without bruising them, and it will help you get a clean cut through meats and seafood. A sharp blade is also much safer than a cheap, dull knife.
“A dull knife will roll off of whatever you’re cutting and put your fingers in danger,” he says.
Chef’s knives also win points for versatility. One well-designed, appropriately sized knife can often replace several lower-quality knives of differing sizes, which frees up room on your cooking surface (and requires less kitchen storage space when not in use).
“A good, sharp chef’s knife can do almost anything, from butchering meats and fish to cutting vegetables and herbs,” McNeal says.
He regularly uses only four knives: A chef’s knife, a serrated bread knife, a boning knife, and a paring knife. Despite what you might’ve seen in ads, you don’t need a whole armory of blades in order to be a proficient cook.
“Those four will take care of most needs in the kitchen,” he says.
2. Are Chef’s Knives Expensive?
Shopping for a knife can be daunting, especially when you start looking at the price tags. Some run into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. According to McNeal, however, there’s no need to break the bank when buying a chef’s knife.
“There are several affordable brands out there,” McNeal says. “I would recommend Dexter, Mercer, and Victorinox on the lower price point, and Misono, Kai, and Chubo brands landing in the mid-level price point.”
3. Features to Look For
You’ve decided you want a chef’s knife, and you’ve made a little space in your budget for the purchase—but what should you be looking for?
The most important thing, according to McNeal, is actually subjective. It’s all about finding a knife that feels comfortable in your hands. That gives shopping in person an edge over shopping online, as it will allow you to actually get a feel for the product you’re buying.
“I would recommend going to a shop and holding various knife sizes—and even ‘air-practicing’ basic tasks to see what feels best for you,” McNeal says. “It depends on the person. Ultimately it’s important for the knife to feel comfortable in your hand.”
While comfort should come first, McNeal urges first-time buyers to consider the size of the knife they’re eyeing. A knife that’s too small can slow you down on big jobs, while a knife that’s too big can make it difficult to be precise on smaller jobs. You also want to avoid knives that are too heavy, as they can tire you out, whereas knives that are too light can be flimsy and easier to chip.
Need an example to shoot for? McNeal has found his preferred blend of comfort, size, and durability in a 10.5-inch Misono Swedish carbon steel chef’s knife.
4. How to Maintain a Chef’s Knife
A good chef’s knife is a bit like a car: It can make your life a lot easier, but it requires proper care and maintenance. The most important thing, according to McNeal, is keeping it clean. Wash it thoroughly, and do it by hand, as the high temperatures inside a dishwasher will dull the blade. Take just as much care drying the blade, as any remaining water can lead to rust, particularly on carbon steel blades.
It’s also crucial to regularly sharpen your knife, particularly if you’re using it frequently. Your instinct might be to run your blade up a honing rod a couple of times, but McNeal cautions against that. Honing rods are designed to realign the edge of the blade, not sharpen it.
Using a whetstone, a tool designed specifically for sharpening knives, is a much smarter choice. However, McNeal notes that even he—a seasoned knife-user—has a hard time using a whetstone properly. In fact, he actually prefers using an electric sharpener (though he realizes that admission might not go over well with some of his peers).
“I might get clowned for this, but I don’t care: I use an electric knife sharpener with a 15-degree edge,” he says.
He runs his knife through a Chef’s Choice sharpener once a week for about ten minutes. It’s fast, easy to use, and produces consistently sharp edges.
“For a beginner, I would definitely recommend one,” he says. “And if you want to study using a whetstone, please do—just make sure you know what you’re doing.”
5. How Long Does a Chef’s Knife Last?
If you buy a quality knife and follow the proper steps to keep it sharp, clean, and dry, then you should have a long-lasting blade, McNeal says. When properly cared for, it can actually outlive its owner.
“Much like a cast-iron pan, a well-maintained knife can last you a lifetime,” he says. “A sharp knife makes any task more enjoyable in the kitchen—even cutting onions.”
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