An Expert Guide to Western Chef’s Knives

Published on 02/25/2024 · 10 min readMaster culinary skills with our guide to Western chef’s knives, highlighting the best in versatility, precision cutting, and ergonomic design for all your cooking needs!
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

Dicing herbs with a chef’s knife. Photo by Alyson McPhee

TL;DR: A Western-style chef knife is indispensable for the majority of home cooks, as it can be used for chopping, slicing, dicing, and mincing. Western chef knives are focused on durability and prioritize being able to do a rocking chop. When picking out a chef's knife, consider what size blade you want, what kind of handle it has, and what the blade is made out of.

I've been a baking and cooking hobbyist since my tween years. My interest in knives began with a pocket knife collection, but as I got more accomplished in the kitchen, it morphed into a love of well-made kitchen knives. My chef's knives get constant use, and I have both Western-style ones and Japanese-style ones.

Thinking of picking up a new Western chef's knife? Unsure where to start? Reach out to a Curated Kitchen Expert! All of our Experts are well versed in terminology, brands, and what makes a quality chef knife, and are happy to answer questions or make recommendations. This service is included at no extra cost in our guarantee that you'll love what you buy from us!

What Is a Western Chef’s Knife?

A chef’s knife is a multipurpose kitchen knife. It has a pointed tip, a straight spine, and a curve in the blade that results in a belly near the handle. That shape makes the blade multipurpose, as the tip can be used to work around bones for deboning or fileting, and the curved shape means you can use it for a rocking chop.

These knives are great for meat, chicken, fish, and vegetables of all types. They can slice, dice, chop, mince, and even carve. Their versatility means that they don't excel at any one task – there are more specialized knives that can perform each individual one better – but if you can only have one knife in your kitchen, it should be a chef's knife.

Chef's knives are broken into two main categories: Japanese chefs' knives and Western chefs' knives. Western chef's knives are largely manufactured by Western companies, primarily German and American. Western-style knives, in general, are focused on durability, which means that a Western chef's knife will be made of a softer (relatively) steel and have a thicker blade, meaning that it's very difficult to chip or damage. Softer steels are also easier to maintain and sharpen at home.

An 8-inch Japanese style chef’s knife (above) compared to a 6-inch Western style chef’s knife (below). Photo by Di Doherty

Japanese chef's knives are much more focused on sharpness, so they're made from very hard steel and hammered thin so that they're light and nimble. On the downsize, the blades are much easier to chip or damage, and they're harder to sharpen.

What to Consider When Buying a Western Chef’s Knife

Western knives are sometimes referred to German knives or German-style knives due to Germany’s dominance in the design and manufacture of the knives. When picking out a new Western-style chef’s knife, here are some questions to ask yourself.

How Long Should the Blade Be?

Chef knives’ come in a range of lengths, though most of the ones you’ll see on store shelves will have an 8-inch blade.

  • 6-inch: A 6-inch chef’s knife is the next most prevalent size. These knives are better for precision cuts or dealing with smaller tasks or soft vegetables like onions or chopping herbs. As I have smaller hands, I prefer a smaller knife for most tasks due to it being lighter and more nimble.
  • 8-inch: This is by far the most common size of chef’s knife and the size that most experts recommend. An 8-inch chef knife can manage any number of tasks, from carving and slicing to mincing and dicing. They can manage softer veggies like cucumbers, and hard ones like butternut squash due to the extra leverage.
  • 10-inch: Blades this length are more often used commercially by chefs or butchers, but you can buy them online as well. In most cases, an 8-inch chef’s knife would do the task, though a 10-inch blade does make them closer to a carving knife, and gives you extra leverage for hard vegetables like melons or winter squash.

A chef’s knife after slicing up an orange. Photo by Debby Hudson

What Should the Blade Be Made Out of?

What the blade is made out helps determine how it will perform. Here are the options you’ll encounter on the market.

  • High-carbon stainless steel: More and more knife manufacturers are using this alloy (sometimes called just high-carbon steel) for their knife blades. The higher carbon content allows for the steel to be harder without being brittle, allowing for better edge retention, while maintaining stainless steel’s corrosion resistance.
  • Stainless steel: Adding chromium to iron creates a steel alloy that resists rust. Stainless steel is likely the most common option for knife blades, though high-carbon steel is working to overtake it.
  • Carbon steel: This alloy was used in vintage knives before the invention of stainless steel. It’s extremely hard without being fragile, allowing it to be sharpened to a keen edge. That fact means that certain specialty knives still use the material, even though it has no protection against rust.
  • Ceramic: Knife blades made of ceramic caused a splash when they first debuted, but they have since been relegated to specialty knives. The type of ceramic used is even harder than steel, which means it can have and maintain a viciously sharp edge. Its brittleness held it back, though, as it's easy to chip or even break.
  • Damascus steel: This forging process dates back to the blacksmiths of antiquity, who folded layers of steel over one another and hammered them together. A version of this process is still in use today because of the beautiful patterns it creates on the finished blade.

A chef’s knife used to slice raw meat. Photo by Thapanee Srisawat

What Type of Handle Do I Want?

The handle is, in many ways, just as important as the blade. You want a material that gives you a sure grip, even when making rocking cuts or chopping, is comfortable to hold, and is well-balanced. Here are the common materials that handles can be made from.

  • Wood: Wooden handles are less prevalent now as they require regular oiling to keep them from cracking or shrinking and they can never go in the dishwasher. They’re still common on high-end knives, though, due to their natural beauty, how comfortable they are, and their natural antibacterial properties.
  • Metal: Most metal handles are on inexpensive knives, but some companies make a point of their knives being all metal. These handles are durable, easy to keep clean, and handsome, but not everyone finds them comfortable.
  • Composite: Composite most often refers to a blend of wood and other materials, most often plastic. The most popular version at the moment is pakkawood, which is made by taking hardwood veneer and adhering it together with resin. The resulting material looks and feels like wood, but doesn’t require oiling. It’s very popular for Japanese knives.
  • Synthetic: There are a wide variety of synthetic handles out there, ranging from the plasticky ones you’ll see on department store knives, to fiberglass, carbon fiber, rubber, and high-end plastics. The majority of these handles are comfortable, attractive, and easy to clean, but it depends on personal preference.

Features to Look for

As chef’s knives are so incredibly popular, there are a lot of options out there. Here are some features that the best chef’s knives have.

Full Tang

You’ve likely seen the word tang in the description of a knife you’ve been looking at, but they don’t explain what it is, exactly. The tang is the part of the knife that goes into the handle. A full tang is one that extends through the entire handle, while a partial tang is one that only goes partway down.

A 6-inch chef’s knife with a visible full tang. Notice the metal part that runs the length of the handle. Photo by Di Doherty

Benefits:

  • These knives are more durable, as the tang grants the knife extra strength by distributing the strain more evenly when cutting.
  • Have better balance. A well-balanced knife shouldn’t be weighted towards the blade or the handle, but have its center of gravity where the blade and handle meet.

Be Aware:

  • Are heavier than knives with a partial tang.
  • Tend to be more expensive.

Forged

There are two different ways that knives are manufactured: forging and stamping. The latter is done by cutting the knife out of a sheet of steel with a die. Forging is done by shaping the knife while the metal is hot.

Benefits:

  • The heating process of forging results in a better grain in the steel, making the knife more able to hold an edge.
  • Longer lasting, due to the additional strength of the steel from the better grain.

Be Aware:

  • Forged knives are heavier than stamped knives.
  • A forged knife is going to be more expensive than a stamped one.

Fluted Edge

Better known as a Granton edge, this is a series of divots or scallops on the side of the blade. These are common on santoku knives and slicing knives, as they help prevent sticking.

Benefits:

  • Create air pockets to help prevent food from sticking to the blade.
  • Makes the process of cutting smoother.

Be aware:

  • Can be difficult to find.
  • Are more difficult to keep clean.

How to Pick the Best Western Chef’s Knife for You

As there are so many options out there for chef’s knives, it can be difficult to know where to start. In order to give you a leg up, I’m going to describe three different people and what my top picks for them would be.

Lucian: College Student Looking to Improve His Diet

Lucian wants to cook more often in order to make his diet more healthful. The knives that he has right now are cheap and difficult to use. A friend of his who enjoys cooking let him try her knife, and he was amazed at how much easier it made food prep. He doesn't have a lot of extra income, but he wants to get a good knife that’ll hold an edge well.

Features to look for:

  • A forged knife, so that it’ll get and stay sharp.
  • A plain blade and synthetic handle to save money.

Recommended Products: Cangshan Helena Chef’s Knife, Misen Chef's Knife

Melonie: Hobbyist Cook Looking to Upgrade her Equipment

Melonie has always enjoyed cooking, and she’d decided to invest in it now that she regularly cooks for her family. She wants a sharp, durable knife that will last a long time and make food prep easier. She’s willing to spend money to get a good knife, but would rather not spend a fortune.

Features to look for:

  • A full tang for durability and balance.
  • Well-known brands to ensure quality and a good warranty.

Recommended Products: Zwilling Pro Chef's Knife, Mercer Culinary Damascus Chef's Knife

Joey: Collector Searching for a Showpiece.

Joey has been a knife enthusiast since he was a kid, and he loves collecting kitchen knives that are both beautiful and functional. He’s unconcerned about the price, as this is his hobby and he’s willing to spend his disposable income on it. Upkeep is also expected for a high-end knife, and he intends to follow the care instructions to the letter.

Features to look for:

  • Forged and with a full tang for durability and balance.
  • Knives made in Germany or America, for quality and craftsmanship.

Recommended Products: Zwilling Kramer Euroline Damascus Collection Chef's Knife, STEELPORT Carbon Steel Chef Knife

Find the Best Western Chef’s Knife for You

A chef’s knife being used in a rocking chop. Photo by Lena Kudryavtseva

Chef’s knives are go-to knives in most any situation, which means that getting the one that’s best for your needs is very important. If you have any questions or are looking for a recommendation, reach out to a Curated Kitchen Expert! All of Curated’s Experts are knowledgeable and friendly, and, best of all, chatting with one is free!

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