A chef knife is the soul of the kitchen. It’s the tool you most use without even thinking, but can’t live without. It’s in your hands pre-dinner when you mince shallots and there again when you quarter a watermelon for dessert. So buying a great chef knife is worth some thought. (Photo below: Henckel’s Pro S Chef’s.)
For me, it boils down to two big things:
1) How does it feel in your hand?
2) How well will it hold its edge (i.e. stay sharp)?
Do I hear someone whining, “But what about looks? Don’t they count for something?” And I would have to say—sure, as long as the two biggies are taken care of first. Then feel free to go to town. But beauty is no guarantee of usefulness. What matters most are the two big things.
Access to the Merchandise
In an ideal world, we would all live near a major gourmet kitchen store that had walls of knives we could touch in the flesh before we bought. Oh, the salesperson probably wouldn’t let us chop up an onion, but we could get a general feel just by handling them a bit, pretending to slice and dice.
Alas, that’s not the case for most of us. And it presents a challenge when trying to understand how your future kitchen soulmate will feel in your grip. Nonetheless, no matter how limited a selection the stores near you offer, it’s worth making a visit to whichever ones carry quality knives. Don’t let the salesperson intimidate you. Ask to take out as many as you need from behind the glass display case and into your eager palm.
Most reputable online merchants have reasonable return policies because it’s in their best interest to encourage you to buy.
Also—be open to other non-trad avenues of getting a hands-on experience. Ask your foodie friends what knives they own and if you can try them out sometime. Or how about friends of friends who might work in restaurants? Be creative!
And then, of course, there’s the online universe—where your distance from a store doesn’t have to be an obstacle. Where you can get the feel for a knife in the comfort of your own kitchen and, because it’s in their best interest to encourage you to buy, most reputable online merchants have reasonable return policies. Plus, the pure quantity of brands and models you can sample on the web can easily make up for any inconveniences. (If you’re in a hurry to shop, go straight to my article Best Chef Knives — Six Recommendations.)
There are certain features that manufacturers (or merchants) might tout about their knives that don’t necessarily matter. They can act as decoys distracting you from the things that are truly important. Let’s look at a few major ones—full-tang, forged only, the bolster.
Full Tang vs. Partial Tang
The tang is that part of the blade that sticks into the handle, that keeps the two connected. The tang is often sandwiched between two pieces of handle that are held together with rivets. A knife is described as “full-tang” when the metal from the blade runs all the way through the handle. (See the photo below.)
There’s nothing wrong with a full-tang. But the problem is, sometimes knifemakers, and especially merchants, brag about a full-tang as the ultimate measure of quality and durability. While, technically speaking, a knife with a full-tang structure might be stronger, it’s basically irrelevant. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re not prying off two-by-fours with your chef knife, you’re chopping carrots. Many custom hunting knives and Japanese swords are not full-tang, and they are (and were) built for more heavy-duty uses than your average chef knife. Don’t get hung up on the tang. Go with the overall quality of the knife.
Forged vs. Stamped
There are high-quality stamped blades and low-quality forged blades.
Historically, there has been a huge difference in quality between a blade that was pounded into shape (forged) and one that was cut out of a sheet of metal like a cookie (stamped). But today, thanks to the wonders of modern manufacturing—the accessibility of high-end steel, the sophistication of heat treatment—the gap between them has narrowed to none. It all depends. There are high-quality stamped blades and low-quality forged blades. Yes, the majority of bargain basement knives will still be stamped, and the majority of high-end blades ($200 and up) will still be forged. But in that wide middle ground ($70 to $200), if you match each type of knife at comparable price points, a quality stamped blade will meet a forged head-on and hold its own. It’s more about the feel and what you like.
The bolster is the part of a knife between the handle and the blade that is built out a bit and can 1) help protect your gripping hand from sliding up against the back edge of the blade, and 2) help balance the knife. A bolster, along with a full-tang, used to be the mark of a quality forged knife. But now in our polyglot world, with the mixing of Western and Eastern knife styles and the proliferation of inexpensive manufacturing (i.e. China), this element is not a guarantee of quality. Most forged German-made knives have traditionally had bolsters while Japanese-made have not. A bolster is not essential, it’s a matter of taste. (Photo below: Two quality 6-inch chef knives—on the left, a Henckels, with a traditional full bolster; on the right, a Shun, with a partial bolster.)
The Feel Factor: Weight and Handle
German-style [knives] are thicker and heavier. Japanese are thinner and lighter.Assuming you can audition a physical specimen—how does this baby feel in your hand? Is it too heavy, too light? Does the handle seem comfortable? Too bulky, too small? How’s the balance? Does it want to stay in your hand while your work? Most cooks prefer a knife that weighs evenly between the blade and handle. Some prefer the blade to weigh a touch more and tug down toward the food. In the end, only you can determine what feels right. And you can’t be sure what works for your favorite celeb chef will work for you. You need to trust your own senses. (Photo below: Six different chef/santoku knives with six different handles. From L to R: Henckels, Global, Henckels 4-Star, Caphalon, Henckels Pro S, Shun Classic)
Nowadays most quality chef’s knives (or cook’s knives) can be grouped into three general categories: German-style, Japanese-style, or hybrid. German-style (or Western) are thicker and heavier. Japanese are thinner and lighter. And hybrids are usually in the Japanese mode, but not always. It helps to know this when trying to figure out what you like.
For example, if you’re holding a Japanese-made G-48 by Global (which is a hybrid), you’ll definitely find it lighter and the handle skinnier than a German-made Classic Chef’s by Wusthof. So skinny, in fact, that when you open your grip, the knife will want to flop over sideways in your hand. (The Wusthof will stay put.) Do you mind the fact that it can’t rest in your hand without flopping sideways? Or are you so delighted with the lightness that it’s a non-issue?
In the last decade, heavier German-style knives have been giving way to the lighter Japanese-style model. One of the pluses of the Japanese-style that’s been extolled is that because it’s so much lighter, you feel less fatigue. And it’s true—but it might not be a big factor for someone cooking only four meals a week for a family of three. At any rate, don’t just follow the trend, follow what feels good. (For what it’s worth, even though I own and use both, I still gravitate toward the heavier, Western, style.)
One Size Does Not Fit All
Before we leave the world of ergonomics, there’s one more design factor worth thinking about—the length of blade you’re most comfortable with. A 7-inch santoku? A classic 8-inch chef’s?
A large knife blade definitely is something many find intimidating (like my sister, for instance, and I can empathize). Yet for others, like Norman Weinstein who’s taught professional chefs for over 20 years, nothing will do but a 10-inch chef’s. That’s fine. Choose whatever size you’re most comfortable with. And what will work best for the range of tasks alloted to it—from mincing garlic to splitting open a melon.
Let it be noted though that if you’re cooking for an army or handling a lot of cumbersome foods—like pumpkins and squash and bundles of kale—a 10-incher can come in quite handy. And the width of the blade enables you to scoop up piles of chopped carrots effortlessly. Also, if you have large hands, a wide blade insures your knuckles don’t get pinched between the handle and cutting board when chopping up onions.
If you’re not sure about the length, then I’d recommend going with a standard consumer-sized 8-inch chef’s. Or if you favor Japanese lightness, then maybe a 7-inch santoku. (One great thing about the santoku is you can have the extra width of a 10-inch blade without the length.) Leave it up to experience to eventually teach you what you do, or don’t, favor. Actually, I’m in limbo a little on this issue of size myself. I keep going back and forth between my Henckels 8-inch chef’s and my Global 7-inch santoku. One night I’ll use just the Henckels, and another night just the Global. And some nights I’ll switch between them both.
Whatever works for you. You, you, you!
(Photo above: 6-inch chef, 7- and 7 1/2-inch santokus, and 8-inch chef. Please note: I do not recommend choosing a 6-incher as your main chef knife. It’s too short.)
Sharpness that Lasts (know what you’re buying)
Here’s my main criteria for sharpness: I want a chef knife that can cut through a tomato without any resistance. Time and time again. If it can do this, then it’s probably sharp enough for my uses. Simple and sweet.
Practically any knife you buy today—yes, even at WalMart—will start off this sharp. But it won’t stay that way. Only the good ones, assuming you’re not chopping on glass or metal or something insane, can retain their sharpness, or more accurately, have their original sharpness revived again and again for quite a few years. And the quality of the good ones, their strength and durability, their ability to hold their edge, totally depends on the quality of steel they’re made of.
Steel is an entire subject in and of itself, but suffice it to say, it’s a material that lends itself to a ginormous range of quality and character, and the steel in a cheap knife is light years away from the steel in a more expensive knife and it will not hold up. The edge will fold over and dull too easily and will require much more sharpening. And the sharpening itself will wear away much more metal, so that you’ll find yourself with either a perpetually dull knife, or a knife who’s cutting edge quickly wears away to nothing.
(Photo above: One knife sells for over $100 and the other for $17. Can you tell the difference? Be an informed shopper!)
So how do you know you’re getting a knife with high-performance steel? Go with a name brand. Here’s a short list to start with: Henckels, Wusthof, Shun, Global, MAC, Messermeister. But, unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated. Because most of these brands have quite a few product lines (try 11 or more for Henckels) that vary enough in quality to make them not the least bit comparable. And to wade through all the styles and models of just these six brands would take a whole website in itself. So the main thing I can do for you here, in wrapping things up, is to 1) give you a warning, and 2) point you to a short list of recommended knives to explore. (And encourage you to check out other areas of this site where I delve in deeper.)
First, the Warning: There is NO FREE LUNCH. If you find a brand of knife that’s trumpeting it’s specialness, but is significantly cheaper than name-brand models of similar size and design, let the buyer beware. It’s not humanly possible. (Well, maybe if it’s stolen merchandise. But you don’t want to get into that, do you?) You get what you pay for. And high-quality, high-performance steel never comes cheap.
Secondly, the Short List: Just a short scroll down is a list of six high-quality chef knives that are worth taking a look at. They’re purposely from a variety of makers in various styles. Of course, ideally, you’d be in a store where you could physically interact with them before you buy. But, again—no bricks-and-mortar store on the globe could offer you so many choices. Or such low prices.
One final thing: In thinking about how much space I’ve spent in this article on how a chef knife should feel, and how short a space in discussing the importance of its ability retain its sharpness—I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. In my experience, sharpness has been just as important as ergonomics. Believe it or not, my hand (and arm) have readily adapted to the feel and shape of a variety of knives (and their handles) that I’ve used over the years. Whether they were chunky or thin, heavy or light. But when a sharp knife went dull and refused to be revived, I never ever could get used to it. It continually annoyed the heck out of me.
So, when in doubt—go with quality steel!