The chef’s knife is arguably the most essential tool in the kitchen. But finding the right one can be an intimidating process. In today’s post I want to give you tips on how to find the best chef’s knife for you and what to look for in a quality knife. While I am focusing on a chef’s knife specifically in this post, this advice applies to any type of knife you want to purchase.
Picking out a chef’s knife is a lot like picking out a pair of running shoes. When it comes to a chef’s knife, one size does not fit all. The best thing you can do is try it out in person. Bottom line, the knife has to feel good in your hand. Be mindful of things like weight, blade length, and how the handle feels in your hand. And remember, the knife chooses the chef.
(Not really. But I couldn’t resist adding a Harry Potter reference 😉)
Alright, so let’s dive into the specifics.
German vs. Japanese
Most knives fall under two categories German, or western, and Japanese, or eastern. German knives tend to be heavier, have a thicker bolster (where the blade meets the handle), and maintain their edge longer. Japanese knives are generally the opposite. They are lighter, have a slimmer bolster, and have a very sharp, but a delicate knife edge that needs more frequent care.
The other big difference between these two styles is the angle of the blade. German knives have a blade angle of 15-20° and Japanese knives have a blade angle of 10-15°. The only reason you need to know this is so you can use these angle estimates to hone your knife. Holding your knife at these angles against your steel will ensure that you are actually honing the knife blade itself and not the side of the knife. Because the German blade angle is larger, the knife will maintain sharpness longer than a Japanese knife. But a Japanese knife can do a lot more delicate knife work.
When it comes to buying a knife one style is not better than the other. Like everything I will be covering, it comes down to personal preference. I prefer a heavier knife because I feel the knife does more of the work for me. When trying a German or a Japanese knife, focus on the weight of the knife and how the bolster feels in your hand.
French vs. Santoku
Both a french knife and a santoku are a chef’s knife and will function the same way. The biggest difference is in the motion you use to cut with your knife. A French knife has a curved blade which means you move the knife in a rocking motion to cut your food. The knife will always stay on the cutting board as your knife rocks through your food. A Santoku has a flatter blade which means you move the knife in an up and down motion. You should hear a louder chopping sound when using a Santoku. I prefer a french knife because I cut using a rocking motion.
Forged vs Stamped
Kitchen knives are either forged or stamped. Forged knives are made from heating metal and pounding it into shape. They are more durable and have a more sturdy handle. Stamped knives are cut from a large sheet of metal with essentially a cookie cutter. They tend to be less expensive and not as durable. An easy way to tell if your knife is forged or stamped is to look at the bolster. If the metal of the blade slopes up to meet the handle it is a forged knife. If the blade does not slope up to meet the handle it is stamped.
What this really affects is the handle. Forged knife handles will last longer because it is more protected by the metal of the knife itself. Stamped knife handles can crack more easily, but if you hand wash your knife, a stamped knife can last for a long time. Stamped knives will most likely be cheaper than forged knives, so find what works for your budget. Just keep in mind that a forged knife is a higher quality knife.
The weight of your knife should feel comfortable in your hand. Like I mentioned above German knives tend to be heavier than Japanese knives. A heavier knife will fall with more force as you cut, letting the knife do more of the work for you. A lighter knife allows for more precision knife work and greater control.
The bolster of a knife is where the blade meets the handle. This is where you grab the knife, using the punch grip, so it should feel good in your hand. Some bolsters are more defined and sloped and some are more smooth and subtle. You will know when the bolster feels right for your hand, just be sure to test each knife using the pinch grip. Try many different styles to see what feels best.
A great example of two very different bolsters is a Wusthof knife vs a Global knife. In my cooking classes I notice that people with smaller hands prefer the Global to the Wusthof. I personally prefer a more sloped bolster, like the Wusthof. It feels good in my hand and gives me a more defined place for my fingers. Again, try out different styles and see what feels good in your hand.
Full tang vs Partial tang
The tang is the part of the blade that goes through the handle. A full tang is the way to go because it will help the handle last a lot longer. The blade and the handle are more connected creating a stronger bond. A full tang will also make sure the blade does not snap or bend away from the handle when applying full pressure to your knife. For a high quality knife, always go with a full tang.
Knife blade length can range from 6 inches to 14 inches. A nice comfortable range is 7-9”. The length of a blade determines how much control you feel you have over the knife. The longer the knife the less control you may have. The length of the blade will also contribute to the overall weight of the knife. I love a good 8″ knife. I can easily cut larger foods like a watermelon or squash but it is not so long I feel out of control when I use it.
Bottom line this is the place where you will be holding the knife, so find what feels good. The handle of a knife is its least durable part. The type and shape of a knife handle does not matter so much as how you take care of your knives. The main reason to hand wash your knife instead of washing it in the dishwasher is to preserve the knife handle. The handle is also where brands will add beautiful design elements, so it is a fun choice to make when buying a knife.
Knives are made out of ceramic, stainless steel, carbon steel or high carbon stainless steel. Right off the bat I will say go with a high carbon stainless steel knife. Ceramic knives are known for being ultra sharp but are very brittle. They chip easily and are hard to maintain. Just stay away from ceramic knives. A stainless steel knife needs to be sharpened frequently and does not resharpen well. Carbon steel knives are difficult to maintain. They can rust and stain and tend to be brittle. But if you are willing to put the work in to maintain one, many people swear by carbon steel knives.
High carbon stainless steel knives combine all the best attributes of a stainless steel knife and a carbon steel knife. These knives stay sharp and are easy to maintain. They resist corrosion and rust and are generally a great material for knives. Most popular knife brands primarily make high carbon stainless steel knives.
Damascus steel is a technique rather than material. Damascus steel knives have a beautiful wavy pattern on the side of the blade that is created from a forging technique. This technique is done by folding and hammering pieces of steel together that results in its characteristic pattern. This folding technique also creates a strong and very sharp blade. A lot of damascus knives are made from VG10 steel which is a very high quality steel. Deciding to get a damascus steel knife really comes down to if you love how these types of knives look.
An expensive knife does not mean it is the best knife. I know of some chefs whose favorite knife is a $10 knife they got at an Asian grocery store. Most knife brands have different price points. However, a knife can last you a lifetime so keep in mind all of the elements I mentioned above and remember that it should be a one time purchase.
You could have the best, top of the line knife that is perfect for you and completely ruin it if you don’t maintain it. Like I mentioned above some chefs have a favorite knife that cost them next to nothing. It stays their favorite knife because they take care of it.
Here are my tips for taking care of your knife.
- Hand wash your knife, always. The high heat and detergents in a dishwasher will wear out your handle causing it to crack or even break.
- Store your knives on a magnetic knife strip. Knife blocks can harbor moisture which can cause your knife to rust over time. They also harbor bacteria which will transfer to your food. Storing your knives in a drawer is not safe and can dull your knife because it will be scraping against other knives or utensils also stored in your drawer. A magnetic knife strip keeps your knives dry and keeps them away from anything that can bump into them and dull them.
- Get your knives professionally sharpened 1-2 times a year. You can learn to sharpen your knives by yourself. For that I recommend getting a wet stone. But if you are not comfortable using one, the best way to go is to get them professionally sharpened. Home cooks really only need to get there knives sharpened once a year. Maybe twice if you use your knives a lot.
- Get comfortable using a honing steel and use it every time you use your knife. Between sharpenings your knife blade, on a microscopic level, can bend and get a little out of whack. A honing steel straightens your knife blade back out making your knife feel as good as new.
Wusthof’s classic line is classic for a reason. There is no extra fluff to these knives. This knife is forged, has a full tang, and is made of high carbon stainless steel. A great knife that is durable, easy to maintain, and will last you a long time.
Mercer is a professional kitchen brand that is very similar to Wusthof but offers knives at a fraction of the cost. The Genesis line is very similar to the Wusthof Classic line. This knife has a smaller bolster, is made of high carbon stainless steel, and has a full tang. The price is also very low for how high quality this knife is. This is the exact knife that I got in my Culinary School kit.
This is my second favorite knife brand behind Wusthof. Miyabi is a Japanese knife brand that makes gorgeous, high quality knives. This knife in particular is my favorite style they have. It has a high carbon core that is surrounded by stainless steel (essentially a high carbon stainless steel knife), with a damascus design, and beautiful wood handle. Just a great overall chef’s knife.
A great Japanese knife and a cheaper option than a Miyabi. This knife edge is made of VG10 steel, which just means it is made out of gold standard steel that is really sharp. This knife has a full tang, is forged, and has a durable plastic handle. Shun is another great reliable brand and even their cheaper knives are still extremely high quality.
Like I have mentioned above, you definitely do not need to spend a lot of money on a knife. You will get the most out of any knife by taking care of it. And while these recommendations are on the pricey side a great knife will last you a lifetime. It really should be a one time purchase. If your current knives have seen better days and have trouble cutting through your food, it’s definitely time to consider investing in a quality knife.
The best thing you can do when buying a knife is actually try the knife before you buy it. At kitchen gadget stores they will let you try as many knives as your heart desires. They usually have a little demo counter and provide carrots or something similar to practice cutting with.
Because there is a pandemic right now and going to a store may not be the safest option, order a few knives online, try them out at home and return the ones you don’t want.
And remember the knife chooses the chef…
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