5 Tips for Buying the Perfect Chef's Knife
While there are a dizzying array of knife styles, shapes, and sizes to choose from, all you really need is one good chef’s knife. Since there is no ‘one size fits all’ option when it comes to knives—and buying one can be a lofty investment—it’s important to understand your personal preferences before you go shopping. Here are five tips for choosing a chef’s knife that makes chopping, mincing, slicing, and dicing more effortless, accurate, and enjoyable.
What to Look for in a Chef’s Knife
Once you hone in on what you’re looking for, buying the perfect chef’s knife will be a piece of cake. The most important things to take into consideration when buying a new knife (of any kind) are size, style, steel, handle, and weighting.
Size it Up
Before you start worrying about how stylish it is, take stock of what your needs are in the kitchen. If you’re an at home cook and don’t regularly find yourself breaking down whole chickens or chopping vegetables into a fine brunoise, then 8”-10” blade length should be plenty. Most non-industrial counter tops and cutting boards aren’t designed to handle much more than that, so stick to a size that’s comfortable in your hand and maneuverable in your space.
Above all else, your knife should feel like a natural extension of your arm—instilling confidence, not fear, when you take to the cutting board. While big knives may look impressive, bigger isn’t always better. If you simply can’t decide between 8-inches and 10-inches, Messermeister offers a 9-inch blade—both with and without kullenschliff’s—in their Meridian Elite collection that might be the perfect fit.
Pick a Style
Every chef has a preference that’s all their own, so this is where you’re going to need to pick a side: German or Japanese. There are pros and cons to each style, so let’s take a look at the anatomy of the knife, hardness of the blade, and the blade angles.
German knives are typically characterized by a full-tang, bolster, thicker blade, and 15° - 22° angle. Making them sharp, but also sturdy. Also known as shoulder, shank or collar, the bolster is the thick portion of a knife between the blade and the handle. It can add stability and strength to a knife and protect the user’s fingers of the gripping hand. Because of their beefier blade, they’re less prone to breaking or chipping if you accidentally cut up against bone or drop it. This also means they’re less adept at making delicate cuts, such as slicing sashimi or doing a fine julienne of vegetables.
On the other hand, Japanese knives are thinner and lighter, generally have no bolster, and the tangs vary by manufacturer. They typically boast 15 - 18° angle, which makes them impressively sharp, but a little more difficult to maintain. Because of their thinner blade composition they’re able to make extremely thin slices, but can’t tackle heavy duty tasks like carving a large melon as easily. If you’re keen on this style, turn your attention towards ‘Santoku’ knives, as this is what Japanese chef knives are known as.
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules and many brands, like Messermeister and Chroma, now offer hybrid options, which marry the favorite aspects from both styles into one versatile blade
Choose a Steel
The type of steel you choose makes a huge difference in both the durability of your blade and sharpness of your edge. Although there are huge variety of companies manufacturing numerous types of knives, you can basically break it down into two categories: high carbon and stainless steel.
Carbon steel is harder, sharper, and holds its edge retention longer than its stainless counterpart; however, it requires more maintenance to prevent it from rusting or discoloring. Stainless steel is the budget friendly option, easier to take care of, and gets the job done well, but doesn’t offer the same longevity as carbon. Since stainless steel is softer, it needs regular sharpening to keep the edge straight and razor sharp. Luckily, any standard knife sharpener will do the trick.
Ask any professional chef what they’d choose and they’ll likely steer you towards carbon steel as it offers more bang for your buck—especially in the long run.
Handle with Care
The key to having excellent knife skills—and keeping your cuts fluid over an extended period of time—is a relaxed and comfortable your grip on your knife. This means selecting a handle that’s well-suited for your frame and size. If you have smaller hands, you’ll want to reach for a thinner handle than someone with larger hands, who should choose a blade with a wider trunk. Many brands also offer ergonomic handles that fit comfortably in your palm and provide extra stability and support during extended cutting and chopping tasks. Ergo Chef and Messermeister both offer ergonomic grip.
Unlike typical Western-style handles that are flatter, Japanese knives often sport a round or oval handle. Most new users encounter a bit of a re-learning curve when it comes to adequately manipulating this style of knife, so keep that in mind if your knife skills aren’t tip-top.
The final thing you want to take into consideration when selecting the perfect chef’s knife is weighting. Weighting relates to the knife’s overall balance i.e. how well the weight is distributed between the handle and the blade.
For knives that are 8 inches or longer (like a 10 inch chef’s knife or long slicer), the balance point should be right where the blade meets that handle, meaning the blade and handle should weigh about the same. A center or rear-balanced blade places the balance point close to the hand where it can be more easily manipulated, improving agility and providing raw chopping power. For shorter knives (like a three inch paring or utility knife) designed for more precision cutting tasks, you can expect the majority of the weight to rest in the handle as opposed to the blade. This distribution provides increased control when navigating smaller, more accurate cuts, which is to be expected from a knife of this size.
Decisions, decisions...While there may not be a simple recipe for choosing your ‘Goldilocks blade’, identifying your personal preferences in each of these categories will make purchasing one that’s “just right” a breeze. Remember, your chef’s knife is the single most important tool in your entire kitchen, and can easily last you 25 years or more if well taken care of. So, try not to get too hung up on the price tag and opt for a knife that gets you excited to be in the kitchen and will be with you for the next quarter century.
- Alyssa Schwartz