Demystifying the Chef’s Knife: A Buyer’s Guide

The chef’s knife is one of the great workhorses of the kitchen.  It has been estimated that 90% of your slicing, dicing, and cutting needs can be accomplished with one of these culinary wonders, but  buying your first knife, like buying your first car, can be a daunting matter.  There is much to consider; not the least of which is cost.  

We’ve all been told that good knives cost good money, right? Well guess what? Marketers know this and use it to their advantage by dividing us into two groups: those looking to get the most knife for the least amount of money, and those who think that a bigger price tag means a better knife.  

For the bargain hunters, marketers offer knife sets, which usually include one good knife and several subpar models. For the luxury buyers, there are beautifully handcrafted models made of exotic metals, which are, for the most part, a waste of your money.

The truth is there is a knife for pretty much every budget, and while you may not need to spend an arm and a leg to get one, you may need to spend a little more than you’re comfortable with. So it makes sense to do a little research.

For that reason, I put together this basic guide to buying a chef’s knife.  Even if you don’t know a bolster from a tang or a the spine from the heel, familiarize yourself with these basic concepts, and I guarantee you will make a more informed decision when shopping for a chef’s knife.

Tip #1: Take a Knife Skills Class

It’s simple: You cannot intelligently shop for knives until you’ve developed the skills and confidence to safely handle them. Not to mention that quality knives are sharp and can easily cut you. If you haven’t already had professional training, get it.  Seek out a class taught by a reputable professional and make the investment.  It will be some of the best money spent. 

Nothing on the internet or even in a book, reaches the impact of hands-on training. Inquire about classes at a local culinary school. Check with your neighborhood kitchen supply store. Many offer knife skills training.  Two large U.S. chains, Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table, often have training facilities right in their stores. Yelp is an excellent resource for finding local culinary training resources.  Simply search the words “knife skills class” and see what’s available.  Just make sure the teacher is a reputable professional. Ask for credentials and references.

An added benefit of taking a class with a professional, is that it will afford you the opportunity to ask as many questions as you like.  A good teacher will be able to advise you on quality knives in a way that a store clerk cannot.

Forget the Set

Don’t purchase your chef’s knife as part of a set. Knife sets, even those offered by reputable manufacturers, are rarely the bargains they appear to be. In order to make a profit, the manufactures often rely on subpar or obscure, even useless, knives (think of a utility or tomato knife). They may also include inexpensive add-ons to sweetened the deal, such as a holder, sharpener or honing steel.  Buried in all that mess might be one decent or two halfway decent knives. The rest are largely window dressing. 

Price is always your first clue that something isn’t right. If it seems too good to be true, it is. For example, a good chef’s knife alone will cost between $70 and $150. A $90 set will, most likely, not include a good chef’s knife. You’re better off pouring that money into one good knife than several mediocre ones.

Buy your knives in piecemeal fashion, one at a time, starting with your chef’s knife. Choose the best knife your budget will allow.  No one company has a monopoly on all types of knives. The company that makes the best chef’s knife in your price range may not make the best paring or bread knife. This is a big reasons that knife sets just don’t make sense.

Knives are fundamental. They are the first and most important tool in the kitchen. You need two, a big one and a small one. They must be sharp.

-Michael Ruhlman

What Matters Most

It should come as no surprise that the quality of a knife begins with the metal it is made from, but to understand which metals make for the best knives requires a lengthy conversation that would delight chemists and metallurgist but would largely leave most readers dazed and confused.  In the end, it boils down to two primary choices: carbon steel  and high carbon stainless-steel. Many professional chefs believe that the best knives are made from carbon-steel because of its ability to take and hold a razor-sharp edge. Unfortunately, carbon steel is fussy and susceptible to rusts and corrosion from water and acids. Unless you’re meticulous with your knives—keeping them clean and dry at all times, carbon steel knives are not a practical solution for most home cooks.

Knives made from high-carbon stainless steel make for a better choice. While stainless doesn’t sharpen as well as carbon-steel, it will stand up well against water and acids.  High-carbon stainless steel is comprised of various elements chosen to strengthen the metal and make it resistant to corrosion. There are numerous formulas for stainless steel used in today’s modern knives, and some reputable knife manufactures will actually stamp the formula onto the blade, a collection of letters and numbers which is not easily deciphered.  At the very least, what matters most are the words “high-carbon” somewhere on the blade or in the marketing materials. If in doubt, simply ask the sales clerk.

Nothing Under Nine

Given the various shapes, sizes and textures of the food you’ll be cutting, a 9-10-inch blade will cover a lot of ingredients large and small. Most chef knives sold in kitchen stores and online are 8 inches long. (Anything shorter is a complete waste of money unless you already own a full size chef’s knife.) I strongly encourage you to try a 9 or 10 inch blade. Many home cooks are intimidated by such a large knife and feel more comfortable with a smaller blade, but you need to size the knife to the job at hand, not the hand of the cook. An 8 inch knife may be fine for dicing carrots and celery, but you’ll appreciate those extra inches when you’re cutting a head of cabbage, a melon, or even a large and gnarly sweet potato.  If you’re not comfortable with the idea of such a large knife, I refer back to rule #1.  Taking a knife skills class will give the confidence to handle the longer blades. 

Forged vs. Stamped

There are generally two categories of steel knives, forged and stamped.  These terms refer to the methods by which a knives are manufactured.  A forged knife is created by heating a single piece of metal, called a blank, to near-melting point and hammering or pressing it into a blade.  A stamped knife is made by passing a sheet of steel through a hydraulic press which cuts the metal into the desired shape, not unlike a cookie cutter. Some stamped knives are cut from layers of clad metal and then machined, which sometimes give these knives attractive marking along the sides of the blades. 

For years forged knives were generally thought to be of much greater quality, but thanks to modern engineering, higher-quality machined knives are able to hold their own.  While it’s true that forging is an expensive process, one can no longer assume that forged knives are inherently a better choice.  That being said, there are many poor quality stamped knives out there, so do your research. 

For many, the differentiator between forged and stamped knives is simply preference.  Forged knives are generally heavier with a thicker blade, while stamped knives are thinner and lighter.  Some chef’s appreciate the weight and heft of a forged knife, while others prefer a lighter knife.  You will want to give each one a try to determine your own preference. Western or German knives generally fall into the category of forged, while Japanese knives tend to be stamped or “machined”.

Bolsters & Tangs

When shopping for knives you may encounter strong opinions regarding the bolster and the tang; arguments that are largely extensions of the forged-stamped debate.  The bolster, the thick band of metal between the blade and handle, is more or less a by product of the forging method.  Some bolsters run along the back edge of the blade and can make it difficult to sharpen the heel area of the blade. Other bolsters are “cut away” from the back of the blade. 

Stamped knives do not inherit a bolster. One must be welded onto the knife, if they have one at all. Fans of forged knives may try to reason that the bolster is a mark of quality or factor of safety, but neither are true.  A bolster does, however, help to balance the knife by adding weight behind the blade. Beyond that, it too becomes a matter of preference.

You may also hear talk about the tang, the extension of metal that attaches to the handle of the knife.  Some tangs run the entire length and the handle, called a full tang. With these knives, the handle “scales” are usually riveted directly to the tang. Other knives have “stick tangs”, which extend only partially in the the handle.  Some people believe that a full tang makes for a stronger knife, and there is some truth to that argument. However, you have to consider how the knife will be used.  If you were planning to prop open manhole covers, then yes, you might want a full tang knife. But when it comes to cutting meats, fruits, and vegetables, a quality knife with a stick tang will do just fine.  One advantage of a stick tang is that it allows for a more ergonomic handle. Some manufacturers have both right- and left-handed models.

Try Before You Buy

Would you buy a car without test driving it?  Of course not. So don’t buy a chef’s knife without first trying it out.  Find a quality kitchen or cutlery store near you and ask to look at and hold as many knives has they have.  (If they say “no”, turn around, walk out, and find another store.)  Examine each knife closely, note the markings.  How does the handle feel in your grip?  Does the knife feel too heavy or light?  Ask a lot of questions, even if you know the answers.  It will give you some insight into the sales clerk’s depth of knowledge.  Inquire about the steel quality, the manufacturing process, and the manufacturer, and take notes. 

When you’ve found one or two knives that you like, ask the clerk if they will allow you to test it right there in the store.  Many quality stores will provide some simple vegetables and a cutting board for you to test the knives with.  If not, ask about their return policy.  Can you return the knife if you get home and find you don’t like it or it isn’t sharp? Once you’ve gotten all the answers, put down the knives, thank the clerk, and go home and start your research.  Look up the manufacturers’ websites.  Check online reviews. Test the facts the sales clerk provided you, and shop around for price. 

Buying a knife online is fine once you have fully researched it. Odds are good you will find a better price online than what a local brick-and-mortar merchant can offer, but that doesn’t necessary equate to a better deal. You need to factor in shipping and handling fees and any surcharges should you need to return the knife. These cost can easily close the price gap between local and online options. Unless that gap is substantial, it’s worth spending a little more to purchase from a local merchant who is willing to stand behind his or her products.  

It All Comes Down to Feel

So you’ve set a budget, found a reputable knife merchant, and have identified several chef’s knives all made from quality high-carbon steel with blades ranging between 9 and 10 inches in length.  Some are forged.  Some are stamped.  Some have bolsters, some don’t. There are full tangs and stick tangs.  Now what?

In the end, it’s really up to you.  What feels best?  Do you like the sleek light feel of machined Japanese style knife, or do you prefer the hefty weight of a forged German model?  Given that you’re going to be spending years of hours cutting with this knife — sometimes for long stretches — what type of knife would you want to be holding?  Once you’ve confirmed the quality of the blade and reputation of the manufacturer, trust you instincts.  Confirm the store’s return policy once more, make you selection, and leave the store with the peace of mind that you’ve made a great decision.

Protect Your Investment

When budgeting for your knife, factor in some extra money to purchase a honing steel and a nice cutting board.  These two items will insure that your knife lasts a long time.

Despite the name and popular belief, a honing steel does not sharpen a knife.  Rather it preserves the very fine edge of the blade.  The actions of cutting and chopping tend to make segments of the blade’s edge roll to one side or the other, called a burr. The honing steel or rod, when used correctly, will keep a straight edge on your chef’s knife by pushing the burr back into place

Frequent use of a steel is extremely important, and a good knife skills instructor will show you the proper technique for using one. You should steel every time you use your knife. Otherwise, the edge can become permanently damaged making it difficult to sharpen your knives later.

When it comes to cutting boards, there are a lot of options, but nothing is kinder to the blade of a knife than wood. Wood gently yields a knife’s sharp edge while still providing a hard work surface. However, good wooden cutting boards are expensive, heavy and cannot go into a dishwasher.

If you cannot afford a wooden cutting board, bamboo, polyethylene and wood fiber-resin boards, like those manufactured by Epicurean, are all acceptable substitutes and all are dishwasher safe. I generally recommend two cutting boards; a wooden one and one inexpensive model. Reserve your wooden board for fruits, vegetables, and other foods that are ready to eat, and use the second board for raw meats, poultry and fish.

Never cut onto a hard surface such as stone, metal or glass  These will destroy your knives in a short matter of time.

The Joy of a Sharp Knife

When you first cut something with a new chef’s knife, it’s a delight you will not forget. You understand in that instant what all this fuss is about. As you use your knife the edge will invariably lose its sharpness even if you hone it regularly. Don’t let the joy of that first cut become a distance memory. At a minimum, have your chef’s knife sharpened once a year. It may cost you between $10-20, but it’s well worth the investment and the joy it will bring.

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