The chef knife, the essence of any kitchen, is an indispensable tool that we rely on effortlessly. It accompanies us during the meticulous process of mincing shallots before dinner and remains steadfast as we effortlessly quarter a watermelon for dessert. Therefore, investing some consideration in purchasing an excellent chef knife is paramount, as it becomes a lifelong companion.

Ultimately, two crucial factors come into play:
1) How does it feel when held?
2) How effectively does it retain its sharpness?

To learn more about how to choose a quality set of kitchen knives, check out our Knife Selection Guide.

Access to Quality Merchandise

Now, someone might interject, “But what about aesthetics? Shouldn’t they hold significance?” My response would be that while aesthetics are indeed important, they should only be considered once the primary factors have been addressed. Feel free to indulge in visual appeal thereafter. However, it’s important to note that beauty alone does not guarantee usefulness. What truly matters are the aforementioned fundamental aspects.

In an ideal world, we would all have convenient access to a renowned gourmet kitchen store, filled with rows of knives that we could physically touch and experience before making a purchase. While we may not have that luxury, it poses a challenge when trying to determine how a kitchen knife will feel in our hands. However, regardless of the limited options available in nearby stores, it is worthwhile to pay a visit to establishments that carry high-quality knives. Don’t be intimidated by salespeople; feel free to request the knives you’re interested in from behind the glass display and hold them in your hands.

Additionally, don’t limit yourself to traditional avenues for a hands-on experience. Seek advice from your foodie friends about the knives they own and ask if you can try them out sometime. Consider reaching out to friends of friends who work in restaurants, as they might have valuable insights. Embrace creativity in finding opportunities to explore different knives.

Moreover, the online world offers a vast universe of options, eliminating the obstacle of distance from a physical store. You can now experience the feel of a knife in the comfort of your own kitchen. Reputable online merchants generally have reasonable return policies, as they want to encourage your purchase. Furthermore, the sheer abundance of brands and models available for sampling on the web can compensate for any inconveniences. If you’re eager to begin shopping promptly, you can check out my article on the best chef knives for a helpful guide.

Deceptive Tactics

Manufacturers or merchants often highlight certain knife features that may not actually hold much significance. These features can serve as distractions, diverting your attention away from the truly important aspects. Let’s examine a few of these prominent decoys: full-tang, forged-only, and the bolster.

Full Tang versus Partial Tang

The tang refers to the section of the blade that extends into the handle, ensuring a connection between the two. Typically, the tang is sandwiched between two handle pieces that are held together by rivets. When the metal of the blade extends entirely through the handle, the knife is labeled as “full-tang” (refer to the accompanying photo).

Having a full-tang is not inherently problematic. However, the issue arises when knifemakers, particularly merchants, excessively emphasize a full-tang as the sole indicator of superior quality and durability. Although it is true that a knife with a full-tang construction may possess greater strength, this factor is essentially inconsequential. It is important not to be swayed by such claims. After all, you won’t be using your chef knife to pry off two-by-fours; its primary purpose is to chop carrots. Numerous custom hunting knives and Japanese swords, which are designed for more demanding tasks than an average chef knife, are not constructed with a full-tang. Therefore, fixating on the tang is unnecessary. Instead, focus on evaluating the knife based on its overall quality.

Forged vs Stamped

In the past, there used to be a significant disparity in quality between forged blades, which were pounded into shape, and stamped blades, which were cut from metal sheets like cookies. However, with advancements in modern manufacturing, including the availability of high-quality steel and advanced heat treatment techniques, this gap has now closed. Nowadays, the quality of a blade depends on various factors. Stamped blades can be of high quality, just as forged blades can be of low quality. While lower-priced knives tend to be stamped, and higher-end blades (priced at $200 and above) are typically forged, the situation is different in the middle price range ($70 to $200). If you compare knives from both types at similar price points, a well-made stamped blade can compete head-to-head with a forged one and perform admirably. Ultimately, the choice between the two comes down to personal preference and the tactile experience you prefer.

Bolster Bluff

The bolster, located between the handle and the blade of a knife, serves two main purposes. Firstly, it provides additional protection to your gripping hand, preventing it from sliding against the back edge of the blade. Secondly, it contributes to the overall balance of the knife. In the past, having a bolster, along with a full-tang construction, was considered a sign of a high-quality forged knife. However, in our diverse world today, where Western and Eastern knife styles intermingle and inexpensive manufacturing (such as from China) is widespread, the presence of a bolster does not necessarily indicate the knife’s quality. While most traditionally forged German-made knives feature bolsters, Japanese-made knives typically do not. Ultimately, the presence of a bolster is a matter of personal preference. (See the photo below showcasing two quality 6-inch chef knives: on the left, a Henckels knife with a traditional full bolster, and on the right, a Shun knife with a partial bolster.)

The Feel Factor: Weight and Handle

Imagine being able to physically assess a specimen—how does this baby rest in your palm? Does it feel excessively heavy or light? Is the handle comfortable, or does it seem too bulky or small? Consider its balance—does it naturally stay in your grasp as you work? Many chefs prefer a knife that strikes an even weight distribution between the blade and handle, while others lean towards a slightly heavier blade that pulls down towards the food. Ultimately, the decision lies with you. What feels right is subjective, and what works for your favorite celebrity chef may not necessarily work for you. Trust your own senses to guide you. (Refer to the photo below, which showcases six chef/santoku knives with distinct handles, listed from left to right: Henckels, Global, Henckels 4-Star, Caphalon, Henckels Pro S, Shun Classic)

In today’s culinary landscape, chef’s knives, also known as cook’s knives, can generally be classified into three main types: German-style, Japanese-style, and hybrid. German-style knives, also referred to as Western knives, are characterized by their thicker and heavier construction. On the other hand, Japanese knives are thinner and lighter. Hybrid knives typically follow the Japanese style, but there can be exceptions. Understanding these categories can be helpful when determining your personal preference.

For instance, if you were to hold a hybrid knife like the Japanese-made G-48 by Global, you would immediately notice its lighter weight and slimmer handle compared to a German-made Classic Chef’s knife by Wusthof. In fact, the handle of the Global knife is so slender that if you loosen your grip, the knife may tilt sideways in your hand, whereas the Wusthof knife would remain stable. Do you mind the knife’s tendency to tilt sideways when not held firmly, or do you appreciate its lightweight nature enough that this issue becomes insignificant?

In recent years, there has been a shift from heavier German-style knives to lighter Japanese-style models. Advocates of the Japanese-style knives often highlight the reduced fatigue caused by their lighter weight. While this can be a significant advantage, it may not be a major factor for someone who only cooks four meals a week for a family of three. Ultimately, it’s important to consider personal preference rather than simply following the trend. Interestingly, even though I own and use both types of knives, I still find myself drawn to the heavier, Western-style knives.

When you have a knife in your hands, it’s worth paying special attention to the handle and its composition. Consider whether you enjoy the texture it provides, as materials can vary greatly. For instance, Henckels and Wusthof offer top-of-the-line models with handles that feel quite distinct.

One has a hard, smooth finish resembling wood, while the other has a softer, more plastic-like texture with enhanced grip. (See photo on the right: handles on a Henckels Professional S and a Four Star, both made of polypropylene.) Additionally, Global knives are known for their trademark pebbled steel handles. Keep in mind that any minor irritation you experience during a test may become increasingly bothersome after repeated use. However, if the blade continues to perform exceptionally well, you might eventually become accustomed to the handle.

If you’re uncertain about the ideal length, I suggest opting for a standard consumer-sized 8-inch chef’s knife. However, if you prefer a lighter Japanese knife, consider a 7-inch santoku. One of the advantages of the santoku is that it provides the wider blade of a 10-inch knife without the extra length. Over time, personal experience will guide you to discover your preferences. Personally, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma regarding the size issue. I often alternate between my Henckels 8-inch chef’s knife and my Global 7-inch santoku. Some nights I solely use the Henckels, while on other nights, I rely solely on the Global. And occasionally, I switch between the two knives throughout the evening.

Ultimately, it’s important to find what works best for you. Your preferences matter the most!

(Above image: Chef knives of various sizes – 6-inch chef, 7- and 7 1/2-inch santokus, and 8-inch chef. Please keep in mind that selecting a 6-inch knife as your primary chef knife is not advisable. It is too short.)

Ensuring Long-Lasting Sharpness (Know What You’re Getting)

When it comes to sharpness, here’s what I prioritize: a chef knife that effortlessly slices through a tomato, time after time, without any resistance. If a knife can achieve this, it’s likely sharp enough for my needs. It’s a simple yet essential criterion.

Almost any knife you purchase today, even at a store like WalMart, will initially meet this sharpness requirement. However, not all knives can maintain their sharpness over time. Only the high-quality ones, assuming you’re not using them on glass or metal or engaging in any absurd activities, have the ability to consistently retain their original sharpness for many years. The key factor in their quality, strength, durability, and edge retention lies in the type of steel they are crafted from.

Steel is an extensive topic in itself, but it’s important to understand that it encompasses a wide range of quality and characteristics. The steel used in inexpensive knives is vastly different from the steel found in more expensive knives, and it simply doesn’t hold up as well. The edge of a cheap knife will easily fold over and become dull, requiring frequent sharpening. Moreover, sharpening such a knife will result in the removal of more metal, leading to either a perpetually dull blade or a cutting edge that quickly wears away to nothing.

Looking for a knife with top-notch steel? Opt for reputable name brands. Here’s a starting list: Henckels, Wusthof, Shun, Global, MAC, Messermeister. However, it’s not that straightforward. These brands have numerous product lines, some with varying quality levels that can’t be easily compared. Exploring all the styles and models from these six brands alone would require an entire website. To sum things up, I can offer you two things: a warning and a shortlist of recommended knives to consider. (Feel free to explore other sections of this site for more in-depth information.)

First, the Warning: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you come across a knife brand boasting about its uniqueness but significantly cheaper than similar-sized and designed name-brand models, be cautious. It’s highly unlikely to be true (unless it’s stolen merchandise, but that’s not something you want to get involved in, right?). Quality comes at a price, and high-quality, high-performance steel is never cheap.

Second, the Short List: Just scroll down a bit, and you’ll find a selection of six exceptional chef knives worth exploring. They come from different manufacturers and boast various styles. Ideally, you’d have the opportunity to physically interact with them before making a purchase, but no physical store can offer you such an extensive range of choices at such competitive prices.

Key Priorities

There is one final point I want to emphasize. While I have devoted a significant portion of this article to discussing the importance of the feel and ergonomics of a chef knife, I must not overlook the crucial aspect of its sharpness retention. I want to ensure that you do not form the wrong impression. From my personal experience, the sharpness of a knife is just as vital as its ergonomics. Surprisingly, I have been able to adapt my hand and arm to various knives with different shapes, sizes, weights, and handle designs throughout the years. However, when a sharp knife loses its edge and cannot be restored, I could never become accustomed to it. It consistently frustrated me to no end.

Therefore, when uncertain, it is always wise to opt for knives made with quality steel!

The Knife Experts

The Knife Experts

Hi, we’re James and Luke, two Brooklyn-based chefs on a mission to help home cooks and aspiring chefs unleash their culinary potential through the mastery of kitchen knives. Join us on this journey.

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