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How can you determine when a knife is high quality? There's the blade, the handle and how the two are attached. The most important aspect, though, is how the knife feels in your hand.
When it comes to blade materials, chefs agree that high carbon stainless steel is the best choice. It has a high carbon content for hardness and just enough chromium to keep it from getting stained. Regular high carbon steel actually does have the best performance value and ability to keep a sharp edge, however it is not stain-resistant and will discolor over time.
Handles are made three different ways: stainless steel, composite and wood. Many home cooks choose wood for its beauty, however wood is not allowed in most professional kitchens because it's a fire hazard and cannot be put in the dishwasher. Most high-quality kitchen knife handles are made from composite materials to form a black ergonomic (shaped to the hand) handle that feels just right when you hold it. Also, stainless steel and composite handles require no maintenance whatsoever, so they are any easy choice.
Next to consider is the construction. You can choose a "forged" knife, which is created by heating a steel blank and shaping it from a single piece of steel. This is also the most expensive method. A "blocked" knife is made in a cookie-cutter fashion from a single sheet of steel. These are the least expensive, cheapest knives. They are not well-balanced, although they are light in the hand. Sintered knives are made by fusing together all the knife parts that are produced separately. This allows you to create a knife that is simply not able to be blocked, and if forged, would be too heavy. Newest knives from Wusthof® Emerilware (created with renowned chef Emeril Lagasse) are triple riveted for balance and control and feature composite handles. Shopping tip: It's a good idea to try knives out in person either in a retail store or at a friend's house because good quality knives are well-balanced to feel like they fit in your hand and move in the direction of cutting easily.
Once you decide on a knife style and brand, buy the best you can afford one by one and purchase a block or magnetic strip separately to store them. This way you can build your collection little by little with just the knives you need. After all, not every cook needs a fillet knife for deboning fish.