Chop, chop! What you need to know about buying -- and protecting -- a good set of kitchen knives

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
A basic set of kitchen knifes, from left, paring knife, boning knife, microplane, Japanese santoku knife, French knife and cleaver.

Anyone who's been to a kitchen store or watched late-night TV knows the allure of all those culinary gadgets and tools -- but lifelong foodie Georganne Syler says the best thing you can purchase for your kitchen is a good set of knives. And no, she's not talking about that value pack you found in the dollar store clearance bin.

"There are a lot of cheap knives out there, but if you're going to be a good cook, you've got to invest in knives," says Syler, who taught dietetics and hospitality management at Southeast Missouri State University for 20 years and has also attended culinary school.

Syler prefers knives made of high carbon steel because they have good edges and can easily be sharpened at home (you'll just need a whetstone and a steel hone). Stainless steel knives are durable, lightweight and affordable, but they don't sharpen well. If you have the money to spend, go for ceramic knives: They are extremely sharp, rustproof and easy to clean, although they are the priciest option and must be professionally sharpened, says Syler.

Another thing to look at is the tang: the portion of the blade that fits inside the handle. Cheap knives have a thin or short tang, which limits the knife's support, balance and durability. Your best option is a knife with a full tang (a blade running the full length of the handle) and a bloster where the blade meets the handle.

Syler doesn't recommend buying sets of knives because they're likely of lower quality, and you probably won't use them all. You're better off buying a quality French knife and paring knife and slowly adding to your collection, she says -- her favorite brands are Wusthof, Henckels and Victorniox. Read on for more tips using knives:

French knife

This is a good "worker knife," says Syler. You can use it to slice, dice, mince and chop just about any kind of food. Many people are leery of French knives because of their size -- they range from eight to 14 inches -- so Syler recommends starting with a smaller knife. Once you're comfortable using the knife, you can add other sizes to your collection.

Paring knife

This knife is made to slice the peel off foods like apples and potatoes, but it can be used for pretty much everything, says Syler. Your knife collection should have one or two good paring knives.

Japanese santoku knife

A santoku knife is similar to a French knife, says Syler. It's just a slightly different style and happens to be popular right now.

Boning knife

Use this long, thin blade to separate bones from meat.


A cleaver is ideal for cutting through meat and bones.


Use a microplane to finely grate garlic, Parmesan cheese, ginger and more.

To protect your investment:

> Store knives on a magnetic wall strip or in a wooden knife block.

> Never put knives in the dishwasher -- wash them by hand in hot, soapy water.

> Don't let other people use your knives.

Knife safety tips:

> Hold knives by the handle.

> When walking with a knife, hold it blade-down at your side, next to your leg.

> Never submerge knives in the dishwater -- you won't be able to see them, and you're likely to reach in and cut yourself.

> If you drop a knife, don't try to catch it. Instead, step away, let it fall and then pick it up.

> Always wear shoes in the kitchen.

> Keep your knives sharp. They're less likely to slip out of place -- and onto your fingers.

> If you're using the same knife to cut multiple foods, be sure to wash it in hot, soapy water between each use to avoid cross-contamination.