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I am soon to be moving to a house with a very nice kitchen, and so the time has come for me to buy myself a proper set of knives. I have been looking around at the various types available. There seem to be cheaper steel knives with plastic or wooden handles (e.g. from normal homeware stores), pro-range solid steel knives (e.g. Global) and also ceramic knives. As much as I'd like to buy something like the Global knives, they are quite expensive and so I've been looking at what else is out there.

While I'm pretty sure the pro-range steel knives will outperform the cheap steel knives, I have no idea how good ceramic knives are.

  • Are there reasons why I might want to choose ceramic over steel or vice versa?

  • What are the things to look out for when buying knives?

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How good are your honing and sharpening skills? If "not good yet", do you want to improve them? –  rumtscho Jan 29 '12 at 21:23
    
Let's assume I'm not good at either :-) Always willing to learn new skills though. –  Mark Hatton Jan 29 '12 at 21:25
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Steel, because the Victorinox Forschner knives are steel, and are just plain awesome for the price. –  DHayes Jan 31 '12 at 15:27

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

In general, ceramic knives are great for what they do, but too fragile to do everything. They can shatter if dropped on a hard surface, and can easily get get notched on bone. I use my ceramics exclusively for vegetables for that reason.

If you're strapped for funds, you really only need to by one expensive knife (a steel chef's knife or santoku), and one cheap one (a serrated knife for cutting bread). After that, picking up knife skills is more important and will make your cooking better than any investment in more knives.

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5  
+1 But I'd add a smallish paring knife, even a cheap one, to the starter set. It's not so easy to, say, hull strawberries or core a pepper with a 9" blade. And since the OP seems interested in ceramic knives, a cheap ceramic paring knife might be a good place to start. –  Caleb Jan 30 '12 at 2:48
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I actually disagree with Caleb. At first, using a 9" knife felt sloppy for me, and was hard to use for things like coring a pepper. But after a few days practice I can do anything with a chef's knife that I could with a paring knife, and now I feel weird picking up a paring knife. Just get yourself one good quality chef's knife, anything else is just for show. –  dan Jan 30 '12 at 16:08
    
Yes, my recommendation would be for a high quality metal chef/santoku knife and a paring knife, which can be ceramic. –  Manako Jan 31 '12 at 15:10

Ceramic knives:

  • cut
  • get through metal detectors at night clubs

Steel knives:

  • cut
  • smash (garlic, ginger...)
  • pry (potato eyes)
  • look good
  • scare burglars
  • stick to metallic thingies on the wall
  • don't scratch glass cutting boards (anyone cringing?)
  • don't snap when thrown dropped.
  • have zen-like qualities, sharpening them is pure meditation.
  • have good mass, more control IMO.
  • have rivets as a handy measurement reference for consistent length cuts
  • have a spine you can hammer to get through that bone (now who's cringing?)
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I don't know which cook buys glass cutting boards - they look chic, but dull knives. I've only seen them in kitchens meant to be ornamental, not in the kitchens of people who care about cooking. –  rumtscho Jan 30 '12 at 11:33
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Agreed, but you can bet Google will be sending ornamental cooks to this site, and they don't like scratches. –  jontyc Jan 30 '12 at 12:09
    
Hmmm I wonder which you prefer... lol –  Jay Jan 30 '12 at 17:30
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@rumtscho: In my younger, stupider days, I once bought a glass cutting board. Never again. –  BobMcGee Jul 7 '12 at 4:08

First, I'll reinforce what others have said above: the ceramic knives are excellently sharp, don't need sharpening, and are very easy to clean. However, they are also very easy to damage or even break. The only ceramic knives I find worthwhile are paring knives and vegetable peelers, partly because both are cheap to replace when I inevitably break them.

For your steel knives, keep in mind that price and quality do not have a 1:1 relationship. Particulary, there are a couple brands of stamped (rather than drop-forged) steel knives which are surprisingly good quality and very affordable (one is Victrinox, I don't remember the other brand). Also, Chinese carbon steel cleavers are sharp, extremely versatile, and available for as little as $14 in any Asian hardware store.

Alternately, the major brands (Henkels, Wustof, Sabatier, etc.) often have sales at various stored (especially Macy's), dropping prices on select models by as much as 60%. So if you're patient, you can pay a lot less. I don't recommend Global knives for a beginner; their one-piece steel construction and flexible blades require a lot of getting used to in order to not injure yourself.

I've also gotten some tremendous deals on dulled premium knives second-hand from someone who didn't know how to sharpen them properly.

Do make sure to pick up a steel as part of your set, and use it regularly to keep your knives sharp. You should be steeling your knives every 3 uses (or so), and only sharpening them once every couple years.

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The main reason ceramic knives became popular is because they're nonreactive with certain foods, especially acidic ones, and sushi chefs (the first real adopters -- probably no coincidence that Kyocera was the first to manufacture the blades on a large scale) felt that carbon steel reacting with the vinegar in the sushi dressing changed the flavor enough for some of their customers to notice. Now, in my opinion, the only people likely to know the difference are supertasters, and they aren't that common, but if you're one of them, you may notice the difference. Or you may not.

Overall, barring the sushi-and-tomato-obsessed supertaster scenario, ceramic vs. steel is a matter of personal taste. Although the price difference has narrowed substantially, the lack of reactivity combined with the difficulty of maintenance seems hardly worth it unless you happen to like the aesthetics and ergonomics of ceramic blades. (A paring knife might not hurt, though, if you want to try it out.)

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It really depends on both your budget and your personal taste. I personally use both.

I bought several ceramic knives in different sizes years ago. Due to the low price (5-10 bucks depending on knive size), I even bought spares, none of which I have yet to use. They're still very sharp and I use them most of the time for both meat, veggies and especially for anything with a lot of acid in it (steel hates acid, even stainless steel).

However, I do have an expensive japanese knife which I use if I want to cut really thin slices of meat, for instance. Honestly, that thing beats the ceramic knives I have easily in sharpness and ergonomics.

I do not own any expensive ceramic knives. They might be similarily great and there are ceramics that are pretty tough, too (as far as I know there are ceramic knives that can take 20+kg of weight applied to the side of the blade without damage).

In my honest opinion:

  • If you have the choice between a cheap ceramic knive and a cheap steel knive, get the ceramic one.
  • If you have a bit more money to spend: get a good steel knive. These are expensive, but well worth it if you take proper care of them. You can still get some cheap ceramic knives as an addition for food with a lot of acid in it.
  • Certain (not quite so cheap) ceramic knives may be superior to steel knives. Though I couldn't actually test this yet as I'm quite content with the cheap ones and my good steel knive.
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