Never a Dull Moment

What to look for when buying knives

Like most people, I have a random collection of knives, bought at moments of culinary ambition and at good sales. Also like most people, I use only a very few of them with any regularity—and my preferences are unrelated to what they cost or to promises that some ultra-new metal will change my life. Recently a very cool-looking set of knives designed by a local metalsmith made me cast a critical eye on my odd knife collection.

A cook’s relationship to a knife, after all, is very personal: You want the knife to respond to your abilities even as its shape and sharpness make you respond to its own. Adam Simha understands this relationship. He grew up immersed in science and design—his father was director of planning at MIT, where Adam majored in physics—and he worked in Boston and Cambridge kitchens as a chef and a baker. A metalworking class he took on a whim drew him so deeply to metal that he decided to turn what was becoming a full-time hobby into his work. The company he founded, MKS Design, started by making furniture; I first encountered Simha’s low tables and high, heavy, comfortable enameled stools at the Cambridge ice-cream store Toscanini’s, a nexus for cooks and intellectuals (Simha made ice cream there before and after graduating from MIT, and calls the shop’s owner, Gus Rancatore, “the root of my entire career”).

Knives were potentially more profitable than furniture, and more challenging, if less spectacular. Tools people use every day, Simha believed, should be “compelling, beautiful, their favorite.” He made himself a prototype chef’s knife with a long blade and a big round handle. In his North Cambridge workshop, outfitted with a lathe and a stamp and workbenches covered with handleless blades, he told me that even after two or three years of use, that prototype “still makes me smile.”

Simha hit on an idea that made chefs, store owners, and design editors smile too: using bicycle grips, with their deep grooves for the fingers, as knife handles. Tightly fitted over gleaming steel tubes, the candy-red, -green, and -blue plastic grips caused the young son of David Marks, a retailer who bought Simha’s line for his Stoddard’s Cutlery, to ask if they lit up.

The cheerful, striking handles get Simha through the door, but it is his craftsmanship that persuades knife sellers to carry the knives and chefs to use them (and justifies the price: MKS knives retail for $150–$225). The blade, thicker than those of many other knives, is made of high-performance steel, as any new and expensive knife must be. Simha experiments with styles and patterns in his workshop and sends model blades to a steel producer in Sheffield, England, long a world knife capital. Once or twice a year he goes to Sheffield to “get together around the forge” and hammer out production details. When the finished blades arrive at his workshop, he welds on handles, the position varying with the style of knife. Then he inspects the grinding of the edge—perhaps the most important step in making a high-quality knife. For many of his blades he chooses a Japanese-style single-bevel edge, flat on one side. This edge affords precise cuts and is easy to sharpen.

After listening to Simha describe his design process and working with the set of knives he lent me, plus some other new models—I did need, after all, to experiment with a few Japanese heartthrobs—I understood much more about how and why I use the knives I like. This experience led me to formulate some buying advice for any cook longing to be at one with a knife.

Never buy a set. Few people use more than three knives, and it’s practically inconceivable that one manufacturer will make the three likeliest to please you (or will sell them as a set).

Don’t underestimate the handle. In holding and trying each of my knives, however rotten-looking and dull the blade, I found the feel of the handle to be the most important factor in how often I use it. It should be like shaking hands with an old friend, according to the Los Angeles Times food columnist Russ Parsons. I like the warmth of wood and plastic (knives made by Global, the first Japanese brand to attract attention here, have unpleasantly cold, narrow metal handles), and flat sides, which orient my hand, rather than rounded ones.

After the handle, think about the blade—the overestimated heart of knife mystique. If the blades you use most often are thin, you’ll be drawn to Japanese knives, known for very thin and sharp blades. I have long prized a short, super-sharp knife, shaped like a snub-nosed mini-cleaver, that a friend brought me back from Japan (and probably paid a fortune for). The carbon-steel blade rusts constantly and is so thin that its edge has chipped through use. But I still love the inch-high blade and try to save it for special occasions.

Knives by German makers such as Wüsthof and Henckels, two close rivals (the sellers I spoke with prefer the craftsmanship and performance of Wüsthof), have far sturdier, stainless steel blades, whose heft helps you cut through dense foods. Carbon steel—familiar in Sabatier knives (a region, not a brand) and old-fashioned French knives—is very easy to sharpen, because it’s soft; but it blackens and rusts and is a pain to keep clean. Stainless steel with a lower carbon content, like what Simha and others use, is both soft enough to sharpen and hard enough to retain a good edge for a few months. (Ceramic blades, which come in surprising colors and seem dangerously brittle, are much tougher than they look and can keep their edge for several years; but they offer no heft at all.)

Many of the old rules about knives have been made obsolete by technology. For example, you can ignore the dictate that the tang, as the continuation of the blade into the handle is called, should run clear to the end; manufacturers can simply weld the blade to a handle that looks as if it has three rivets. In fact, Simha prefers to vary the length of the tang, depending on the balance he wants.

Many of the newer rules are worth ignoring, too. In the ’90s, when Japanese knives became popular, Damascus steel—folded and pounded as many as 32 times to make it flexible and strong, and said to be of samurai-sword quality—was the only kind to have. But plain-surface steel can be just as flexible and strong, and the pretty moiré pattern that folding produces can be mechanically applied. Forged knives, with a thickness that increases at the handle end of the blade, were always recommended over cheaper, stamped knives, whose blades were cut like cookies, out of a sheet of steel. But sellers told me that the finishing of the blade matters much more, and that stamped knives should by no means be dismissed. Inexpensive knives can be surprisingly good. Victorinox knives, for instance, which are stamped, are ground and honed better than many forged knives.

The fashionable knife of the past few years is the Japanese style called santoku, the closest analogue to an all-purpose chef’s knife—which can slice and chop and has sufficient heft to cut through, say, a duck or a winter squash. Santokus have a high blade and a snub-nosed end, which many people assume is safer than a sharp point (and which can prevent you from trying to pry open a can or bottle or pierce a coconut—tasks that can bend or snap a knife). Many santokus feature what are generically known as “Granton grooves,” rounded indentations that run the length near the edge and have a certain high-tech flair but serve little purpose beyond what the Granton knife company, of Sheffield, designed them for: to keep long, thin, flexible carving knives gliding through turkey, pork, and other cooked meats. Santoku blades are also usually a bit shorter than eight inches, the ideal length for a chef’s knife. Yet partly because the TV tsunami Rachael Ray is crazy about them, most manufacturers now produce santokus. Many cooks, including me, don’t find them as useful as the chef’s knife they supposedly replace, because the blade usually isn’t long enough or substantial enough to go through an acorn squash—the test that every chef’s knife should pass, according to Owen Mack, of the Boston store Kitchen Arts.

On many Japanese knives, and many of Simha’s, the handle lacks the wide collar, or “bolster,” typically found on German knives. But I like a knife that lets me hold my hand farther from the food, the better to use the weight of my arm for leverage when cutting. I also like a high blade, because it keeps my knuckles from hitting the cutting board.

The Simha knife I was immediately drawn to turned out to be my favorite. It has that neat-looking handle but with a slightly smaller diameter (which I find more comfortable) than on the larger models, and with finger grips at just the right distance from the blade edge. The blade is ovoid, like a sandwich spreader, with a rounded edge (the “belly”). Knives of this shape, I learned, are generically called drop-point skinners and are used in hunting for both skinning and evisceration. (If that sounds gory, check out online knife-enthusiast “fantasy knife” forums.)

The three knives I find essential are a flexible but strong paring knife, which can cost just a few dollars, or Simha’s drop-point as an alternative (which I decided I must have, though it costs $150); an eight-inch chef’s knife; and a serrated knife. Serrated knives of practically any length are usually my favorites, because they so seldom need sharpening and they immediately grip slippery food. For years I’ve used an offset seven-inch serrated knife (the handle is set higher than the blade) as my chef’s knife. So I had high hopes for a six-inch serrated knife from Shun, one of the most widely available Japanese brands (the blade has that pretty moiré pattern, though I was told it is applied). But it cut with nothing like the precision or firmness I was after. And I disliked the rounded, D-profile handle, which is touted to be surer in the hand: I found it wimpy and too thin, and the asymmetrical handle offered no better a grip.

I admired the blade of a Japanese Brieto knife, the brand David Marks favors, but was suspicious of its Granton-like grooves and found the belly too curved (another style that has come into fashion) to produce the fast, clean slices I like.

Then I fell in love. Just right was an eight-and-a-half-inch chef’s knife from MAC, a Japanese brand recommended by stellar American chefs including Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. The handle, which was rectangular (rather than round, as on most German knives), felt perfect. The straight-edged thin blade, with no silly grooves, sliced so fast that I felt I was following its own confident strokes. The MAC fell between that expensive but brittle sushi knife my friend brought me and my favorite sturdy German knives. This was my Goldilocks knife. Try a few (see “Cool Cuts,” left), and you’re bound to find your own.