The Sharp Shopper’s Guide to Chef’s Knives

old brown wooden cutting board and knife with sharpening on the table

Have you ever sliced through an onion and hit your thumb instead? Ever tried to chop a tomato and found the best you can do is mash it? The problem isn’t your culinary skills–it’s your knife. The sad truth is that most people stock their kitchens with sub-bar cutlery, and most home chefs have no idea what they’re missing.

old brown wooden cutting board and knife with sharpening on the table

For culinary professionals, busy parents preparing family dinners, and weekend cooking enthusiasts alike, a trusty knife is indispensable. The most reached-for knife in any kitchen is the chef’s knife. These mid-sized knives are the workhorses of the food business. They chop and mince. They slice and dice. In the right hands, they can even peel a peach. They’re so versatile that some cooks say they rarely reach for any other blade. The chef’s knife is an essential tool in your kitchen arsenal, so it’s important to find the right one. But with so many options, how do you decide which one is for you?

The answer can be complicated. A perfect chef’s knife would be able to handle any kitchen task, plus be razor sharp, ultra-durable, low-maintenance and easy to clean. But here in the real world, it’s impossible for any single blade to excel in all of those categories. Finding the best possible knife for you requires finding the right balance of all these factors.

Kitchen Knife Blade Style

Chef’s knives come in two varieties: Western-style and Japanese-style. You’ll find the Western-style chef’s knife in most commercial knife sets. Blades are typically 8 to 12 inches long and 1.5 to 2 inches wide.  The cutting edge extends in a straight line from the handle before curving upward toward the tip. Western-style knives are characteristically double-beveled, meaning that both sides of the cutting edge are honed for maximum sharpness. Most cooks prefer the more manageable 8-inch versions, but longer blades can be helpful if you need to do lots of high-volume chopping or dicing.

The Japanese-style chef’s knife often called the santoku knife, is about the same length and width as the Western-style knife. Instead of curving upward, however, the Japanese-style edge follows a more angular contour as it extends from the handle to the tip. The blade looks more like a triangle, sometimes with a light, soft curvature. The other big difference is that Japanese-style blades are usually single-beveled, so you only need to sharpen their cutting edges on one side.

KU - Wusthof Classic 20-Piece Knife Block Set

Both styles have strengths and weaknesses, so you should base your selection on the kind of cooking you do. The curved edge and double-beveling of the Western-style knife let you “roll” the blade through dense vegetables like onions, making it ideal for chopping, dicing and mincing. If you love cooking hearty stews or preparing classic meat-and-potatoes dinners, the Western-style chef’s knife is for you.

The Japanese-style knife has the advantage for precision work, however. For paper-thin slices of fish or steak and elegantly peeled cucumbers, the angle of the santoku knife’s blade is far superior. The single-beveled edge also enhances precision, but only if you use it with the correct hand. Unless the package says otherwise, it’s safe to assume that a Japanese-style knife is designed for righties.

Composition and Design of Kitchen Knives

The vast majority of chef’s knives are made from either high-carbon steel or stainless steel. Each has unique advantages and disadvantages, so finding the perfect knife for your needs depends on your lifestyle and diet.

You can find excellent chef’s knives made out of either type of steel, but professional chefs and serious foodies tend to prefer carbon over stainless. Carbon steel is softer than stainless, making it easier to keep razor sharp. Carbon steel knives also afford the user much more control and, if well-maintained, longevity. But the downside is that these knives require routine maintenance to stay in shape. They are vulnerable to rust and staining, so it’s important to clean them immediately after use. They also need regular sharpening because their softness and flexibility cause them to lose their edge faster. If you don’t mind putting in a bit of elbow grease, however, carbon steel will give you better performance in the long run.

If your kitchen time mostly involves tossing together family dinners before soccer practice, a stainless steel blade is the better option. Stainless steel is, as the name suggests, resistant to rust and staining. Although they aren’t impervious to rust, stainless knives can survive a night in the sink without incurring much harm. They are also harder than carbon steel, so they hold their edge longer. However, that extra hardness makes them more difficult to sharpen. It also makes them somewhat brittle and more vulnerable to breaking and chipping.  But for more casual chefs who don’t have time to mess around with sharpening stones, their superior edge retention makes them the better choice.

If you’re willing to pay a premium, blades with cladding offer a compromise between stainless steel and carbon steel. The cladding is a thin layer of layer of stain and rust-resistant armor (think “iron-clad”) applied to the surface of a carbon steel blade, but not to the edge. A cladded chef’s knife has most of the advantages of carbon steel but requires somewhat less maintenance. Only choose a cladded knife if you’re willing to spend more than $200, however, as the cladding on cheaper products is likely to separate from the steel core over time.

A third option, ceramic knives, are becoming more popular. These can be ideal for tasks like chopping leafy greens, but they aren’t good candidates to serve as the workhorse in your kitchen. Ceramics are the hardest substance currently available other than diamonds, so ceramic blades hold their edge exceptionally well. But when they do lose their sharpness, there’s not much you can do about it. Their hardness also makes them vulnerable to chipping and breaking.

Kitchen Knife Manufacturing Process

There are two ways to manufacture both stainless steel and carbon steel knives: stamping and forging. Manufacturers produce stamped blades by taking a sheet of steel and punching out the desired shape. Forged blades, by contrast, are made by taking an appropriately sized chunk of steel, heating it and then pounding it into the form they want. Forging is more labor-intensive and less scalable than stamping, so forged blades are typically more expensive.

It’s possible to find excellent knives manufactured by either process, but forging is a useful indicator of high quality. There are lots of flimsy, cheap stamped blades on the market because the manufacturing process is simple and efficient. But there are very few flimsy, cheap forged blades for the same reason–forging is hard work, so manufacturers don’t put in the effort unless they can charge a premium for the product.

The lesson here is that if you’re looking to invest in a premium chef’s knife and you don’t have time to do lots of research, it’s safer to choose a forged blade. But, if you’re willing to do your homework and are confident in your knowledge, you can probably find a stamped knife of equivalent quality for a slightly lower price.

Kitchen Knife Price Ranges

You’ll find chef’s knives priced as low as few bucks to well over $1,000. As with everything in life, you get what you pay for. No matter what they’re made of, low-end knives tend to lose their edge quickly and are likely to break at the handle after a few months of regular use. They also tend to feel flimsy and imbalanced in your hand. The opposite is true at the high end of the price range.

Professional chef sharpening knife including assorted fresh vegetables

If you’re not much of a chef or your budget is limited, your best bet is to choose a knife in the $25 to $50 range. Products priced in that neighborhood should be durable enough to take a few years of regular use, provided you take good care of them. They won’t hold their edge for as long as you’d like, but they’ll survive a few good sharpening sessions.

If you’re ready to invest in a truly excellent knife, expect to pay more than $200 (maybe $150 if you catch a great sale). The quality of the steel is the primary driver of the cost, so there aren’t many ways to shrink the sticker price without sacrificing quality. Choose an established brand name with a good reputation and check out the type of steel used in the blade before you buy.

If you’re not in the market for a premium chef’s knife, it’s best to stick to the lower end of the price range. Although there are some excellent mid-priced knives, there are also many low-end products pretending to be better than they are. The solution is to choose an inexpensive knife for the short term, and plan to upgrade in a year or two.

The Final Decision Before Buying Your Kitchen Knives

No chef’s knife yet designed achieves true perfection, but with some thought and effort, you can find the perfect knife for you. Start by choosing the blade style you need given your cooking habits. Then, ask yourself whether you want the precision and control of carbon steel or the convenience of stainless. Finally, figure out your budget. Whether you’re a vegan, a pure carnivore or anything in between, the chef’s knife of your dreams is waiting for you.

About the author

CJ Tuttle