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knives in knife holder kitchen

Sharp knives are the difference between enjoying cooking and finding it a chore. Here’s why great knives are the best investment you can make in cooking.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about knives lately. Soon I’ll have no home and will live the life of a nomad, but as a serious cook planning to live my way through the tastiest parts of the world, travelling without a good knife would be a dagger to my heart.

A knife is to food prep what fire is to cooking and air is to life. There is no simpler, more critical tool for kitchen success than a knife.

With proper knife skills, you can do away with garlic presses, cheese slicers, food processors, mandolins — everything. If you’re limited for kitchen space, you should invest in a quality knife.

What should you buy?

Ignore any article that tells you a definitive kind of knife to buy. From handmade steel blades to ceramic blades, it seems to come down to personal preference. There are pros and cons to all of ’em. When you’re spending $80 and up for one knife, it’s not just about the cut. It’s about the handle’s shape, the way it balances in your hand, how the curve of the blade works with your chopping muscle memory, and more.

At any shop that takes their knives seriously, you should be able to handle them extensively (at home, too) before deciding what works best for you. This is a purchase to make in person, not on the internet. Like buying a bed, it’s an experiential choice that can’t be made based on price. A quality knife store will allow a return in a matter of days, if it’s not working for you. There’s no perfect-for-everyone knife, and your shop should be aware of this and make allowances.

Testing it out

Here’s a great intro to buying knives. I’ve used German-style knives for a long time, an entry line of Henckels, but I’m considering a Japanese one for my travels. I’m after a 7-8” knife, since it’ll pack better, and suit a range of food prep while on the road.

chopping parsely knife cutting board

The point is, it’s a big playing field with a lot of competitors. Read up on the options at Fine Cooking, talk to quality sales staff, then put it through its paces and take it back if you think it’s not feeling “like a dancing partner,” as the article describes.

The article makes good suggestions of test chopping items — like parsley, onion, carrots, melon — but I’d also try mine mincing garlic, seeing if I bruise basil during a chiffonade, and how it stacks on stuff slicing the membrane off a rack of pork ribs. What does a knife need to do for you?

Knife skills pay off

I have clumsy hands but I chop great — just slowly. I hear my neighbour chopping through our shared kitchen walls and I’m jealous. I’d prep meals twice as fast, if I could chop like her.

Still, I’m never intimidated by chopping needs in recipes, and I don’t cop out to buy convenience items just to avoid food prep. Yesterday I saw that a local shop with pre-chopped onions for sale. $2.99 for a half-pound. When expensive, onions are 99 cents a pound here, sometimes as cheap as 39 cents a pound. With those prices, that half-pound of “convenience” onions is between 7 and 15 times more expensive than chopping an onion yourself.

With proper knife skills, even a “slow” chopper like me can get ½ pound of onions cut in a nice dice in about 30 seconds.

You can do this! Knife-skills videos on YouTube and elsewhere on the web will have you chiffonading and julienning like a pro.

Aren’t sharp knives more dangerous?

Chef’s knives will cut faster, better, cleaner, but I guarantee you, you’d rather be cut by a sharp blade than a cheap, dull one. The other day, I ran my chef’s knife over my finger knuckle, and I was prepared for a bad cut. While long and somewhat deep, it was a perfectly smooth, straight cut. Wrapped tightly with a bandage, by morning it had healed so quickly that bending my knuckle didn’t re-open my wound.

A sharp knife will almost always heal faster and better than your cheap knives will. They’ll also go through foods easier and quicker, resulting in you not losing your grip or dangerously jerking the knife, reducing the likelihood that you get cut.

The finest cut

If you’ve always cut food without fussing, chop-chop-chop, you’re missing out on nuances of flavor and texture. On a hot summer day, I love thinly shaved tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, all sprinkled generously with fresh mint, sea salt, and olive oil. The flavor changes with that thin slice versus a chunk. It’s delicious when piled thinly and delicately onto crusty bread.

Later this summer, I’ll find the perfect chef’s blade for taking on my travels. I see myself slicing jamon iberico razor-thin in the hills of Andalusia, cutting baguette in France without damaging the crust, and much more.

Whether it’s going Asian with elaborate stir-fries, being continental with gorgeous meat-cheese-veggie platters, or cooking up the Deep South at a big barbecue filled with fresh salads and skewers, proper knives will have you cutting food quickly, professionally, and safely.

You deserve beautiful food at home — tasty eats cut to perfection every time. No jagged, bruised edges, no sloppy slices.

Anyone who’s upgraded their knives will tell you they’ll never work with cheap knives again. It’s a transformative experience and makes all the difference between food prep being time-consuming and frustrating versus a Zen-like rhythmic, quick chore.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.