The Kindest Cut
Looking for a gift that's really sharp? For a friend who's a chef or who simply loves to cook, a knife may be just the thing. "If you're going to do any cooking at all, you've got to have a good knife," says Julia Child, renowned chef and co-author of Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (Knopf, $40).
For everyday use, an 8-inch chef's knife and a 3-inch paring knife are the most handy. You can buy them in sets, which is cheaper than getting them separately. But before you buy, get to know the finer points of quality cutlery.
Be ready to spend serious money. A well-made 3-in. paring knife costs at least $25; larger knives can be priced as high as $170. These are usually stainless steel and have high carbon content, which increases hardness and makes for cleaner cuts. But not all high-carbon stainless is the same. "Every manufacturer has its own cocktail," spiked with elements such as molybdenum and vanadium, says Mary Donovan, senior editor of The Professional Chef's Knife Kit (Culinary Institute of America, $34.95).
The specific mix determines a blade's hardness and how difficult it is to sharpen. For example, Chef's Choice knives by EdgeCraft of Avondale, Pa., are made of a very hard steel. They retain their edge a long time but are a "bear to sharpen," says Douglas Dillman, owner of Freeport Knife (www.freeportknife.com, 800 646-8430) in Freeport, Me. Conversely, cutlery from Forschner-Victorinox (a maker of Swiss Army knives) uses a softer alloy. They sharpen easily but also dull more quickly. "If the person you're buying the knife for is not likely to be diligent on maintenance, choose a harder knife," says Terri Alpert, CEO of Professional Cutlery Direct (www.cutlery.com, 800 859-6994), a catalog and Web retailer. To determine hardness, get a blade's Rockwell number: The range from softest to hardest for high-carbon stainless is 52 to 60.
FULL TANG. Harder and even more expensive than high-carbon stainless are ceramic knives, such as those made by Japan's Kyocera. Made of zirconium oxide, they cannot rust. But they aren't made longer than six inches and can chip if you drop them. You also have to send them to a Kyocera facility in San Diego for honing.
If you opt for high-carbon stainless, which is what most pros use, forged knives are best. "You get a more uniform grain" for smooth, even slicing, says Dan Bilger of Corrado Cutlery in Chicago (www.corradocutlery.com, 800 416-4413). Forged blades taper from spine to edge and heel to tip. This feature and a full tang--the metal part that extends from the blade into the end of the handle--give a knife balance and stability.
Wood, formerly the material of choice for handles, has fallen out of favor because it can trap moisture and bacteria. But some companies, such as Lamson & Goodnow, make wood handles infused with resins, making them virtually impervious to germs. More popular are polypropylene grips or stainless steel handles. "Pick what feels good in your hand," says Bilger of Corrado.
To comparison shop, go to a cutlery store. It's more likely than a department or kitchen supply store to carry several brands. Making the effort will help guarantee a gift that's sure to make the cut.