Before you go out and buy an expensive knife or set of knives, let's look at a few knife basics so you know what you are talking about. No matter what you read about a particular knife or what's hot with the celebrity chefs, the most important feature is how the knife feels in your hand.
Most high end quality knives are going to be made well and are sure to be sharp and hold an edge, but with knives, size does matter. If you have little hands, most likely you don't want to be working with a 12 inch chefs knife. Some styles are lighter than others and might be right for you but not someone with big strong hands.
So do your homework and find someplace that will let you give the knife a test drive. This is a piece of equipment you will own for a long time and use everyday.
Most knives consist of the front of the knife, tang (not the astronaut drink), bolster and handle. Let's look at each of these sections:
The front of a knife that contains the blade, spine, tip, and heel. The blade is the sharp part that does the cutting. The spine is opposite the blade and adds weight and stability.
The tip of a knife is at the point and and is used for cutting small items, making small cuts and opening packages that are impossible to break open with your hands.
The tang is that piece of metal that extends from the blade to the back of the knife and the handle attaches to. Not all knives have tangs but most of the good ones do. The tang also gives a knife some weight and balance or the knife would be front heavy.
The bolster is that little collar that separates the blade and the handle. It adds strength, balance and most importantly prevents you from cutting off your finger if the knife slips when cutting. The bolster can run from the spine to the edge or just part way. Again, most of the better made knives have a bolster.
The handle is what you hold on to and can be made out of wood, plastic, composite or stainless steel. You might think a handle is just a handle but since this is what you will be mostly in contact with, it's important the handle feels good in your hand.
Knives are either blocked, forged or sintered.
Blocked knives are cut from a single sheet of metal usually of the same thickness. The blades are ground to form the edge and handles are added to the tang. They typically don't have bolsters, are less expensive to make and therefore buy and are not usually very good quality. They won't have the balance or feel of a better made forged knife.
Forged knives is made the way we think King Arthur's sword may have been produced. The manufacturer takes a hunk of metal, heats it up and pounds it into the correct shape using a drop forge machine. These knives typically have bolsters, more weight, thicker bolsters and cost a heck of lot more. But with the extra expense, you get a better made, better balanced knife that you may have forever if take care of properly.
Sinter is a process where they take a seperate blade and fuse it to a seperate tang. It's less expensive process than forging but it allows you to create beautiful Eastern style knives like global where the blades are flat but they have tubular handles.
Eastern vs Western Style
The easiest way to describe the difference is to look at a couple of examples. The knives in the photographs to the right are examples of Eastern styles while the Wusthof above is an example of a Western style.
Another example of Eastern (Asian) cutlery is the Chinese Cleaver that was developed for a number of cutting purposes. It has a rectangular blade with a straight cutting edge with a slight curve for rocking purposes when mincing and dicing. The top of the blade is dull for pounding purposes and the wide side is perfect for smashing garlic and scooping cut ingredients.
Although there are three specific specialty knives designed for cutting various ingredients in Japaneese cuisine, the santoku knifemost knife in Japanese kitchens is called a santoku and has a long, medium width blade. What's interesting about this knife is it only has one sharp on one side as compared to Western style knives that are sharp on both sides. The Japanese believe a single-edged blade cuts more effectively.
Materials - the Japanese also introduced ceramic blades to the west. A company called Kyocera manufacturers a knife with a ceramic blade that is incredibly sharp and more durable than you would think. Another Japanese company, Global, manufactures a stainlesssteel blade that can hold a razor sharp edge. These knives are wonderfully balanced and beautiful to look at. I'm not sure how they handle because I don't own one yet.
Basic Knife Skills Video
Be sure to check out this informative knife skills video by my friend & knife expert, Peter Hertzmann, on how to properly hold & cut with a chef's knife on his Basic Knife Skills Video.