The regiment of shiny knives on parade in your local kitchen shop could blunt the enthusiasm of even the keenest cook. Fortunately, you don’t really need this vast range of specialisation. I mainly manage with two. For intricate work, such as chopping fruit or hacking into recalcitrant packaging, I use a 12cm utility knife. My favourite is a 20cm chef’s knife, the general infantryman of culinary blades. As well as chopping and slicing, it’s a handy stand-in for a carving knife, a boning knife and the two-handled herb chopper known as a mezzaluna.
You can’t always judge a knife by name alone. Sabatier, for example, is not an individual company — it’s a nod to history. Sabatier knives were originally made by various cutlers in the Thiers region of France, but now you’ll find the word inscribed on cheap knives stamped from sheets of inferior metal, as well as on those made the old-fashioned, fully forged way. And forged is what you want: it creates a fine-grained steel that is durable and sharpens well.
The main point of a knife is sharpness. Oddly, this tends to be ignored once we’ve bought one. Even if we store knives properly using a block or magnetic strip, a few escapees tend to rattle around in a drawer. But the main problem is that we don’t sharpen them. When dull, a good knife becomes a bad knife. It is a common failing. In an article in American Vogue, the culinary obsessive Jeffrey Steingarten admitted that his collection of 58 knives were all “too dull to cut butter”. A European forged knife should (in principle) have its edge restored before every use with a few strokes on a kitchen steel. Our unwillingness to do this explains the proliferation of cheap, disposable knives.
One solution might be to buy Japanese knives, which are made from harder steel and so retain their edge for longer. At least they do if their use is restricted to the Japanese diet, in which fish and vegetables predominate. My one-knife approach would damage a Japanese blade if it were used for heavy-duty work like spatchcocking a chicken or hacking apart a pumpkin. Fashionable ceramic knives are even more susceptible. Drop one and it’s a goner.
Damascus knives bear a tidal pattern on the blade, formed from dozens of layers of compressed steel; some claim that the whorls prevent slices of food sticking to the blade. Other knives tackle this problem with a line of little indentations (a “Granton” edge) that prevent a vacuum forming between slice and knife. But like all such tempting additions, it is liable to end up in the knife drawer.
The knife to look for is one with a blade made from a simultaneously heated and compressed (aka precision-forged) bar of high-carbon stainless steel. A full-length tang — the extension of the blade — that runs to the end of the handle will help extend the life of the knife. A plain, as opposed to serrated, edge will make it easy to sharpen, and a deep blade will protect your knuckles while you chop. For a general-purpose tool, the Wüsthof Classic 20cm cook’s knife (£75, above) is highly impressive. Beautifully balanced, it is forged from a single piece of high-carbon alloy that sharpens to the finest of edges. The Robert Welch Signature range keeps the price down by being made in China from German steel. Its 20cm knife (£52) is heavier than many rivals and its ergonomic handle fits into the palm as if custom-made. The Stellar Sabatier range wins for economy. Its 20cm cook’s knife (£33), made from a carbon/molybdenum/vanadium steel alloy, has served me well on a daily basis for many years.