An Expert Guide to Chef's Knives: How to Buy the Best Chef Knife for YouPublished on 08/03/2023 · 10 min readFind your ideal chef's knife with this Expert guide! Explore blade types, materials, and more to elevate your culinary experience.
Photo by Ermolaeva Olga
TL;DR: Versatile and beloved, chef's knives chop, slice, and dice while also handling specialty tasks, like carving or fileting meats. The most important thing is to find a kitchen knife that feels evenly-weighted and comfortable to you.
I’m Jake, a Curated Kitchen Expert with 20 years of experience in restaurants. In this article, I’m focusing on the shapes and features of different chef's knives, and how they might suit various cooking styles. For myself, I prefer a compact 7-inch santoku for my main chef's knife because it’s easy, lightweight, and safe to use.
What Exactly is a Chef’s Knife?
A chef's knife is the backbone of the kitchen. At a length of 6-10 inches (8-inches being the most common), the design typically includes a straight slicing edge that arcs toward a pointed tip, which encourages smooth chopping. The pointed tip is itself great for small and nuanced tasks like deboning meats and cleaning vegetables.
What Are the Different Types of Chef’s Knives?
Below are the two main designs for all-purpose knives. Both have key benefits and potential downsides, but overall, they’re great options, and many chefs regularly use both.
Most popular overall, the western chef's knife has a blade design that can do a little bit of everything, and could be the only knife needed for skilled users. Also known as the Japanese gyuto (marginally different designs), these knives are great for rolling chops, slicing, and dicing. This kind of blade is most commonly 8-inches in length.
Benefits: The most versatile chef's knife that can perform almost all tasks. It’s also usually well-balanced and comfortable to use.
Downsides: An 8-inch chef’s knife can feel unwieldy for smaller hands. Greater skill is required to perform more nuanced tasks with this kind of knife.
Best for: Nearly every kitchen can benefit from a good chef's knife.
Santoku and Nakiri Knives
Perfect for both vegetarians and meat-lovers, as well as folks with smaller hands and compact kitchens, santokus and nakiris are usually about 5-7 inches long and have a safer blunted tip. Santokus have a normal blade steel thickness, making them heavier-duty, which is great for butternut squash, while nakiris use a thinner material for nuanced slicing of tomatoes, herbs, and even sushi. Many santoku knives have a granton/hollowed edge, encouraging quick use without fussing with sticky ingredients.
Benefits: Compact and lightweight, the santoku and nakiri are safer and easier to learn than a western-style knife.
Downsides: The smaller blade length and rounded tip make the knife slightly less versatile for lengthy slices and nuanced tasks at the tip of the blade, so commonly a paring or utility knife will need to be on-hand as well.
Best for: Beginners who need a less intimidating knife, and anyone with smaller hands.
What to Consider When Buying a Chef’s Knife
1. What Types of Cooking Do You Frequently Do?
Chef's knives have a do-it-all design, but some are better suited for a specific range of ingredients. If you’re a vegetarian, consider a santoku or even a nakiri. If you like meat, consider a 10-inch western chef's knife for broad slices and a pointed tip suitable for deboning. Even minimalist chefs typically have more than one knife for specialized tasks, so consider that you might still want a bread, utility, boning, or paring knife.
2. What’s the Knife's Material?
Forged high-carbon stainless steel blades are the best value since they’re durable, easy-to-maintain, and have decent edge retention. Budget knives use stamped metals and low levels of carbon and chromium, while high-quality knives often use damascus or carbon steel. Damascus steel can be beautiful to look at and rewarding to use, but it’s brittle. Carbon steel knives have a razor-sharp edge, but they require frequent touch up sharpening on honing rods or whetstones, and are prone to rust. I only recommend carbon steel knives to experienced chefs who are open to extra maintenance.
3. How Comfortable is the Knife in Your Hand?
The shape of your hand and your preferred cutting technique impact knife comfort. A good knife with an appropriate handle shape and size should feel natural and balanced in your hand. If you’re unable to try knives before you buy, consider chatting with a Curated Kitchen Expert for some insight into knife fit.
4. What’s the Knife's Edge Angle?
Western-style chef's knives have an edge angle close to 16°, which can feel plenty sharp while retaining a high durability. Japanese-style knives use an edge angle closer to 12°, which also feels extremely sharp, but is easier to dull or damage, requiring more frequent maintenance.
5. How Much Should a Chef’s Knife Cost?
Depending on build quality and brand, a chef's knife can cost anywhere from $30 to over $400.
- Budget options (<$50): Most budget chef's knives should be avoided. They have low-durability and require constant sharpening—and often a honing rod won’t be good enough.
- Mid-range ($50-$150): The ideal range for forged steel knives: these are easy to sharpen, durable, and have decent aesthetics.
- High-end (>$150): Knives in this range have marginally higher performance than mid-range knives, but their fit and finish (often made by artisan crafters) and materials are the best, often featuring rare hardwood handles.
Features to Look for in a Chef’s Knife
Chef's knives are simple overall, but here’s a few key features that’ll help ensure durability:
- Full Tang: When the blade material extends to the butt of the handle, it increases the rigidity and durability of the blade, while balancing the weight of the knife. Many low-cost knives use a “half-tang,” which is one reason why they’re cheaper. Ultimately, it’s worth it to spend a little extra for full-tang! Many high-end Japanese carbon steel knives use a half-tang design and are well-made, but they might not suit all cutting styles due to their imbalanced weight.
- Handle Material and Comfort: A riveted handle with composite (often fiberglass laminate G10), resin, or cured and sealed hardwood is the most durable and comfortable to use. Vacuum-sealed hardwoods with resin in particular produce a beautiful and durable result. Otherwise, most wooden-handle knives are porous and will swell, warp, and possibly crack if the knife is not well-maintained and kept away from moisture. Some low-costs knives use a nylon or rubberized handle, which can be great for commercial use with slippery ingredients like raw chicken, but over time the rubber degrades and can’t be replaced.
- Forged vs. Stamped: If you’re seeking durability and aesthetics, then forged knives will give you more than any stamped-metal knife can. Most stamped knives should be avoided, but there are a few exceptions: Victorinox, WÜSTHOF, and Zwilling all use higher quality metals, but will still feel a little less rigid.
Features to Avoid in Chef’s Knives
Here are a couple big things to avoid when shopping for a chef's knife that worsen durability, safety, and quality of experience.
- Knives Marketed as “Never Needs Sharpening:” All knives require regular maintenance (And the most expensive knives require even more!), so any knife claiming to have a “forever-sharp” blade, such as ceramic knives, is a scam. I recommend you get comfortable with a whetstone for the best results, as it's easy-to-learn, most rewarding, and forgiving if you make a mistake. Or you can go with an automatic knife sharpener, but just know that the results aren’t as good as the factory edge, and you’ll also need to make sure the sharpener is designed for your knife’s specific edge angle, or else you’ll damage it. However, if a blade is ever damaged beyond your ability to sharpen it, you can pay $10-30 to have your knife sharpened with professional equipment to get it back to working-order.
- Ridiculously Cheap Knives: Low-cost knives use soft metals that aren’t well-heat-treated (if at all) and dull easily. It’s possible to keep cheap knives sharp, but they take more work, and overall can just feel frustrating to use. It’s really worth investing in higher quality knives if you’re able to.
How to Choose the Best Chef’s Knife for You
Here’s some examples of people who I’ve helped pick their perfect chef's knife: hopefully, their guidance will serve as a jumping-off point in your search.
Needs: Shannon is a vegetarian** **home cook who needs to upgrade from the stamped metal knife she bought in college. She eventually wants to get a full kitchen cutlery set, but only has the budget right now for a new chef’s knife.
Features to look for: An aesthetic upgrade that’s affordable, better for vegetables, good for small hands, and made of forged stainless steel.
Products to consider:
- Cangshan TC Series 7" Nakiri: One of the most affordable and well-made options on the market, the TC line of knives uses a Swedish forged steel, and also has some great knife block sets Shannon might consider for her kitchen at a later date. The thin blade material is perfect for thinly slicing carrots and onions with precision.
- Global G 7” Santoku: This is a full-metal design that’s perfectly balanced and compact for smaller hands. It’s also better for chopping than the other two knives in this list.
- Mercer Culinary Renaissance 7" Forged Nakiri: A slightly lower quality than the Cangshan TC and Global knives, but still very good. This knife is made with a mid-range quality steel that’s easy to sharpen, and has a handle that’s durable and easy to sanitize.
Needs: Amber is a restaurant cook who prepares many types of vegetables and needs to replace one of her old Mac knives. She’d like to try something new this time around, and needs something that’s affordable, yet high-performing and easy-to-maintain.
Features to look for: Amber wants mid-range knives that are durable, comfortable for long days, and balanced.
Products to consider:
- Miyabi Evolution 8" Chef's Knife: My top-pick for professional chefs, this bi-metal design with a 12° edge angle is the perfect blend of quality and affordability.
- Mercer Culinary Renaissance 8" Forged Chef's Knife: Less durable than the Miyabi model, but also quite a bit less expensive. Overall, I’d say it’s the best value in this list.
- Cangshan Helena 8" Chef’s Knife: Made with the same material as the Mercer Renaissance 8”, but it has a little bit more fit, finish, and aesthetic appeal.
Needs: Jerad is a passionate home cook who’s replacing a decades-old, worn-out WÜSTHOF knife he received as a wedding present. He loves the Shun Classic line, but is open to anything high-end.
Features to look for: He’s looking for an upgrade, interested in damascus or carbon steel, and probably prefers a wood handle, but it’s not a necessity.
Products to consider:
- WÜSTHOF Amici 8” Chef's Knife: While it isn’t carbon steel or damascus, it’s a reasonable upgrade to Jerad’s old knife. It features a beautiful wood handle with thoughtful ergonomics and German-forged steel.
- STEELPORT Carbon Steel 8" Chef Knife: Hand-made in a garage in Portland, Oregon, this knife blends the Japanese santoku and kiritsuke with the European chef's knife, making it one of the most versatile designs on the market. Made with carbon steel and a Rockwell Hardness Scale rating of 65 (one of the sharpest ratings), this knife is leading the industry.
- Zwilling Kramer Euroline 8" Damascus Collection Chef's Knife: This is a classic European design with a perfect grip for larger hands. The 100-layer, ice-hardened damascus steel blends classic Japanese knife construction with modern techniques.
Next Steps for Choosing Your Chef’s Knife
There’s a vast selection of chef's knives out there, and unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, choosing the one that best suits your needs will most likely call for some trial and error. I want to acknowledge that it’s okay if it takes a few attempts to find a chef’s knife that feels right for you. If you’d like some help identifying your needs and want custom product recommendations, feel free to reach out to me or any one of my fellow Curated Kitchen Experts.