Choosing a main cooking knife is a serious business – even for amateurs like me.
Good knives don’t make you a better cook anymore than expensive golf clubs make you Rory McIlroy, but they are important. Cheap, dull knives and you’re more likely to cut yourself. Even cheap sharp knives are likely to be too light, too flexy and imbalanced to make chopping and slicing enjoyable. Pushing away down on an onion with an awful knife is like trying to butt a jigsaw piece in the wrong place – with the added danger that it’s sharp enough to slice you.
It’s not TV, so it doesn’t matter how fast you chop, but with a good knife, it just makes preparation ten times more enjoyable. You feel industrious, professional in some gleeful way that just feels good. It brings a little Marco Pierre White to the ex-Council semi. There’s also just a point where you have to say, I wouldn’t drive to work with four flat tyres, so why the hell do I put up with this bendy blunt crap in the kitchen?
I’ve had all sorts of knives over the years, from cheap to cheapish, so decided to put the learning from each miserable experience into the purchase of the new one. From cheap supermarket knives, I had progressed to mid ranged decent knives, but finally came to realise I was just chucking away money year on, and not enjoying the cooking. It was time to make a commitment, and buy something good.
“Something good” means cost, because anything from a half decent knife to a very good knife doesn’t come cheap. On a very moderate income it’s a really big call to spend from £50 to £100 on a knife, and that’s not even at the edge of the really expensive ones.
It’s especially hard to decide when some of the stuff you read about chef knives is unhelpfully intimidating and hard to understand. Somehow there’s an insinuation that choosing the wrong type of expensive chef’s knife is just the biggest piece of cringey naffness of all time, a devastating bit of gauchery from which your cookery aspirations will never recover.
Of course, this is rubbish. These people hopefully won’t be coming into your kitchen to point and laugh at you. In the end I made my mind up by dealing one by one with the sorry disappointments of past knives, then going to a shop.
I must have learned something …
Reasons to be disappointed (with past knives)
No.1: I had a quite dear celebrity chef knife. It was super exciting, looked great and was such a step up to begin with, then the cool hilt decoration came loose.
No. 2: I had a good chef’s knife with rivets in the handle. After a couple of years, one of these fell out. Alarmingly, it had been serving no purpose whatsoever all that time.
No. 3: Seduced by television programmes, I bought a Santoku – another celebrity endorsement. It was a thin, stamped blade which was great to begin with, but lost its edge really quickly, and didn’t respond well to sharpening. Buying a cheap Santoku is really not a good idea.
No.4: Still with that celebrity Santoku, I learned something important: I love bolsters.
No.5: I like to use a knife as a scoop, for herbs, say. Smaller, cheaper cook’s knives just didn’t work for this. One of my old cook’s knives was basically an overgrown utility knife.
No.6: I really don’t like metal handles. As an amateur, I need plenty of anti-slip.
After all this reminiscence, I chose the Henckels 4 Star.
There is no fancy hilt decoration. There are no rivets. There’s a proper Excalibur of a bolster. It feels perfectly weighted and I love the extended pommel that makes the knife sit perfectly in the hand, although maybe not if you have very big hands. The polypropelene of the welded handle is a kind top of the range version of the slightly rubberised feel of lots of knives these days. In other words, it doesn’t feel rubbery or pick up stuff like flypaper. It just feels very perfectly smooth but grippy.
It’s not the most expensive knife I could get, but it was the most expensive I could afford. In fact, I maybe could have sneaked something slightly dearer, but didn’t need to, because this knife just felt right. The knife you need might well be the cheapest of your options.
There is also no substitute for finding a shop that stocks all brands, holding the knives, checking them out up close. This one felt so close to the perfect cooking knife when I first got a hold of it that I knew it was the one I was going to buy immediately. I’ve discovered it’s best not to buy a knife straight from the internet – try them first in a store and you’ll know. Obviously, some of us might then have to cheat, and sheepishly back out of the shop to buy online.
There’s always a worry that these more expensive knives can’t possibly be such a leap in quality, but they are. The 4 Star design hasn’t changed in forty years for good reason. There’s a new one, the Four Star 2, which looks great, but I was greatly swayed by a bargain set that has this knife, a utility and a parer for around £70; probably around half the amount I’ve spent on the scrap I’d used for years.