Getting to know what you like in terms of cooking knives takes experience. You simply need to try using a lot of different knives and you’ll soon come to realize that certain characteristics suit you better than others.
I don’t think there’s any shortcut around this fact. The only thing about it is whether you do this cheaply (or relatively so) or expensively – and yes, it can get very expensive.
Before I talk about the cheap and expensive ways, let me backtrack and explain why I say that you need experience to learn what you like or not. To begin with, one knife is not like another knife, even if at first glance they seem to be the same. If you look at a knife from the side, you see its profile. For the most part, a santoku looks like a santoku looks like a santoku, and a chef’s knife looks like a chef’s knife looks like a chef’s knife, and so on.
This, however, is way too superficial. That’s like saying a car is a car is a car. No, they’re not, and if you test drive a number of cars in the same class you realize very quickly that they all feel different in terms of acceleration, braking, cornering, responsiveness, and road feel. You don’t see any of that from a photo or from walking around the car in a showroom. You find that out from test driving the cars – from using them.
The same thing is at work when it comes to cooking knives. It’s not a question of whether the edge is sharp. You can sharpen each knife well and have a very keen edge and based on the way they are designed and made they will feel different to the user. There are differences in how smoothly it goes through certain types of food, how food sticks to the side of the blade (or not), how natural it feels in the hand, how flexible you can be in the ways you grip and control it, and how “connected” you feel to the knife and food that you’re cutting (very much akin to “roadfeel” for a car).
There’s no shortcut to all of this. You begin to appreciate the effect of different elements in a knife’s design and construction as you use more of them. There are elements in the profile itself that you will soon become very aware of: the amount of curve in the edge, and where that curvature begins, the height of the blade, and of course the handle design. You will soon also learn in terms of how it feels in your hand what works better. And then there will be things that you will begin to experience only once you start using the knife to go through food of various kinds.
Experience will tell you what works for you and what doesn’t.
So how do you get that experience?
The expensive way is to buy one of everything that interests you and then use them. You can make this less expensive by buying, trying, then selling. However, I can tell you firsthand that the last step of “selling” is the difficult part. That’s why so many of us who have a keen interest in cooking and knives end up with extensive collections.
The cheaper way is to try everything you can when you visit friends who also like to cook and appreciate good knives. This is by far the better way, but the difficulty is in building that circle of friends who like to cook and who appreciate good knives. That second requirement is pretty tough from what I’ve seen.
If you are interested in photography, you can rent the lenses and cameras that you are interested in. That means if you cannot borrow for free to test-drive the equipment, you can spend a few bucks (far less than purchase price) to rent and try it out before deciding what you like best.
There is no such thing as knife rentals when it comes to good knives. We’re out of luck on that count.
So then it comes down to whether you have friends who are also interested in good knives and how much you can afford to spend (and beg, borrow, and steal).
However you manage to get your hands on a variety and range of knives though, soon you will begin to learn what you like and what works for you, and what you don’t like and what doesn’t work for you.
Once you get to that point, though, purchasing decisions get easy. There are going to be a whole slew of knives that you know right away are not for you – like how I know that I like taller profiled knives and will not even consider purchasing ones with lower profiles. You’ll also probably develop little rules of thumb for yourself to make it better for you financially – like how I decided to stick with wa handles and don’t even consider knives that come only in western handles.
Oh, I forgot to mention that there is a third option. At least an option for some of you. That is to marry someone who likes knives and has an extensive knife collection. My wife is starting to learn what knives she likes and what she doesn’t. Since she doesn’t actually have an interest in the knives themselves, I find that she’s doing it subconsciously and gravitating towards certain knives over time even as I rotate different knives for use every few weeks.
This option may be harder to do than the find-some-friends option though.
If you genuinely have a keen interest in cooking knives, there’s a lot – and I do mean a lot – that you can learn from reputable sources online. However, there are some things that come down to personal preference and feel. These are qualitative elements that nobody’s review or comments can do full justice. These are qualitative elements that you need to have your own experience about in order to (a) evaluate what others are saying about these factors, and (b) decide for yourself what works and what doesn’t.
There’s a saying in photography that beginners focus on the bodies, then progress to focusing on the lenses, and finally focus on tripods and the fundamentals of good photography. Something similar is at work with cooking knives. Most of us start by focusing on the steel, then we focus on some seemingly-random element like spine width or weight or whatever, and then at the end we end up focusing on just those few factors that really work for us in making us faster, more effective, and make time at the cutting board fun.
So do I have any easy solution for you? Unfortunately, no. But the road ahead is conceptually very simple: get a lot of experience using a wide variety of knives and pay attention when you use them. That’s it. How to do that though is up to you!
Have fun and kick ass out there!