Buying Kitchen Knives
The Necessities
    The funds and patience to select at least three basic knives: a chef's knife, a slicing knife, and a paring knife. 

    A sharpening tool of some kind, either a classic sharpening steel, stone, or one of the newer types. 

    A knife block (optional). 

    About an hour in a well-stocked store. 
A sharp kitchen knife is a cook's best friend!

And with care, a quality knife will last a lifetime. On the other hand, you'll want to throw away a bad one inside of an hour. A good knife will slice cleanly and easily. A bad knife will tear the meat, and make you work twice as hard as you have to. Good knives cost more than bad ones do, and sometimes it's tough to spend that extra money. But if you plan to do a lot of cooking, it's money well spent. Just ask an old chef! 

Before You Begin

Food processors have become commonplace in kitchens today. "Miracle slicing disks" are advertised every day on T.V., and cheap knives that "never need sharpening" are available at most corner stores now. Does anyone still use good knives? Well, if you don't want to spend your life cleaning various appliances, changing accessories or buying new knives every year, you'll want a decent set of knives at hand. Just keep them out of the reach of small children, O.K.? 

Step 1Assess the two types of blades

There are two common techniques used to make a kitchen knife blade: forging and stamping. 

  • A forged blade is certainly the more elegant blade. It's generally used in the better knives available, and produces a heavy blade that's narrow at the edge, and widens to form a strong, thick back. When a blade is forged, a piece of steel is heated, and then shaped. A bolster is formed to protect your fingers and, most often, a full "tang" that extends through the handle is created. 
  • A stamped blade, on the other hand, is cut from a sheet of steel. The lightweight blade is usually the same thickness from edge to back. Any bolsters are formed by the handle, and the tang generally does not extend through the handle. Although there's at least one manufacturer of good quality stamped knives out there, for the most part you'll find these blades used in cheaper, serrated "never sharpen" models. It's obviously a less expensive way to make a blade. 
In the past, harder stainless steel was not as desirable as softer carbon steel, because it was very difficult to sharpen. However, carbon steel stains easily and tends to rust, so "high carbon" stainless steel was developed. This is a steel that is easily sharpened, yet stays nice and bright. It's used in most high-quality knives on the market. 

Step 2Learn what makes good handles and blades

  • These days, handles are made from either hard plastic, or wood. While a wood handle looks mighty fine, and provides good grip when wet, it can also deteriorate over the years. Once a wood handle pulls away from the tang, for instance, bacteria will have a lovely home. Splinters and cracks are common as well, which is why most handles are plastic these days (along with reduced costs). Plastic, as we all know, will last a very long time. It can be textured to provide good grip, and molded easily to conform to your hand. 
  • The edge is formed mostly by grinding. The "grind" can be a taper grind, flat grind or hollow grind. A flat grind is cheaper to produce than a tapered grind, which is used on most forged knives. A hollow grind can be extremely sharp, but can be broken more easily, as it's thinner than a taper grind. 
An edge can also be very finely serrated, and the new lines of "never sharpen" knives have these edges. Serrated edges are terrific for slicing crusty bread and, oddly enough, tomatoes, but are not desirable otherwise. A serrated edge will often tear, rather than slice, and will catch bits of material in the serrations. Serrated edges are not repairable, and if the blade is damaged (which happens!) you have to toss the knife in the trash. The blade on a "never sharpen" knife is thin and flexible, rather than thick and stiff. This usually means that it takes more effort and care to get a good result. The big advantage that these knives have over others is their price, and that's why so many are sold. 

Step 3Put it all together

The best knife that you'll buy will have a heavy, forged blade and a full tang. It will not have a serrated edge, unless it's a bread knife. The three classic knives are: 

  • A chef's knife - for chopping, dicing, crushing(!) and lots more. This is generally the most-used knife in the kitchen, and comes in several lengths. An 8" model is an excellent choice. 
  • A slicing knife - for slicing meat it can't be beat! This knife is generally about 10" long, and fairly narrow. 
  • A paring knife - is about 3" long, with a triangular shaped blade. If you need to peel fruit, vegetables or do other delicate tasks, this is what you reach for. 
There are several other specialty knives that are nice to have around. These include: 
  • A bread slicer, which has a long, serrated or "scalloped" blade. 
  • A Japanese chefs' knife, which is similar to the chefs knife above, except with a dropped point, and wider blade. It's extremely versatile, and transfers chopped food to the pan very easily. 
  • A Chinese cleaver, which is thinner and lighter than a meat cleaver. Quite a few people swear by this knife, as you can julienne scallions as easily as mince pork. Expect to find this knife in carbon steel, rather than high-carbon stainless. 
  • A boning knife, which is very thin, and slightly curved. It's designed to separate meat from oddly-shaped bones, and is great for getting the most out of a chicken. 
When you buy any of these knives, take a look at the specific piece you're buying. The blade should be straight, unstained, and without nicks or dents. The point should be cleanly defined, and the handle should not have any gaps where it meets the bolster. 

Look Sharp!

There are few tools more dangerous than a dull knife. It'll slide when you want it to cut, and it'll cut when it stops sliding--usually when it hits your hand. Ask ten different people how they sharpen their knives, however, and you may get ten different answers. Not only that, but each of these ten methods are all sworn to be the best by ten venerable trail guides from ten mountain towns (who've all been sharpening knives since they were knee-high to a carpenter ant and don't you forget it buddy). What's a poor soul with a dull knife to do? You can start right here, which will lead you out of the tangled thicket of knife-sharpening opinions. 

There are a number of commercial one-step sharpening utensils available at the local hardware store. They generally have some sort of ceramic or diamond-impregnated surfaces,  and are used by drawing the knife through a narrow V-shape of some kind. Although they're certainly convenient, they can also cause problems by exerting uneven pressure on the blade--creating waves in the blade as it passes through the V-shape. The method below, while requiring a little more time and concentration, has a much greater chance of putting a good edge on a blade and not damaging it, provided it's done careful attention. 

A note on knives with a scalloped or serrated  edge: these cannot be sharpened using this method. Scalloped knives (such as a bread knife) generally require professional attention when they become dulled. Serrated knives (the  never-need-sharpening variety) are usually very low quality, and are meant to be thrown away when the edge becomes damaged or unusable. 

Choose Your Stone

First, there's the question of whether or not to use a liquid on the sharpening stone. A fiery debate rages on this issue, and you'd better figure out which side you're on, so you're not mistaken for the enemy and accidentally shot. Some stones are marketed as specifically for wet and dry uses, so keep the following points in mind as you shop around. 

One school of thought insists that using oil, water or saliva helps "float" the tiny metal shavings away from the stone when the blade is being sharpened. 

The other camp demands that using any type of liquid just clogs up the pores of the stone (which ruins the stone forever) and only polishes the blade, rather than grinding it.

I respect the views of both camps, and suggest the method below--it works with both dry and wet stones. 

Recreate the basic edge

If you were to peer at the point of a nicely sharpened, multi-purpose knife blade, it would look something like figure 1. 

You'll notice that the  blade is actually beveled to form the final edge, but you won't create that bevel just yet. First, you'll form the basic edge, which is a little simpler in shape, as we see in figure 1a. 

One of the key points of knife-sharpening is maintaining constant angles between the blade and the stone.  There are two: the angle between the blade and the edge of the stone, and between the blade and the surface of the stone. 

Place your flat,  medium-grit stone on the table in front of  you. Lay the blade flat on the stone at a 45 degree angle, as shown in Figure 2. This 45 degree angle is the first of two angles. 

Grasp the knife by the handle. With your index finger along the back of the blade, raise the blade off the surface of the stone at a 20 degree angle, as shown  in figure 3. This is the second angle. 

Keeping the edge of the blade in contact with the stone, firmly and carefully draw the knife towards you. This action will grind the blade from hilt to point. Maintain the 45 degree angle, and the angle that you've raised the blade off the stone. 

Apply medium to light pressure as you're drawing the edge across the stone.  (For the sake of comparison, zero pressure would have the knife blade resting on the stone without you touching it.) Apply a little pressure or a bit more, depending on how old the knife is, how many times you've sharpened it, and the current condition of the edge. A very dull edge will require more pressure. 

Turn the knife over, and repeat the process.  If you keep the knife in the same hand, you'll be  pushing the blade away from you this time. It's important to maintain the same angles on both sides of the blade. Go slowly and alternate strokes on the stone until each side of the blade has been stroked several times. A very dull knife will need a few more strokes than a better kept one. 

Create the final bevel

Now that you have a basic edge on the blade, it's a time to create the final bevel. This will strengthen the edge, so that it stays sharp longer and is less prone to be damaged by everyday use. You'll create the bevel simply by repeating Step 1, with two modifications: use a fine-grit stone, and raise the blade a bit higher off the stone (the second angle) when you draw it across. 

Place your flat, fine-grit stone on the table in front of you, and lay the blade flat on the stone at a 45 degree angle, as you did before. 

Grasp the knife by the handle. With your index finger along the back of the blade, raise the blade off the surface of the stone at a slightly greater angle than before--maybe 25 to 30 degrees. See figure 4. 

Keeping the edge of the blade in contact with the stone, firmly and carefully draw the knife towards you.  This action will grind the blade from hilt to point. Hold the 45 degree angle, and the angle that you've raised the blade off the stone, as constant as possible. Again, apply medium to light pressure as you're drawing the edge across the stone. 

Turn the knife over, and repeat the process. Alternate strokes again until each side of the blade has been across the stone several times--about five strokes for each side should suffice. The pressure that you apply while drawing the blade across  the stone should get progressively lighter with each stroke. 

At this point you should have a pretty sharp knife. You can test it by holding a piece of paper vertically, and drawing the blade across the edge and down. A sharp knife will cut the paper.