What you are seeking is what I have taken to calling an "anchor knife." This is the knife that does 75%-95% of the work in your kitchen. It is, with very limited exceptions for specialist professionals, the knife that should eat the majority of the cutlery budget.
(Before going on, let me note that I have some "bottom line" suggestions at the bottom in case this rather long post just overwhelms you with information you don't want. Personally, I hate getting recommendations or advice without explanation of what stands behind it, but your mileage may differ.)
There are five stock choices, which I would suggest reducing very rapidly. They are:
- Chef's knife (note: the Japanese term "gyuto" refers to this same knife). The standard in Western kitchens. Price extremely variable. Easy to learn. The single most versatile anchor knife known to me.
Because of that last point, any other choice needs justification. What do you gain, and why do you want that over what you will lose? Beyond the blade shape and its natural predilections, note that essentially everything you are ever likely to see about "how to cut things" will assume you're using a chef's knife, so factor that in.
Anyway, back to other choices:
- Chinese cleaver. Fabulous for chopping and mincing, not great for slicing. (That's by comparison to a chef's knife, as will be the case throughout.) Cheap. Pretty easy to learn.
- Japanese usuba. Spectacular for almost all vegetable work; in skilled hands, much superior on this score to any chef's knife. Cannot be used for any form of meat or fish. Expensive. Tricky to sharpen and maintain. Very difficult to learn.
- Japanese santoku. Acceptable for all the same cutting a chef's knife does, but inferior in every way. Superior only in one respect: its preferred length is quite short, on the order of 6"-7". So if you have a very cramped kitchen or are frankly terrified of longer knives, this may be an option. Cheap, unless you're being ripped off. Easy to learn.
- Japanese nakiri. A nakiri is to an usuba what a santoku is to a chef's knife: mediocre but easy and cheap. Again, cannot be used for any form of meat or fish. Easy to learn.
So if you are a strict vegetarian, you have a couple of options that the rest of us really do not: the nakiri
and the usuba
. You do not
want an anchor knife that cannot cut a large range of the foods you eat, so if you eat meat and fish and poultry, you do not want one of those knives. If you are a strict vegetarian, the usuba
is a very good knife, and the nakiri
is not, but the latter should be (but rarely is in the U.S.) extremely cheap -- like $25 should cover it. Over $50 and you're being ripped off or you're a collector. You said you would be slicing mostly fruits and vegetables, so I mention these as options, but chances are they're not a good choice.
is fine if it's cheap, but otherwise it's basically a mediocre chef's knife restructured to make it work decently when very short. If you're somewhere in the vicinity of average size, and an 8" knife does not make you shake with terror, and your kitchen has standard-depth counters, don't bother with one of these. Unless, of course, you can get it for an appropriate price, like under $50.Chinese cleaver
: excellent choice if you mostly cook in a style that requires things to be more or less bite-sized or in whole pieces (or jointed, as for birds). Fast, cheap, fun. If you change your mind later, you can retire the knife to an honorable place doing the heavy brutality work of the kitchen (shearing through chicken bones, lobster shells, etc.). I like the Dexter-Russell Chinese Cleaver, which should run about $50 and has long been the standard in pro Chinese kitchens around the U.S. Indestructible knife that will never let you down. I'd say about 1 in 100 US home cooks should consider (which is not to say convert to) a cleaver.Usuba
: excellent choice under a very limited set of circumstances. You need excellent hand-eye coordination, lots of patience, a slightly obsessive-compulsive approach to getting things just so, and a fair chunk of change. It will help immensely if you almost never cut any meat or poultry, because then you're going to need a second anchor knife, which undermines the whole system. Fish is OK: you get a fish knife for that. If you fit this quite odd profile, I assure you that after 3 months of mild fury, then about a year of really getting the hang of it, this knife will give you immense pleasure. Bear in mind that you will need a good set of waterstones, because this thing cannot to my knowledge be sharpened effectively any way but freehand (fortunately, it's not that difficult to do -- just tedious). Don't expect to get away under $175 for the knife, and if you're going to do it, don't get stainless: if you're not obsessive-compulsive enough to take care of carbon, you're nowhere near obsessive-compulsive enough to learn an usuba on your own. I would say that about 1 in 10,000 US home cooks should consider an usuba.
So if roughly .25% of cooks should use a cleaver, and .0025% an usuba, and maybe let's be generous and say another .1% should use a nakiri or santoku, that leaves 99.65% who should be using a chef's knife.
By "should use" I mean "will get the most value, pleasure, and efficiency from."
For a chef's knife, as to what to buy, I'd say line it up like this:
<$50 : Forschner, Dexter, etc. Good reliable knives, nothing fancy, perfectly reasonable competitors to Wusthof, Henckels, etc. which come at higher prices.
~$100: entry-level Japanese (various lines of Togiharu, Tojiro, MAC, etc.). Excellent knives, at least the equal of and most think much superior to the higher-priced Shuns and Globals.
~$200: mid-high-grade Japanese. I would be very wary of a knife like this if you don't know why you're choosing one knife over another.
>$300: very high-end Japanese. I hope you know what you're doing, because this is collector's territory.
You will need something for sharpening.
If you are not buying Japanese, get an Idahone honing rod and use it religiously, then every 3 months to a year (depending on what you like) do some sharpening. You can have it done by a service, or do it yourself, but if you're doing it once a year I figure send it out -- it's not that expensive and you're never going to learn to do it especially well yourself if you do it that rarely; besides, why invest in all the equipment?
If you are buying Japanese, sharpening becomes a significant issue, and must be factored into your budget. There are many threads around here about this question, and several of us here will be happy to yap interminably about it, so just say the word.Bottom Line
. My guess is that you fit in one of two camps.
One camp is the relatively new cook who wants a basically decent knife and doesn't want to mess around or blow wads of cash where it doesn't get you much. Buy an 8" or 10" Forschner chef's knife and an Idahone and you're in business.
The other camp is the relatively experienced cook who wants to "upgrade" but doesn't want to break the bank on something that isn't worth it. Because you didn't mention it, I'm guessing you don't have any experience with Japanese knives. Buy a Togiharu 240 or 270mm gyuto (chef's knife). As to sharpening, BDL swears that there is a good pull-through electric thing that will get you started, but be forewarned that once you get hooked you're going to be investing in sharpening equipment.
Sorry to go on so long -- been thinking about this problem for a bit!