Final Cut: Tips for the Knife-Shopping Virgin

If you're a relative novice, it can be difficult to know where to start. A quick trip to Phoenix Knife House at McDowell & Miller roads in Scottsdale and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices. Santoku, bread knives, chef's knives, boning knives... If you've got a ton of cash to pluck down, you could buy a whole set, plus a solid wood knife block or a soft carrying case to keep 'em in. But when you're just learning to cook and can barely slice a potato without skinning your knuckles, best to start simple.

"If you're going to buy just one good knife, your best bet is a santoku or a chef's knife," says Phoenix Knife House owner Eytan Zias. "Both are good all-purpose knives that you can use to chop, dice, cut. The difference is in the curve of the blade." A chef's knife has a slight curve to the blade, while the santoku is straighter. Don't rule either style out until you've tried chopping with them.

Now it's time to talk size...   

. Most chefs would argue that it's not about the size of your knife; it's about how you use it. That may be true, but if you start with a blade that's huge for your 5-foot-two frame, you might be uncomfortable. Then again, maybe you'll have no problem handling a monster one

Zias started out by handing me several versions of the same knife in 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch sizes. I was instructed to pick them up, fondle the handle a bit to see how it feels in my hand, and try a chopping motion or two. "There are a few things to look for when picking a knife," explains chef and Chow Bella contributor Carol Blonder, who accompanied The Virgin on her quest for a new knife. "The size of the knife, and how it feels in terms of balance. It's all about the grip."

I made a few wild cuts as Zias and Blonder cringed and braced to call 9-1-1, but left with fingers intact and uncut. According to Zias, on some days I would've been in the minority -- he's had to make multiple emergency calls in one day when several chefs got too cocky and ended up slicing a finger or hand. 

The Virgin eventually settled on an 8-inch size. Hey, 8 inches is nothing to sneeze at, boys!  

Buy the best you can afford. I don't mean that you should automatically buy the most expensive knife in the place, if you can afford it. But better quality usually does come with a heftier price tag. Zias laid out a dozen or so santoku and chef's knives in order of steel quality, with the better Japanese blades generally being in the $150-200 range. The cheapest was about $40, and had the softest steel. Harder is generally better, though of course, there is such a thing as too hard.

Just ask anyone who's ended up in the hospital after taking one of those little blue pills. But I digress...

Tip #3: Be culturally biased. There's a real divide about who makes the best cooking knives. Zias prefers Japanese blades, while local chef Tracy Dempsey, for example, loves her original Wüsthof® set. It's like choosing between boxers and briefs: onlookers have their preference, but it's all about what's comfortable for you. Choose the brand, and the knife, you like best. "Bring a few carrots with you and try chopping them," advises Blonder.

After narrowing my choices down to two lovely Japanese santoku knives at Phoenix Knife House, Blonder and I went down the street to check out the selection at Sur La Table at Scottsdale Waterfront. The gourmet store provided carrots, so I didn't have to bring any. I tested out the Wüsthof and Henckels brands, which felt heavy and cumbersome in my small hands, and a 7" Global hollow-edge santoku that was delightfully light and easy to use, but came with a hefty price tag.

In the end, I went back for the cheaper and lighter of the Santoku knives I'd fallen for at Phoenix Knife House. How long will this baby last me? It's a lot like a relationship. "With the right care, it will last a lifetime," says Zias. "You should sharpen it, hone it with regularly with a steel, and wash it by hand."           

Follow Chow Bella on Facebook and Twitter

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >