The knife department at any good kitchenware store has its own fierce, gleaming beauty. You might find it a bit overwhelming, but, in the end, selecting the right knife is one of the easiest choices you'll ever have to make. It's so personal, in fact, you could argue that a knife, like a puppy at the pound, chooses you, instead of the other way around. You'll have that same moment of recognition, and, in both cases, will go home with something that will change your life.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CHEF'S KNIFE
My first piece of advice? Don't let a salesperson coax you into buying a set of knives. Odds are you'll never use half of them, and you may find you prefer different brands for different kitchen jobs. For now, let's keep things simple and take a look at eight-inch chef's knives. If you can only afford one good knife, this is the size you want; it can handle a great variety of slicing and chopping tasks. Two things to keep in mind are how comfortable the handle is (imagine what it will feel like when your hands are greasy) and how deep the belly (the widest part of the blade) is. On some knives it's relatively narrow, and you'll rap your knuckles while chopping.
EUROPEAN-STYLE HIGH-CARBON STAINLESS STEEL KNIVES
Lots of people love the heft and balance of a European high-carbon stainless-steel eight-inch knife. The blade, which seems to do all the work for you, imparts the confidence to tackle a hard, dense butternut squash as well as garden-variety soup-pot vegetables. Two power players are Wüsthof
($99 at amazon.com
) and Victorinox's Forged Chef's Knife
($99.99 at swissknifeshop.com
) The eight-inch "Twin Cuisine
" knife by Henckels
($129.95 at cooking.com
) is heavier than the Wüsthof or the Vixtorinox, but larger hands tend to find the grip extremely comfortable. The American-made knife in this category is from Anolon's "Advanced Collection," and at around $50 (available from amazon.com), it's a terrific value.
JAPANESE-STYLE "SUPERSTEEL" KNIVES
Most American home cooks saw their first Japanese knives on the Food Network. Made of harder stainless "supersteel,"-the result of a centuries-old process used for samurai blades-the knives are lighter, thinner, sharper and more precise; their reduced surface drag allows them to cut through food with very little effort. The Global eight-inch chef's knife (around $99; available from amazon.com), with its characteristic dimpled handle, is readily available and deserves its popularity: It cuts through meat, fish and vegetables (even slippery-skinned tomatoes) with ease. The Kershaw Shun ($119.95 at amazon.com) has a superbly balanced handle that allows you to chop, slice and dice with the speed and agility of-well, a samurai warrior. The heavier Australian-made Furi "FX" (about $92 at amazon.com) is Japanese in style, although it's made with German high-carbon stainless steel.
PROPER CARE AND HANDLING OF CHEF'S KNIVES
No matter what knife you choose, store it safely in a wood block or tray or on a magnetic knife rack, and never put it in the dishwasher; a sharp knife can nick the plastic-coated wire racks or, worse, whoever is emptying the dishwasher, and the force of the water can dull the blade by pushing it against other utensils. When it comes time to sharpen your knife, follow the manufacturer's instructions.