In the kitchen, I’m like the Harpo Marx knife work; meaning I never had any formal training and just messed around until I found something that worked for me. But along the way, I learned a lot about blade geometry, steels, and the general ins and outs of chef’s knives. So when the opportunity arose to compile some of this knowledge for The takeawaymy eyes widened and I had a goofy smile on my face.
Like I said, pure Harpo. And speaking of clowns: yes, I’m the same guy who wrote an article telling you to put your blades in the dishwasher. But even I’m not lazy enough to do that with my pretty chef’s knife. They are the tools of a craftsman, and there is a right way to take care of them.
What is more subjective, however, is preference. And if you’re looking to step up from that dollar store blade you’ve been using since college, the variety of choices and styles can be overwhelming. But over a few years of cooking and writing about knives, I’ve learned what to look for and even have a few recommendations to share, from great all-rounders to a few unique outliers.
Consider blade style and length
Retailers offer a multitude of blade styles, but we’re really focusing on two: the traditional Western chef’s knife and its sleeker Japanese counterpart. The Wüsthof Pro chef’s knife pictured above is a fairly typical example of the western style. There is a pronounced curve on the belly, which allows you to rock back and forth through piles of food. The Japanese type is generally more angular, with slightly different tip geometry. They are great slicers, but they offer a little less versatility. If you’re using the flat of your knife blade to crush garlic, for example, just know that your palm will have a smaller target.
If you buy a western-style blade, you can usually be assured that it will come with a V-bevel. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the two sides of the blade’s edge meet in the shape of the letter V. Japanese knives can be more delicate. Some come with a beveled bevel, which means only one side of the final edge is angled.
Whole books have been written on this subject, and I won’t try to dwell on it here. In summary, a western knife will generally be easier to sharpen and sharpen for a home cook. And if you buy an Oriental-style blade from a Western manufacturer, you’ll likely get the V. But if, like many professional chefs, you want the full Japanese experience, pay attention to the product description. You don’t want to buy a right-handed bevel if you have a left-handed grip. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule, as some Japanese manufacturers produce v-edges (or even hybrids). Just be sure to do your research.
Regardless of your preferred style, most people should be looking for a blade around eight inches in reach. This is a good all-purpose range, allowing you to cut large chunks of produce while still being nimble enough to execute a fine mince.
The materials that make up your knife matter
After choosing a style, you will want to consider its steel. It’s an even more complicated topic, so here are the highlights: Most western knives are made with a slightly softer metal, while Japanese blades are harder. Hardness is measured on something called the Rockwell scale, with a unit called HRC. Quality Western-style offerings will typically weigh between 55 and 58 HRC, while many Japanese knives are hardened to 60 HRC and above.
The name of a steel can also help you. VG-10 and Molybdenum alloys are popular with Eastern models, while the West prefers various members of the high carbon families. Just keep in mind that these latter options will corrode or discolor fairly quickly if not dried quickly after use. spyderco LC200N is on the opposite end of the spectrum, with metallurgy that is, for all intents and purposes, rustproof.
For beginners and home cooks, I would generally steer you towards something milder. They are more forgiving to learn, both for cutting and sharpening. Suppose you accidentally hit your edge against the faucet – more malleable steel will warp on impact, whereas harder metal is likely to chip, and a roll in the edge is much, much easier to fix just a shard.
Steel generally receives the highest rating, but don’t overlook the handle material. Various rubbers, polymers, and stabilized woods will usually do, such as Pakkawood or Mercer’s Santoprene. But in general, rough wood or hard plastic will become slippery or uncomfortable with prolonged use.
The Best Entry-Level Chef’s Knives
Wüsthof Classic 8-inch Chef’s Knife ($170)
It is one of the most iconic designs in the industry. With its large, high-carbon blade and carefully sculpted handle, this chef’s knife is a paragon of comfort and performance. If there’s a downside here, it’s that the heel of the blade meets a thicker piece of steel. This will make it harder for home sharpeners to touch up that back edge. Still, the Wüsthof name carries weight, and their Classic 8 is a legit beast.
Mercer Culinary Genesis 8-inch Chef’s Knife ($37)
Budget waters are hotly contested these days, but this Mercer is near the top of the pack. The curve of its high-carbon blade is sleek, and the hooked end of its Santoprene handle should hold your hand securely in place. And with over 10,000 five-star reviews on Amazon, it certainly has an enthusiastic following. Is that enough to topple the former budget king, the Victorinox Fibrox Pro? Depending on the size of your hand and your preferred grip, I’d bet the answer is “Yes”.
Mac Mighty 8-inch Chef’s Knife ($150)
Whichever way you look at it, the Mac series is legendary. Their Mighty tops lists of the “best chef’s knives” in the entire industry. Their design and construction are superb, and they have that slicing feel of the best Japanese blades. There are also cheaper (but no less efficient) offerings in their range, such as this Hollow Edge model for $90.
Handmade knives are always an option
Depending on how much you believe in the idea that tools have a “soul”, there is something to be said for craft knives. And while there are plenty of high-end options out there, I also encourage you to check out smaller manufacturers like LT Wright. This company produces well made and personally made blades with beautiful materials. I used one of their GNS models as a versatile camping companion for years, and it’s been great.
Taking the second life concept one step further, there is also a company named Origin Handcrafted. Their new culinary series produces Japanese-style knives, forged from vintage sawmill blades, whiskey casks and locally sourced oak in Manitoba. They recently sent me a utility knife to test, and it has been nothing short of excellent. They have about a week left on their Kickstarter, so I recommend giving them a look.