The Essential Kitchen: Knife Storage

The Essential Kitchen: Knife Storage

Our knives. We use them, maybe abuse them, and then complain that they're never sharp enough. But they're the most important tools in our kitchens. Plus good ones are costly:  aside from electric appliances and my collection of All-Clad that I gradually acquired one precious piece at a time, my biggest financial kitchen investment is in my knives.

So why is it so difficult to store them?  Safety, of course, is the first test. We need to have sharp edges kept away from tender fingers. But it's also a matter of access: if we forget what we have we'll end up using the same dull 6-inch utility knife for everything.

I used to have a big wooden knife block but hated how much space it took up on my counter. Looking for something with a smaller footprint, for the past few years I kept my knives in an angled knife stand that was about half the size of the knife block. It was a sleek gray plastic box that resembled brushed stainless steel and contained four removable and washable black plastic accordion-like inserts that held about 15 knives. It was taller in the back than the front, angled at about 20 degrees, and thus could accommodate the full length of knives of just about any size, from paring knife to slicer. Plus it was gorgeous.

However, if the knives weren't precisely spaced to distribute their weight, the stand would simply tip over, shooting the knives out like backward arrows, handles first. This happened more than once in the middle of the night, making a terrifying noise and dinging more than one blade. The stand was also expensive -- now costing about $130 at the MoMA store (I said it was beautiful) so after a few years, as the plastic inserts began to collapse, I wasn't inclined to replace it.

Thus began my search for a new knife storage solution that was A) good looking, B) reasonably priced, C) easy to keep clean, and D) would sit on my countertop without hogging too much space. And most important, I wanted it to hold MY daily knives, not someone else's idea of a cook's collection. That means two paring knives, one serrated 9" bread knife, two chef's knives -- one 6" and the other 10" (my precious Shun Elite), a 7" flexible fillet knife, 6" utility knife, and a favorite 5" mini-serrated knife I use primarily to slice tomatoes. I also have two very long slicers but since I use them infrequently, I'm okay storing these in cardboard sleeves in a drawer alongside my honing steel and scissors.  But everything else is actively used and thus had to fit.

Starting my research I immediately found that most choices have their own limitations and flaws.

Knife Blocks

The most common kind of storage is the wooden knife block. I've had a couple, especially when I was first starting out as a home cook and began to equip my own kitchen. But I eventually concluded that most are ugly and nearly useless. First, they're big and take up an inefficiently large amount of precious counter space. Second, most look like something made in a wood recycling craft class. Third, there's the annoyance of having to match each knife to its own particular hole, which is not only an example of over-design (if there's no place in a knife block for a Santoku does it mean I can't have one?), it's also a royal pain when you're in the midst of cooking and want to quickly put a knife away, chipping the wood and possibly your blade as you aim it into place.

Then there's hygiene. If wash our knives immediately before returning them to their little wooden home, even the slightest moisture will combine with the wood to breed bacteria. And bacteria aside, we can never actually clean down in those little slits.

Magnetic Bars

Magnetic knife bars can be a good idea: the knives are out in the open and easy to grab and return, yet the magnets hold the blades in place. You can hang a knife bar in a compact space, positioning it for whether you're left or right-handed. Plus you can place them high enough to be out of reach of children or accidental bumps. But it's an aesthetic thing for me. I don't want to be looking at a knife display on my wall, adding to my kitchen's visual clutter. Another reason I don't like them is that I don't like stressing the blades of my knives by repeatedly pulling them off the magnetic bar. I've never heard that this is a risk, but rational thought suggests it can't be good to yank the blades over and over again.

While it is not a factor for me because I don't like ceramic knives, if you do like and use them, magnetic bars won't work for the obvious reason that the ceramic blades aren't metal and won't adhere to the magnets.

On the plus side of magnetic bars, I recently saw a photo of one installed underneath an upper cabinet so that the knives would attach with the handles pointing at you at about eye level. I thought this was very clever because unless you crouch down and look under the cabinet, you don't see the blades. However, this also means you must recognize your knives by the tip of their handles, unless you want to be crouching every time you need a knife.

Drawer Storage

Keeping your knives unsheathed in a drawer is very risky if you forget they're there when you reach in. Plus placing blade against blade dulls them fast. I don't have the space to dedicate an entire drawer to one of those slide-in inserts, which anyway have some of the same limitations as knife blocks (i.e., they're made of wood and have pre-set slot sizes).

If you want to keep your knives in a drawer, you can purchase plastic guards in various sizes that snap around and protect the blades (and your fingers) from damage. Some blade guards are designed to cover only the sharp edge instead of the entire blade, making them easier to remove and replace. The downside of using plastic guards is that it adds a step or two when you quickly need a knife or want to return it to storage, plus you may forget which knives you have if they're not all at hand while you cook.

Custom Storage

My research also came up with a variety of custom solutions for knife storage, most in the category of slits cut into a length of wood fitted directly into your countertop. The knife blades hang in an otherwise dead space beneath the counter and the knife blades display in a row along the back wall. This can be visually dramatic as well as practical because the rear of many countertops (and space below) is rarely used. But such a special installation isn't for everyone due to its cost and permanence since it's much easier to replace a knife block than a countertop.

My Current Solution: The Bodum Bistro Knife Block

I ended up buying a knife block made by Bodum called the Bistro Universal Knife Block. Made of washable plastic, this vertical, sleek rectangle has a 2 by 8-inch footprint, little silicone feet to anchor it, and is filled with a forest of stiff black plastic rods that are anchored at the bottom but not at the top. You simply insert your knife blades into the midst of the rods in any place where there is a space. There are no slots to fill. When you remove a knife, the rods fill in, as when you take your hand out of a pool of water. When you're ready to replace a blade, simply slip it into the nest of rods up to the knife handle, which serves as a kind of automatic stop.

The skinny black rods are moveable but not loose. That's because the bottoms are attached to a solid base and the whole thing -- the base and rods -- is removable and washable either by hand or in the dishwasher. Bodum says that it holds 8 knives, but I have 12 fitting easily in mine.

Both when empty and when filled with knives, the block is stable because there is no angle to its design. This also means that longer knives don't fully submerge into the forest of black rods. Knives that are longer than 8 1/2-inches -- which is the block's height -- will have some of the blade exposed if you put the knives in vertically, but if this bothers you, simply angle the knife so that the blade is fully submerged in the rods. I've been using this knife block for about three months and so far I'm loving how it functions and how it looks. Sometimes the rods cluster but so far, just a swipe of a finger and they're back where they were. Only time will tell if the constant back-and-forth of metal blades will cause them to break.

Cons:  Sometimes the blades, especially with smaller paring knives, sink into the rods, going part-way up the handles.  And sometimes a larger knife, especially my serrated bread knife, get stuck part-way as I insert it, making it necessary to fuss a bit to get it properly in place.  So far these traits aren't too annoying given the plusses.  But if anything else disappoints or changes, I will let you know.

The interior rods are always black. But the rest of the exterior comes in a choice of black, bright lipstick red, citrus green, orange, and off-white (not exactly ivory, more like a gray-ed white). It costs about $40, the recent price at Bodum's website.

You can buy the Bodum Bistro Block at many cookware stores, The Container Store, Amazon, and directly from Bodum.com where I found the best price. If you want a particular color, shop around because it seems like no retailer sells all the colors at once.

And if anyone has come up with a better solution for knife storage, please let me know!

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