Test Drive a Lot of Knives to Know What Works for You

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!

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