First and foremost, you should know that there is no such thing as ‘the best kitchen knife’.
Just like cookware, each type of kitchen knife is designed to perform a different function. What might be the best at chopping vegetables may not be as good at filleting a fish. Likewise, what I might consider to be the best is subjective and can differ from your thoughts and opinions. For example, a knife that feels comfortable in my hand might feel too heavy and long in yours. Not to mention other factors like aesthetics and design.
Nevertheless, if you had to choose just one knife to keep in your kitchen, it should undoubtedly be a 7” or 8” Chef’s Knife.
But which one is worth your hard-earned money?
To help you decide, I’ve put together the following list of things to consider when buying a Chef’s Knife.
Chef’s Knife Buying Guide
Whether you’re looking to buy your first chef’s knife or replace that infomercial blade your uncle passed down to you (thanks, Bill!), there are a few things you should consider.
It should be noted that the following considerations can be applied to almost any type of kitchen knife (Santoku, Cleaver, Paring, Nakiri, Boning, Filet, Utility, Serrated Bread). However, I will specifically address Chef’s Knives here.
A Chef’s Knife is the workhorse of the kitchen. It can be used to mince, slice, dice and chop vegetables, butcher a chicken, or carve a perfectly seared steak. It is not only the essential kitchen knife everyone should own, but it is also the first knife you should spend any serious money on because it will probably be the one you use the most.
Knives can get very, very expensive. Especially once you start buying hand-forged, Japanese blades. Therefore, it’s up to you to determine your budget.
But think of it this way, if you cook often, you probably use your knives more than any other other piece of kitchen hardware. A knife is usually the first thing you pick up and the tool you hold in your hands for the longest amount of time. You want to make sure it’s comfortable, sharp, practical, easy to use and built to last. These things tend to come at a premium.
However, thanks to some new kids on the block and the invention of direct-to-consumer, online shopping, knives are more affordable than ever before.
In today’s market, I think the average consumer can expect to pay anywhere between $70 to $120 for a quality Chef’s Knife that is sold individually (not as part of a set). An enthusiast, on the other hand, might drop between $200.00 to $800.00 for a single, hand-forged, Japanese Chef’s Knife (or Gyuto). Guilty!
I’ve already discussed considering cost when buying Knife Sets here, but I think it’s worth mentioning it again with regards to Chef’s Knives alone.
I always say, “if you buy cheap, you buy twice”. Better yet, “if you buy low-quality, you buy twice”. Low-quality knives will quickly dull, can easily chip or even break altogether. At which point, you’ll just have to replace them. I will never forget the day my friend broke the blade of his knife in half while trying to cut a watermelon. Thankfully, he didn’t hurt himself.
All knives get dull overtime, even the most expensive ones. The difference is that low-quality knives are much more difficult to sharpen and maintain. Spending a bit more money up front might actually save you money in the long run, especially if you think you’ll want to upgrade sooner or later.
With Chef’s Knives, your priorities are better quality steel and craftsmanship. Aesthetics and design come second. Quality steel will last longer because the material is more durable, possibly harder, and easier to sharpen. A sharper knife will lead to less accidents because you don’t have to press as hard. Better craftsmanship will result in more thoughtful designs that are more comfortable, better weighted and balanced in the hand.
Steel is often rated according to the Rockwell Scale. The higher the number, the harder the steel. The harder the steel, the sharper it can get. However, the downside to harder steel is that it is more brittle and prone to chipping.
Anything between 57-60 Rockwell Hardness is a very good place to start. It will hold an edge for a reasonable amount of time and will be easier to sharpen. It’s for this reason I’m such a fan of the Zwilling Pro Chef’s Knife, which is rated around 57 Rockwell Hardness but often goes on sale for under $100.00. I remember it selling for $49.00 on Amazon at one point.
Above 60 Rockwell Hardness and you’re entering Japanese and Damascus steel territory, which is in a league of its own in terms of quality and price.
For the vast majority of home cooks, there are two considerations when it comes to blade material: stainless-steel or carbon steel.
If you’re considering the differences between VG-10, Damascus and Aogami Super, you probably already know everything I’m going to say here.
Simply put, stainless-steel knives are clad with a steel that is resistant to rust. These knives are a very practical option for the average home cook.
Unlike stainless-steel, carbon steel knives are prone to rust if not properly cared for. Carbon steel requires more maintenance than stainless-steel but are generally made with a harder steel that can get sharper. As mentioned, although sharper is better in the world of knives, the downside to a harder steel is that it is more brittle and can chip if not used correctly.
Carbon steel is preferred by most chefs and knife enthusiasts for a variety of reasons. They tend to be sharper and thinner, which results in better performing knives, and they develop unique patinas over time. Carbon steel is kind of like the raw, selvedge denim of the knife world.
Just don’t be fooled by sharpness out of the box. All knives come factory sharpened. Instead, put your knife through a series of tests before forming an opinion. In other words, prepare a lot of food with your new knife. Wash it and repeat. If it holds up to your daily cooking after a few weeks or months, you’ve probably made the right choice.
Most European knives (Zwilling, Wüsthof, Sabatier) are made with composite material handles (varieties of plastic and rubbers). These are comfortable, sleek in design, durable and hygienic.
Wooden handles, which are aesthetically beautiful, are not nearly as practical as composite materials. Wood is porous and if it is exposed to water and not properly dried it can warp and splinter. Wood can also potentially harbour bacteria that can come into contact with food.
Metal handles (such as those on Global knives), offer the same practical benefits as composite plastic ones. Although they are beautifully designed, I find metal handles get a bit slippery if using with slightly wet hands. Personally, I don’t feel as comfortable butchering a chicken or filleting a fish with a metal-handled knife because my hands are usually wet from handling the animal. Then again, this is a personal and subjective opinion and Global makes quality blades that have a cult following.
German vs. Japanese
Recently, the differences between German and Japanese knives have started to blur. Today, it seems the main differences are the country of production, manufacturing process, type of steel and origin of steel.
Aesthetically speaking, many Japanese blacksmiths are producing Western style knives and handles. Vice versa, German manufacturers have started to implement Japanese principles.
Here’s a breakdown of some key differences (exceptions apply):
- Usually have a 50/50 double-beveled edge. The symmetrical profile is more practical for right-handed and left-handed users
- 15-20˚ edge angle
- Rockwell Hardness rating 54-60
- Softer steel that is usually stainless; requires less maintenance
- Less prone to chipping
- Usually equipped with western style handles
- Asymmetrically double-beveled or single-beveled edge. If double-beveled, it’s usually at a 70/30 split
- 10-15% edge angle
- Rockwell Hardness rating 60-63
- Harder and sharper steel; sometimes fully Carbon-steel, which requires more maintenance
- Con: Harder, thinner steel is more brittle and can chip
Perhaps the most subjective of all considerations, comfort depends entirely on the individual.
Personally I look for the following when picking up a chef’s knife:
A 7” or 8” Chef’s Knife is ideal for most home cooks. It’s a practical length that can perform a wide variety of tasks.
6” Chef’s Knives are also an attractive option for those with smaller hands or for tasks that might require a bit more precision. However, the shorter size can be limiting and, therefore, should not be a first choice unless absolutely necessary.
As mentioned, the material of the handle is an important consideration. So is its shape and design. Comfort is of the utmost importance but it’s subjective and the only way to know what is comfortable for you is to pick up the knife in your hands.
Don’t buy a knife before you pick it up and, ideally, test it. Alternatively, purchase knives from retailers that offer a satisfaction guaranteed return policy. The last thing you want to do is fork over $120.00 or more on a knife you end up hating.
Do you want a western or Japanese style handle?
Japanese handles are usually made from a single piece of wood, are cylindrical or polygonal in shape and lack a curved butt. They also hide the tang (the tail end of the knife).
Western handles are usually made from a composite material (although wood is also common), have flat sides, and a curved butt. Western handles can be riveted or made from a single piece of material, and can either have an exposed or hidden tang.
To Gauge Comfort, Perform the Following Tests:
Hold the knife with a pinch grip. This refers to pinching either side of the knife with your thumb and index finger just above the bolster (where the blade meets the handle) and then wrap the remaining fingers around the handle. You should be able to securely wrap your entire hand around it. Some knives have very wide and thick handles that are more suitable to users with large hands.
*Note, at first this grip feels awkward but it becomes second nature and offers the most amount of control.
Holding the knife’s edge down against a cutting board, apply some pressure as if you were cutting into something firm. One thing you’ll notice when using a pinch grip is the pressure exerted from the spine of the knife back onto the area of skin on the bottom of your index finger, just above the knuckle.
Pressure from a thin spine tends to feel sharper than a spine that is wider. Over time, the friction caused from constant use can cause your skin to blister if the spine is too thin.
This is one of the reasons I like my Zwilling Pro Chef’s Knife, which has a very comfortable and wide spine, over my Wüsthof knife, which is noticeably thinner and causes my skin to blister after an extended period of use. See images below.
Once you get the knife home, test by chopping onions, squash, sweet potatoes, and butchering raw chickens. The handle should feel comfortable and an extension of your arm and the blade should easily slice and dice its way through the food without too much effort.
Too heavy and your arm will get fatigued after prolonged use. Just think of all the chopping you’ll have to do for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
Too light and you’ll possibly try to overcompensate by applying unnecessary pressure while chopping, which can result in accidents.
Look for something in between. Like the shape of the handle, this is subjective according to the individual.
Related to the knife’s weight is its balance. This refers to the distribution of weight between the handle and the blade. Look for a knife that feels well-balanced in the hand.
Some blades are noticeably heavier than their handles and vice versa. Both instances pose potential problems.
Perform the Following Test:
Try to balance the knife on your index finger. The closer you can get to teetering the knife where the blade meets the handle, the more balanced it is.
Construction can refer to the ways in which the blade was shaped and forged, but I specifically refer here to the construction of the tang, the part of the knife that descends into the handle, because most introductory chef’s knives are machine made using similar processes.
There are partial tang knives, which look like the knife grew a short tail. And there are full tang knives, which have a tail end that extends all the way down to the butt of the handle.
The tang can be partially visible (such as in the Zwilling Pro and Wusthof Classic lines), fully hidden (such as in the Zwilling Four Star line), or completely visible (such as in the Global lines). It depends on the manufacturer or blacksmith.
One version is not necessarily better than the other.
Now that you’ve purchased your Chef’s Knife, you’re going to need to store it. This is not necessarily a factor when deciding on a knife, but it’s something you should consider for afterwards.
You definitely should NOT throw your knives into your cutlery drawer. It will clang around, get damaged and lose its edge. If you absolutely must store it in a drawer, consider buying protective guards. These will at least provide some coverage and reduce the risk of damaging your blade’s edge.
The best way to store your knives is on a magnetic strip. This will keep it clear of other materials that can potentially dull or damage it. It also makes for a great presentation piece once you start collecting beautiful knives.
Second best option is a drawer insert, such as this one, which will keep the blades separated and easily accessible.
Third best is a knife block. However, keep in mind that every time you insert and remove the knife, the wood slots will take a tiny bit of the edge off. But it’s nothing you can’t fix with a few strokes on your honing rod.
Maintenance and Sharpening
Maintenance and sharpening are two separate, yet related, things. I’ve covered both in this video.