Knives are awesome. You can chop celery, ward off intruders, and perform circus sideshows with them. In the high end kitchen market there are two dominant brands, Henckels and Wusthof. Both of these brands are incredible and are fairly evenly matched. I personally use Wusthof knives, but if I were to buy again today I might make a different choice.
There are a couple key things to look for in your cutlery. First is the construction of the blade. The two types of blades are forged blades and stamped blades. Stamped blades are machine cut from thin pieces of metal and then ground into a knife. Forged knives are hand shaped from a thicker steel blank and then ground into a knife. It's easy to tell which is which by holding a knife. Forged knives are heavier, while stamped knives are flimsy. Forged knives also hold their edge much longer - always buy them.
It's also important to have a full tang blade. The tang is the part of the knife that extends into the handle. Full tang means that it extends throughout the whole handle, while other types of tangs extend only an inch or two in. Having a full tang means that the knife will be weighted better and that there's less of a chance of the knife breaking. All high quality knives are full tang.
Weighting and balancing are also important. When held properly, you want for the knife to be evenly balanced so that no effort is required to keep it straight. This seems like a minor consideration, but cutting herbs with a handle-heavy knife will get annoying very fast because you can't use the knife's weight to your advantage.
Besides Wusthof and Henckels, there is another high quality, forged bladed, full tang, well balanced knife brand out there called "Cook's Knives". I was very suspicious initially since they're made in China and I'd never heard of them, but one of my chef friends loved the ones he bought.
I ordered a cleaver since I didn't have one, and I was very impressed when I got it. Its construction was actually so similar to my Wusthof Classic knives that the casual observer wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The cleaver was fantastic, making it very easy to chop through 8 young Thai coconuts (which are very hard to cut traditionally). I've also had the opportunity to check out my friend's more extensive collection, and I am equally impressed with those.
The knives are forged, have a full tang, and excellent balance. The one area where they fall short is that they are pure stainless steel. Ultra premium knives like Wusthof and Henckels add things like Carbon and Beryllium to the knives to make them keep their edge longer. If you want the very best, buy a set of Wusthof or Henckels knives, but if you want 95% of the performance at 10-30% of the price, check these out.
You can buy them at JC Penney
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