Here are six recommendations that cover some of the best chef knives around, each produced by a different world-class knifemaker. This short list is designed not only to highlight quality knives, but to give you a sense of what’s out there (a lot!) and help you find the knife that’s right for you. (Please read my article How to Buy a Great Chef Knife to get more backstory.)
This is not a Top Ten List (or Top Six). And it’s not comprehensive. (You’ll notice there aren’t any traditional Japanese knifemakers on the list. Sorry, can’t explain why now.) But it should aid you in making some sense of the kitchen knife world and give you some ideas!
. . .a chef knife, depending on how hard you use it, could easily last 30 years or more.The brands covered are: Henckels, Wusthof, Messermeister, Global, MAC, and Shun. The first three are centered in Germany, the last three in Japan. Most of these manufacturers produce a range of sizes/lengths as well as slightly different models of the same caliber. For example, although I’ve chosen Global’s santoku knife for this list, Global also makes a number of regular chef knives that are comparable quality. So, if one of the models on this list doesn’t exactly work for you, poke around some, you may find what you’re looking for.
Also—before you bemoan the prices, remember that a chef knife, depending on how hard you use it and how well you take care of it, could easily last 30 years or more. I’m not exaggerating. Plus, it’s the single most important tool in your entire kitchen. (What would compete, your large sauté pan?) If you dollar-cost average the price of the most expensive knife on this list (say, the Shun 10-inch for $170), over 30 years it would cost you a whopping $5.66 per year! So try to see the BIG picture.
Henckels Professional S 8-inch Chef Knife
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Henckels is one of the largest knifemakers in the world and has been around since the 1700s. They produce at least 11 different lines of knives, so it’s especially important to be clear what model you’re buying. The Pro S line is one of their finest and is manufactured in Solingen, Germany where their core factories are located. They also have factories in Spain and, as a newer development, in Japan as well. It’s in Japan where they produce their latest creation, a model designed by Bob Kramer, the American bladesmith who has set the bar high for kitchen-knife quality.
The Professional S is fully forged from one hunk of steel—and with a bolster, a full-tang, and a three-rivet handle, it’s as classic as it gets. Although the handle’s been made to look and feel like wood, it’s not. Wood handles are no longer the norm and most manufacturers assume customers would rather have the longevity offered by a synthetic material.
This chef knife is one of the mainstays of my kitchen and I loooove the feel—nicely balanced with a little heft, but nothing that tires my hand out (for the record, I don’t spend hours prepping). I got it sharpened well over a year ago, and with regular honing its kept it’s edge. It comes in two sizes, an 8-inch and 10. (There’s also a 6-inch, but that’s too small for an all-purpose blade.)
Wusthof Classic Ikon 7-inch SantokuWusthof is the other of the “Big Two” German knifemakers and some pros swear by it over Henckels because they feel the quality is higher. Not sure if this perception is justified, but it’s probably aided by the fact Wusthof has been family-owned and run for almost 200 years. Interesting enough, both Wusthof and Henckels are manufactured in the same German town (along with dozens of other blademakers) which is one of the knife-making capitals of the world. (What’s another capital? Seki City, Japan.)
Although Wusthof makes a terrific classic chef knife very similar to Henckels, as a contrast, I recommend looking at this model because:
1) it has a curved handle that might feel better to some people’s hands
2) it’s a santoku, Japanese-style blade, which some might prefer. It gives you the width of a longer knife without the more cumbersome length. And it should be noticeably thinner and lighter than your traditional 8-inch chef knife.
Whether or not you like a bolster is up to you, it is no measure of quality. . .Like the regular high-quality chef knives made by Wusthof, it’s fully forged and has a full tang. But, unlike them, it does not host a full bolster. Whether or not you like a bolster is up to you, it is no measure of quality, but will make the knife easier to sharpen. This santoku also sports the scalloped edge that is all the rage to, theoretically, keep food from sticking. Because this model is in the Japanese-style, but made by a German knifemaker, I would call it a hybrid of sorts. (Henckels makes santokus as well.)
If you like the santoku style, but don’t care about the handle and would like to save some cash, check out the santoku Wusthof makes in the Classic line. But please note—while the Classic is an excellent knife, it is not at quite the same level as the Ikon. Here’s the link:
Messermeister Meridian Elite 9-inch Chef Knife
Messermeister knives, like the name sounds, are rooted in Germany—the Meridian Elite line being forged in the very same German town as the preceding knives from the Big Two. While Messermeister is not as big an operation as Henckels and Wusthof, they’re no less revered for their quality. Maybe even more so.
This knife makes this list for three reasons:
1) it’s highly recommended by Chad Ward in his book An Edge in the Kitchen as being uber-sharp. It comes from the factory with a highly polished edge that Ward claims is superior to any of the “big-name knife brands” and will hold it for a substantial amount of time.
2) it has a partial bolster which makes it easier to sharpen (and is a nod to Japanese knives)
3) it comes in a 9-inch size that’s a perfect compromise between an 8- and a 10-inch—but doesn’t cost any more than your average 8-inch. Neat, huh?
There’s only one caveat—the blade width (of the 9-inch) is too wide for your average knife rack. You’ll have to make special provisions. If that concerns you, or, if you don’t care about the extra length, then buy an 8-inch. (See the link above.)
Global 7-inch Santoku (G-48)Global revolutionized the kitchen-knife world in the 1980s by creating a series of high-performance knives that were on the cutting edge of fashion (forgive the pun), yet still affordable. Like traditional Japanese knives, they’re extremely light with a thin, razor-sharp edge. Yet in blade design, they generally owe more to Western tradition than Japanese. That’s why I call them Japanese hybrids in that they graft one tradition of knifemaking onto another. Most of Global’s knives are not forged, but made of a high-quality steel that has been tempered and heat treated to new levels of sophistication.
While the shape of the blade on the G-48 is similar to the Wusthof santoku, the balance and feel should be quite different. To say nothing of the styling. No major knife brand stands out as so stunningly modern. (Interesting detail: Global injects the perfect amount of sand into the hollow handle to make it balance correctly.) As mentioned before, if you prefer a more Western-styled chef’s blade, Global has plenty of those also. Try a G-2 or a G-61.
I own this santoku and am embarrassed to admit I treasure the edge so much that I can’t bear to do much chopping with it, but save it mainly for slicing. Which it does amazingly! (Crazy, I know.)
MAC MTH-80 – Professional Series 8″ Chef Knife with Dimples
MAC knives seem to be one of the best kept secrets of the consumer kitchen knife market. Professionals seem to know all about them with famous chefs like Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter unabashedly endorsing them as the ultimate cutting machine. But ask your average home gourmet, and odds are they’ve never heard of them.
Japanese designed and manufactured, like Global, they’re a new breed of knife, a hybrid—that incorporates the harder and thinner Japanese steel with a Western-shaped blade. They’re not as stylish as Global, but probably even sharper. And (like Global) they’re also not forged, but highly machined.
As the Messermeister above, Chad Ward (in An Edge in the Kitchen) raves about the pure cutting fury of the MTH-80. So for those who worship sharp, this one’s for you!
The MTH-80 Professional is the workhorse of MACs various product lines and I’m guessing it’s the most popular because it offers the maximum sharpitude for your dollar. Plus, the welded-on bolster creates an unusual combination of super-thin blade with added weight that keeps it balanced in your hand more like a German-style knife. According to Gourmet Magazine, a MAC knife is “the difference between a minivan and race car.” Care to take one out for a spin?
(Note: Please be careful not to confuse the MTH-80 Professional with the TH-80 – Chef Series 8″ Chef’s Knife with Dimples, a lower-level model that goes for $40 or more less.)
Shun Classic 8-Inch Chef Knife (DM0706)Shun, along with Global, is probably one of the most popular and well-known Japanese brands in the U.S. It’s no wonder—their flagship line, Shun Classic, is very attractive and very sharp. They’re manufactured in Seki City which, along with Solingen, is another knife-making capital.
Don’t let the beautiful wavy pattern on the blade fool you—it’s much more than a pretty face. Sandwiched between 32 layers of swirly-patterned softer steel (16 layers per side) lies a thin hard core that creates the edge. At Rockwell 61, it’s harder than half of the knives on this list. Which gives it the ability to hold a 16-degree edge for a very long time.
I have to admit when I first unpacked my new Shun 6-inch chef’s not so long ago, I was stunned at how light it was. For someone used to weightier German blades, the lightness felt almost chintzy. Silly me. Over the past year I’ve now come to fully appreciate the way the thin sharp blade can slice through denser foods with ease and less resistance than my thicker German knives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ready to abandon ship—but it’s great to have Shun as an option.
Another reason the Shun Classic is on this list is its distinctive Pakkawood handle. It’s similar to the nimble feel of a traditional Japanese knife, but different. The unique D-shaped contour might fit certain cook’s hands better than others. So, if a typical Western-style knife handle always feels too clunky, here’s another way to go.
• • •
To briefly summarize:
• If you have a larger hand and don’t want it to feel squished on the cutting board, the Messermeister and the MAC should give you the most clearance. The handles are long and the width of the blades should keep your knuckles from banging the countertop. (Actually, the Global will work equally well in this regard, it’s pretty roomy.)
• For pure beauty, the Global and Shun would be hard to beat. The Global is designed in high-tech modern, the Shun in classic contemporary. The Wusthof also, with it’s curved handle, has some extra swish. (And rest assured, there’s no sacrifice of looks for performance on any of these knives.)
• If you love tradition, or know you want a knife with a classic look and feel that will never go out of style, the Henckels is your man. It is the closest to a vintage chef knife.
• Finally, if you crave sharposity, if you’re aching to get your tired chef hands on one of the meanest slicing-and-dicing machines on the planet—go with the MAC. You will not be disappointed. (And, as a more elegant second, consider the Messermeister.)
Six up, six down! As you can see, there are a lot of wonderful chef knives out there. Hopefully this short list has given you a taste of the possibilities. Remember, stay with quality brands—there’s no free lunch—and stay with what feels and works best for you. It’s your body. It’s your kitchen. Have fun cooking! (And don’t forget to read my article How to Buy a Great Chef Knife for more background.)