Gordon Ramsay and Binging with Babish will tell you that a good knife is all you need to cook well. If seasoned professionals or avid home cooks tell you knives are the most important tool in cooking, then it must be true.
Over my time cooking in commercial kitchens as well as at homes, I’ve thought so too. My friends have said it borders on a fetish. I’ve been taught that a knife, as all things, should be perfectly balanced, which should make prepping ingredients easier than snapping your fingers. Knives should feel like extensions of your hands. Knives should be wiped down after each use, sharpened on whetstones only at a 12-15 degree angle and, if using carbon steel knives, lathered in mineral oil when not in use. Countless cookware and knife discussion boards will result in much of the same — discussions of Rockwell hardness of different steels as well as carbide size and content flourish alongside slight maligned attitudes toward forged stainless steels but not powdered stainless steels. I’ll often compare the ease of sharpening and edge retention on different knives, much to my partner’s chagrin whenever we (I) cook.
There’s nothing wrong about loving your daily tools, which is part of the reason I jumped into the deep rabbit holes of kitchen knives and metallurgy. But as much as I hate to admit it, cheap knives work great, and I’m happy using my partner’s cheap knife from a local Chinese market.
When we first started dating, my partner and I decided to buy a cheap knife, after much insistence on my part, when I learned she used a set of dull, three-inch steak knives to prepare all her ingredients. Meandering through the kitchen supply aisle, I told her to choose the knife she felt comfortable and safe using. She ended up choosing a $5 Thai brand knife that proudly asserted its off-balance charm, square-shaped light stamped blade and blocky, unfinished wooden handle.
I fell in love with it the same way I fell in love with my favorite powdered stainless steel knife with its custom maple and cherry wood handle. As I brandish that cheap $5 knife wildly in the air, I marveled at the sheer lightness of the blade — it was akin to holding a conductor’s baton. And with the blade’s relatively tall and square characteristics, I could easily scoop and scrape massive piles of ingredients off of the cutting board. Best of all, I can sharpen the blade into a keen, wicked edge with the back of a plate if necessary — a feat that would make my other knives weep.
There are occasions when that cheap knife struggles at the tasks I throw at it — it chokes when going through thick and dense pieces of squashes and cabbages, and it shreds raw fish when attempting to make thin, long slices of sashimi. Tomatoes will sometimes squeeze under the knife’s pressure instead of elegantly slicing through the skin. But these are small prices to pay for the knife’s sheer convenience. I don’t always want to tend to my prized knives after a particularly long day cooking under quarantine.
Compared to an internet darling such as America Test Kitchen’s Victorinox Forschner, I find that the quality of the $5 knife compared to other so-called “budget” options are as comparable as the recommended hoards of food-sanitary knives utilized in most restaurant kitchens. That’s fortunate for us as consumers, who are always on the look-out for the best bang-for-your-buck options. Perhaps the best thing about a cheap knife is that you can just as easily replace the knife if you either break the knife or are unwilling to sharpen it — $5 for months to year-long service of a blade is arguably far better of a deal than any monthly streaming services.
Perhaps the only thing our $5 knife is lacking in is its appearance. That homely knife looks like a fish out of water compared to some of the knives I currently possess. But if knives like these can satisfy the kitchen professionals and home cooks alike, does the knife’s appearance really matter?
There are many who might read this article and either point to my foolishness in spending large piles of cash on knives or point to my unintended mockery of high-end kitchen knives. There’s little contest that a knife of high caliber will outperform a cheap knife every time. But few may need the extreme levels of performance offered by expensive knives. Most of us are probably trying to make food for ourselves or our loved ones. I can settle for that.