An Expert Guide to Western Knives

Published on 12/29/2023 · 12 min readDive into the world of Western knives with our expert guide from Kitchen Expert Di Doherty, revealing top picks for precision, durability, and culinary excellence!
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

Photo by Inside Creative House

TL;DR: Western-style knives are common in American kitchens and range from chef’s knives to paring knives to cleavers. There are certain knives that every home cook should have, including a chef knife, paring knife, and serrated knife.

I’ve been a dedicated home cook for almost two decades, having grown up learning to cook from my mom. I’ve also been a knife enthusiast from a young age, inheriting that from my dad. I acquired quite the collection of pocket knives when I was young, and I now own a wide variety of kitchen knives as well as a Bowie knife.

I’ve received many of my knives as gifts, but have also picked out a few of my own. I’ve used stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic knives, so I have a good idea of what works best for what task.

If you’re looking to add a Western knife or two to your collection, this article will cover the most common ones and features to look for.

What Is a Western Knife?

Photo by Ground Picture

If you aren’t a knife enthusiast, you may be wondering what exactly a Western knife is – and what the alternative to one happens to be. For Westerners, it’ll be broken down into two primary styles: Western style (also known as German style) and Japanese style.

Western knives tend to be more focused on durability than Japanese-style knives, which prioritize precision. To that end, Western-style knives are usually made of a softer steel and have a thicker blade. They’re also sharpened on both sides of the blade edge, which has the dual benefit of making the knives more durable and ambidextrous.

What to Consider When Buying a Western Knife

A kitchen knife is something that you’re going to be using constantly – almost every time you cook, as a matter of fact. A good knife is going to be an investment, too, so make sure to arm yourself with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision. Here are some questions to ask yourself when looking for a knife.

Do I Want a Stamped or Forged Knife?

Knives are manufactured in two primary ways: stamping and forging. In almost all circumstances, a forged knife is considered to be the superior choice, but that doesn't mean that there are no benefits to a stamped knife.

  • Stamped: Stamping is an inexpensive manufacturing process to make knives. Most stamped knives aren’t going to be particularly durable or hold an edge especially well. However, they are cheap and extremely light. They’re good for loaner knives, as you won’t worry about how they’re being treated, and they end up being a lot of people’s first kitchen knife.
  • Forged: A forged knife is shaped from molten steel, harking back to the way that blacksmiths used to make steel. Of course, the process has been much improved since then, allowing for precision in both the size and shape of the blade, as well as the steel. Forged knives are heavier than stamped knives, but far more durable and hold an edge much better.

What Material Should the Blade Be?

In this instance, there’s no wrong choice. It’s just a matter of what you’re willing to spend and how much time you want to spend on maintenance.

Stainless steel, ceramic, and carbon steel paring knives. Photo by Di Doherty

  • Stainless steel: This is both the most practical and plentiful choice. A stainless steel blade is durable, rust resistant, and effective.
  • Carbon steel: A classic, carbon steel knives have been around for centuries. Carbon steel is extremely hard, meaning that it can be honed to a razor-sharp edge, and will maintain it for longer. However, unlike stainless, it’s not rust-resistant, meaning that the blade needs to be dried immediately after use, and it’s not a bad idea to coat it in oil afterward to protect it.
  • High-carbon stainless steel: A newer material, high-carbon stainless steel, is meant to take the best of both options. It holds an edge like carbon steel, but doesn’t rust like stainless steel. Right now, only high-end or professional-grade knives use this material.
  • Ceramic: When ceramic knives first appeared, they made quite the splash. However, they didn’t take over the way that some people were predicting. Ceramic is extremely hard, meaning that it can hold an extremely sharp edge and doesn't need to be sharpened very often. That hardness also makes it brittle, meaning that the blade can break if dropped, or chip if handled roughly. They’re also hard to sharpen, needing a diamond sharpener to do the trick.
  • Damascus steel: This is a speciality steel that’s only found in a few knife blades. Damascus steel is a process rather than a type of steel. It’s made by folding layers of different types of steel over each, then hammering them into shape. The main benefit to this is the gorgeous wavy pattern that leaves on the blade. As it’s primarily aesthetic, these types of knives tend to be very expensive.

What Type of Handle Do I Prefer?

Photo by Alex Kosev

The handle is almost as important as the blade itself. There are a lot of different materials that they can be made from, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks.

  • Wood: This is going to be the most common in expensive knives, as wooden handles are beautiful and comfortable. Wood also has natural antibacterial properties, meaning it’s unlikely to keep any germs on it. It does require extra maintenance in terms of oiling it when it gets dry, though.
  • Plastic: A straight plastic handle is most often found on cheap, stamped knives. Plastic is practical in that it’s dishwasher-safe, but they tend to be unattractive.
  • Metal: Metal handles are also usually found on cheaper knives, but not exclusively. It’s also dishwasher-safe and durable, but they aren’t as comfortable.
  • Synthetic: This is a wide category that can include composite (part wood, part plastic), fiberglass, and carbon fiber. Most of these handles are attractive and easy to clean, but it’ll depend on the knife and the material.

Types of Western Knives

There are many different kinds of Western knives, but I’m going to cover the most common varieties. You won’t need every one of these knives if you only want to own a few, but most of them are highly recommended.

Chef’s Knife

An 8-inch chef knife compared to a 6-inch chef’s knife in stainless steel and ceramic. Photo by Di Doherty

If you’re asked to imagine a kitchen knife, a Western chef’s knife is likely what would come to mind. These are all-arounders that can handle slicing, dicing, chopping, and even deboning if needed. Most are 6-inch or 8-inch, but there are longer ones for commercial use.

Benefits:

  • Can handle a wide variety of tasks, from carving meat to dicing herbs, making it the most important type of knife to own.

Be aware:

  • Heavy for delicate jobs, like deveining shrimp or coring strawberries. The knife would either cut too much off or be too difficult to handle without hurting yourself.

Paring Knife

Photo by Candice Bell

Designed to handle delicate jobs like deveining shrimp, coring strawberries, and even peeling vegetables. This is another must-have knife. They’re usually 3-inch or 4-inch.

Benefits:

  • Easy to handle due to its small size.
  • Can cut small fruits, vegetables, and smaller proteins like shrimp without crushing them.

Be aware:

  • Too small to handle meat or most vegetables.

Utility knife

Stainless steel and ceramic utility knives. Photo by Di Doherty

If a paring knife isn’t quite big enough, then you want a utility knife. They can range from five to seven inches in length. They're excellent for cutting up meat, slicing herbs, or even dicing smaller veggies. These can either be straight-edge or serrated, though the former is much more common.

Benefits:

  • Easy to maneuver for smaller tasks like dicing herbs or garlic.
  • Serrated varieties are excellent for tomatoes and baked goods.

Be aware:

  • The blade tends to not be deep, meaning they aren’t as durable as a chef’s knife.

Western-style Santoku

A Damascus steel western santoku. Photo by Di Doherty

Western-style santoku will be double beveled or sharpened, on both sides of the blade. They’re generally either 5-inch or 7-inch. This is a multipurpose knife that can dice, chop, slice, and cut up a chicken or other meat.

Benefits:

  • These knives are very stiff, making them excellent for slicing thinly or cutting through joints.

Be aware:

  • It doesn't have a pointed tip, though, so it’s not very good at working around bones.

Bread knife

Photo by Master 1305

Despite the name, bread knives are useful for many other tasks. They can range from seven to 12 inches in length. Their serrated edge allows them to grip what you’re cutting, which is why they cut rather than tear bread.

Benefits:

  • They’re excellent for chopping tomatoes, as the teeth grip the slippery flesh and prevent you from crushing it.
  • Can cut cakes and bread without tearing them. Like with tomatoes, the teeth allow for a good grip, meaning that the knife cuts them rather than just tearing them, resulting in a much more even slice with fewer crumbs.

Be aware:

  • Serrated blades are difficult to sharpen. It’s recommended to send them to the manufacturer for sharpening, but if you wish to do it yourself, you’ll need a honing rod.
  • Serrated knives are sharpened by running the honing rod through each serration, then taking the burr that forms off the flat side with a whetstone.

Steak knife

Photo by Michal Bednarek

This is also known as a table knife, meaning that it’s meant to be used at the table, like a butter knife. However, steak knives can be used for other tasks as well. They’re usually 4.5-inch or 5-inch. It can be either serrated or straight-edged.

Benefits:

  • Excellent for cutting protein at the table, like pork, lamb, and, of course, steak.

Be aware:

  • Too small to handle carving or slicing larger vegetables.

Features to Look for

There are some things that make a Western knife stand out from its competitors. When picking out a knife, keep an eye out for these features.

Full Tang

The tang is the part of the knife that connects to the handle. A full tang extends the entire handle. This is preferable because it makes the knife more durable as the tang distributes the strain, and it makes it better balanced.

Hardness

Steel’s hardness is measured by the Rockwell hardness rating. It’s hardened to a certain point for a particular task to ensure the steel isn’t too brittle or too soft. A good kitchen knife should have a rating between 55 to 64. Premium knives tend to be more in the 59 to 64 range. The harder the steel, the better the edge it can hold. But harder knives can be more difficult to sharpen and more brittle.

Weight

How much the knife weighs is important. You do want some heft to your knife because that shows it’s made of high-quality steel and won’t flex or snap. But too heavy, and it gets difficult to handle. Stick with what feels right in your hand.

Sheath

This isn’t a necessity, but a sheath for your knife helps to protect it. This is especially important with ceramic knives, as they’re easy to damage. But if you want to store your knives in a drawer, make sure they have sheaths to protect the blade – and your hands.

How to Select the Right Western Knife For You

Photo by al1962

Picking out the right knife can be a difficult task due to how many varieties there are on the market. In order to help give you a head start, I'm going to describe three people and what I’d recommend to each of them.

Bruce: College Graduate Looking for Starter Knives

Bruce has recently moved into an apartment and wants to start doing more cooking for himself. He’s looking for decent quality knives, but doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on them.

Features to look for:

  • Basic and reasonably priced knife sets.

Recommended Products:

  • Mercer Culinary magnetic knife board set: While this set is over $100, it includes a chef’s knife, santoku, bread knife, paring knife, and a board to store them on. All those knives are great starter knives, and Mercer makes good quality knives that are affordable.
  • Cangshan Helena starter set: Cangshan is a newer knife manufacturer, but has so far received positive buzz.

Fatimah: Professional Looking to Upgrade her Knife Collection

Fatimah has finally gotten to the point where she can spend some money on her knife collection, and she wants to get high-quality knives that’ll serve her well and last. She’s looking to start by upgrading her everyday knives.

Features to look for:

  • Well-known German brands like Zwilling and WÜSTHOF. While Germany isn’t the only place you can get good knives, it is called German-style for a reason. German knife makers are famous for their steel.

Recommended products:

  • Zwilling Pro Paring Knife: Zwilling is known for high-quality knives made in Germany, and this knife is no exception. It’s made of German steel and comes in either a 3-inch or a 4-inch.
  • Zwilling Pro Chef's Knife: This chef’s knife comes in 6-inch, 8-inch, and 10-inch blade lengths. It has a full tang, giving it good balance and a classic design.

Kevin: Enthusiast Who Wants Showpiece Knives

Kevin loves knives and has decided to sink a fair amount of his disposable income into his collection. He wants knives that are not only highly functional, but also ones that stand out and are beautiful. He’s willing to spend extra time to take proper care of them.

Features to look for:

  • Eye-catching construction like Damascus steel to make it a showpiece.
  • Specialty materials like carbon steel or ceramic, as they can hold a finer edge.

Recommended products:

Find the Best Western Knife for You

As a knife is something that you’ll use a lot over its lifetime, make sure you have all the information you need to make an informed decision. If you feel you need additional recommendations or advice, chat with one of our Curated Kitchen Experts for free, personalized advice! Any of our Experts would be more than happy to help you find the Western knife that’s just right for you.

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

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