Somehow, I've turned into a kitchen knife geek. I didn't really intend to, but I've always been fascinated by the art of sharpening. I also cook well, and am reasonably good with tools. Woodworking led me much deeper into tools, metallurgy, and sharpening. Then, about a year ago, I went ape-shit and bought something like 40 knives from Lee Valley at fire-sale prices. I now officially have Too Many Knives. I also have about a million different ways to sharpen said knives and other tools. But enough about me: you'd like a knife, but don't know what to buy: there are so many knives out there, and they vary a lot in cost. What to do?
First, let me ask you a question. Do you own any knives? "Why, yes, I do, but they suck." Why do they suck? "Because they're dull." Ok, then you don't need knives. You need to know how to sharpen your knives. This is important: if you don't do this, you will eventually be dissatisfied with any knife and stop using it. So I'm going to talk first about knife sharpening.
There are basically three things you can do: (1) Find someone else to sharpen your knives; (2) buy a sharpening stone and learn to use it; (3) buy a jig and learn to use it. What's important about picking between these three is that you actually be comfortable with doing it. I don't care which one of these you do, but please do at least one of them. How should you decide which one to do? Here are some pros and cons, as I see them:
Have someone else sharpen your knives -- This will probably cost you $3-$5 a pop, and can be inconvenient, especially if you only have one knife. You also have to trust whomever does it, and I have had people do a bad job. Try asking your butcher or the chef at your favorite restaurant (assuming you're lucky enough to have either) if they can recommend someone to sharpen your knives. If neither of those work, ask at a knife or kitchen store. For a while, I had a sweet deal at a knife store where they'd sharpen for free most anything I took them: I'd bought a bunch of stuff from them, and they were nice guys. But they're gone. :(
Buy a stone -- This is scary to a lot of people, but is probably the cheapest route long-term. There are oilstones, diamond stones, and waterstones. To cut to the chase, a good first stone to have is a 1000 grit artificial waterstone. It takes off metal at a reasonable rate and leaves a good edge for kitchen knives. You can buy or make a simple guide to position the knife on the stone (in fact, clipping a plastic binder edge or plastic knife guard to the knife's spine may work ok), or you can freehand it. Lee Valley sells a basic 1000 grit waterstone and a guide for about $30 total. I bought a similar setup for a friend; after a while, he stopped using the guide. But a guide will help you keep the angle constant, and may help you get over any fear of using the stone.
Buy a sharpening jig -- There are lots of different types of jigs. The kind most people are familiar with consist of a bunch of little ceramic or metal disks mounted in a handle or holder. One draws a knife through to sharpen it. Unfortunately, these can damage some knives. I'm told they can damage knives of very hard steel, like some Japanese knives. I thought they would be OK on most other steel knives, but a friend of mine ruined a Wusthof with one. These particular jigs also tend to make the edge very obtuse. So I'd stay away from these. But if you must have one, Lee Valley sells a two-stage model for about $21.50. I guess you can use the fine wheels for light touch-ups, and the coarse wheels for more serious sharpening. A more serious jig altogether comes from Gatco that clamps onto the knife. It has multiple stones with it and lets you select different sharpening angles for different uses. You'll spend $40 to $100 or more depending on the set. I bought mine from the same guys who used to sharpen my knives for free; thank god I bought it before they quit. You can buy a simple, inexpensive version of the Gatco set from Lee Valley. They also sell additional hones that go with the set.
You can help keep your knife sharp by buying a knife steel and learning to use it. Steeling will help maintain the knife, but eventually steeling won't help any more. So maybe you'd want to buy a steel before getting a sharpening setup. If I have my brain operating correctly, I often steel a knife before using it. (I need to expand this part. The problem is I need to figure out how to do a good job of describing the steeling process with just words.)
Ok, you've suffered through all the natter above and decided to ignore it, so what should you buy? If I were going to buy just one knife for myself, it'd probably be an 8-inch chef's knife. This knife would be used for general cutting up of meat and vegetables, but not for chopping through bones, and probably not for paring and peeling, as it's probably too big. I'd want it to have steel running all the way through the handle, with the handle made of wood or comfortable plastic. The knife blade should be tapered from spine to edge and handle to point. The back should be relatively thick: at least 1/8 inch near the handle. Some people like high-carbon steel, but most stainless knives are in fact high-carbon, and stainless is much easier to take care of. The knife is not serrated, either coarsely or finely. The knife feels good in your hand, and you like it.
If you want a knife like the above, here are a few suggestions:
The chef's knife I use most often is my Wusthof 8 inch chef's knife. It's very close to what's indicated as a "4582 / 20 cm ( 8") - Cook's Knife" on Wusthof's listing of "Classic" line "essential" knives. The listing also shows a 7 inch knife I've never seen before which might be better: I've often felt like for general work 8 inch knives are too big and 6 inch knives are too small. Some people find an 8 inch knife a bit large anyway.
Another knife I like, but don't own, is a Thiers-Issard chef's knife. Thiers-Issard is in the bizarre position of selling their knives in about 30 countries, but not the U.S., under the name "Sabatier." Sabatier in the US is something different; more on that later. Lee Valley carries three of this particular knife in a 6, 8, and 10 inch size. These knives are less wide than the Wusthof above. The handles are an attractive wood, impregnated with epoxy -- they look like wood and feel nice, but are more resistant to water and such. I recently got one for a friend and she likes it.
Ok, what else do you get? (I assume you have sharpening taken care of already.) Make sure you have a wooden or plastic cutting board: cutting on harder surfaces (like glass or metal) can damage your knife. Next, make sure your knife has somewhere to live where it won't get beat up. This could be a knife block, an edge guard, or maybe just a special, convenient place in your kitchen. An edge guard can be the spine from one of those plastic binders, or you can buy one cheaply. Edge guard or no, I still wouldn't let it bang around with a bunch of other stuff, and I probably wouldn't put the knife in a dishwasher. Wash it by hand, and dry it if it's not stainless steel.
More knives, you say? Assuming you have money to burn, knock yourself out and get one of everything. :) Assuming you have limited resources, the next thing I'd get would not be a knife. It would be one of those cheap ($1-$2) swiveling-blade vegetable peelers. I've never seen one so good that I need to recommend it, and never seen one so bad that I need to warn you off. (Ok, I take that back. I just bent one almost in half shaving chocolate. Funny thing is the one that bent is a new one that looks sturdier than my old one. D'oh.) If it breaks or gets dull, throw it away and get a new one (yes, you could sharpen it, but I'm not going to get into that). Most of these have blades that are not stainless, so you'll need to wash and dry it by hand. After that, I'd get a cheap serrated knife for bread and the like. I got my first one for less than $2 in a hardware store discount bin. After that, I'd either buy a real paring knife or a boning knife. If I wanted to chop through bones, I'd probably buy a cleaver real fast, before I was tempted to damage my chef's knife. If you get a serious cleaver and want to chop serious bones, make sure your cutting board is up to it -- I've ruined a couple of cutting boards with over-enthusiastic chopping. The deep cuts and missing chunks of wood from chopping are ideal harbors for bacteria, so scrub those boards well!
Let's say you'd like to spend a moderate amount of money on a knife set, and don't need it to be a big-name brand. Try this set sold by Lee Valley. I bought two sets last year as $mas gifts, and the recipients liked them. You get five matching knives and a carving fork. They have wood handles impregnated with epoxy, similar to the Thiers-Issard knife mentioned above. The set comes in a carrying case, although I'd prefer a knife block myself.
There are good cheap knives -- some even cheaper than what I've listed. My local grocery has a promotional knife set for under thirty dollars -- several knives and a knife block. A friend bought one and likes it a lot, but I haven't used them. Anyway, keep your eyes and mind open, especially if you're trying to save money.
Ok, how about a few specific brands? I've already mentioned Wusthof. For some reason, I only own one, but I've bought a couple others as gifts, and they've always seemed like good knives.
I've also already mentioned the oddity surrounding Sabatier: The brand Sabatier in the US is not the same company as elsewhere. The non-US company is Thiers-Issard; I've been very happy with their stuff. The US Sabatier has a number of lines that very widely in quality. Look for the usual signs of quality: heavier knives, forged instead of stamped, with tapering from the spine to the edge and from the handle to the point.
I don't know anything about Henckels, but their knives sell with other premium knives like Wusthof.
I've had a number of Chicago Cutlery knives. They seem to have expanded their offerings quite a bit since I bought anything from them, but the wood-handled knives I bought 10-15 years ago from them are still going strong and work well. In fact, I sharpened one while writing this post, and cut the fuck out of myself, so I guess you can get them pretty sharp. :) I think the biggest problem with these knives is that the company doesn't charge enough for them.
A hot knife company these days is Global by a Japanese company called Yoshikin. Yoshikin doesn't sell direct in the US, but a billion other people do. I've never cut anything with one of these, but I've picked them up. They have a one-piece design where the hollow metal handle is of a piece with the blade. I don't like the balance of the knives, but they're really popular -- and really expensive.
Speaking of expensive Japanese knives I've never used, Kyocera makes a line of ceramic knives and other kitchen products. Kyocera stands for Kyoto Ceramics. These ceramics are harder than steel, and the edge is supposed to hold up several times longer than a metal knife. However, you can't sharpen these with normal abrasives: you have to use diamond. Kyocera offers sharpening by mail for their products. These knives are inflexible and brittle compared to steel, so you need to use more care than with metal knives. I wouldn't chop with them. Actually, I'll probably never buy one, because they're super-expensive. I've read that there's a huge US import duty on this type of ceramic, but the German company Boker's ceramic kitchen knives seem to run about half what Kyocera's do. There are other foreign manufacturers of ceramic knives, but I'm not familiar with a domestic producer. If you know of one, please let me know.
Less expensive, but still somewhat exotic, is this Kobayashi knife and a smaller paring knife carried by Lee Valley. I own both of these. They came wickedly sharp. The choil (the portion of the blade closest to your fingers when holding the knife) is itself unusually sharp, and Lee Valley recommends dubbing it. These knives have laminated blades: the edge is a very hard carbon steel; the rest is a softer stainless steel that helps absorb shocks the harder steel couldn't tolerate by itself. These are also knives you don't want to chop with. The carbon steel rusts quickly, and will discolor. When you finish using one of these knives, wash and dry it right away so it doesn't rust. But god, I love cutting with these. It feels like some sort of guilty pleasure. And they're not that expensive, relatively speaking.
Would you like to learn more about sharpening? Read Leonard Lee's The Complete Guide to Sharpening. It's mostly oriented toward woodworking tools, but there are several introductory chapters with general information, and a chapter specifically for knives. Leonard Lee founded Lee Valley Tools (sales) and Veritas Tools (manufacturing). I have a lot of links to Lee Valley, so just in case you're wondering: I don't own stock in them. :) But I would if I could: they're a great company to deal with.
Ok, that's about all I can think of right now. I hope to be adding to and editing this page continually, so feel free to comment or make suggestions.