While a knife is a basic tool, it is surprising to me how many people will select a knife that doesn’t suit the task they are about to do. A butcher’s knife will often be the most expensive knife in your set, and it’s worth spending the money to get a good one.
The most important aspect of a butcher’s knife is comfort in your hand. I say this simply because you won’t use a knife you don’t like. The second most important is quality of metal, and I personally recommend carbon steel, mostly because it both holds its edge and is relatively easy to sharpen. Third, choose a knife that can be cleaned easily – I recommend a smooth blade and handle, rather than a “sure grip” handle made of rubbery or rough material.
Do all knives feel the same to you? Well, here’s a few things to test.
First, does the knife handle have any protrusions, rough pieces, sharp corners, or any other little trait or imperfection that you immediately notice when holding the knife, or making a typical chopping motion? Some of these traits may actually be flaws in the manufacture of the butcher’s knife, and others might simply be your preference of grip that doesn’t suit the knife. Either way – stay away. You aren’t likely to retrain yourself in your knife-wielding, so even if the knife is recommended by so-and-so whom you highly respect and cherish, try to refrain from buying.
Second, check the balance. A butcher’s knife should be slightly blade-heavy, but not by a lot. You shouldn’t feel that the point of the blade will dive at the counter top, but you should feel that the blade naturally wants to fall down a cut, rather than sit back in your hand.
Third, while holding the knife as if you’ve just made a cut in the middle of a large cutting board, do your finger knuckles hit the cutting surface? They should not. Your best choice of knife will leave you room such that you could cut with your hand fully above the cutting surface and not rap your knuckles on it.
The last aspect to test, in terms of comfort, crosses into aesthetic territory: do you like the look of the knife? How about its handle? Do you prefer rosewood, a popular high-end knife handle material, or a synthetic black handle? While the comfort aspect of a wooden handle is not to be denied, you should not leave a wooden-handled knife soaking water for a long period of time, or you will eventually damage the wood, regardless of the quality of the handle finish. If you know yourself to be one to forget knives soaking in water, I recommend staying with the synthetic handles. In some areas, knives in commercial use are required to be made of synthetics, because there are believed to be easier to clean. However, the natural oils in wood can also counteract bacteria, which leads me to believe that you should pick the type of handle that suits you best.
Now it’s time for a visual inspection. Look for these things: full-length tang, and smooth rivets.
The tang of a knife is the metal part of the blade that inserts into the handle. In a quality butcher’s knife, it should run the full length of the entire knife. You may notice a quality knife from its balance or its weight, which is a direct result of the tang. Cheap knives will have a tang that barely holds the blade into the handle, and will not last.
Rivets typically anchor the handle to the tang of the butcher’s knife. There will be 2-3 rivets in the handle. The rivets should be completely flush with the handle, such that the handle feels as if it is one piece. Any burrs or divots in or around the rivets indicate lower-quality manufacture, and are areas where grime and bacteria can collect.
I recommend handling a few expensive knives, be it at your local butcher shop, kitchen super-store, or grandma’s house, and get a feel for how a quality knife should sit in your hand. Use that, and a quick visual inspection to select a quality knife worth spending some money on, and you will keep it for a lifetime.