Buying a Chefs Knife

The chef’s knife is the great workhorse of the kitchen.  After your hands, it is the most important tool you’ll own.  So it goes without saying that everyone should have a good-quality chef’s knife at their disposal. But buying a knife, like buying a car, can be a daunting matter.  There is much to consider, not the least of which is cost.

We’ve all been told that good knives mean good money, right? Well guess what?  Marketers of knives know this and use it to their advantage by dividing us into two groups: those looking to get the most knife for the least amount of money and those who think a bigger price tag means a better knife.  For the bargain hunters, they offer sets, which usually include one good and several subpar knives. For the luxury buyers, there are the handcrafted knives made from exotic metals with dazzling designs; perhaps more art than function.

The truth, as the saying goes, is somewhere in the middle. There is a knife for just about every budget, and while a good one doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, you might need to spend a little more than you’re comfortable with. It makes good sense to do a little research first.

For that reason, the editors of The Kitchen Journals have put together this basic guide to buying a chef’s knife. Through research and experience, we’ve collected what we consider to be the best advice out there when it comes to purchasing a quality knife.

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Tip #1: Take a Knife Skills Class

It’s simple. You cannot intelligently shop for a chef’s knife until you’ve developed the skills and confidence to safely handle one. Not to mention that quality knives are sharp and can hurt you. If you haven’t already had professional training, get it.  Seek out a class taught by a reputable professional and make the investment.  It will be some of the best money spent.

Nothing on the internet or in a book approaches the impact of hands-on training. Inquire about classes at a local culinary school. Check with your neighborhood kitchen supply store. Many offer knife skills training.  Two large U.S. chains, Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table, often have training facilities right in their stores. Yelp is an excellent resource for locating culinary training resources.  Simply search the words “knife skills class” and see what’s available.  Just make certain the teacher is a reputable professional. Ask for credentials and references.

An added benefit of taking a class with a professional is that it affords you the opportunity to ask questions.  A good teacher will be able to advise you on quality knives in a manner most store clerks cannot.

Forget the Set

Do not purchase your chef’s knife as part of a set. Knife sets, even those offered by reputable manufacturers, are rarely the bargains they appear to be. In order to make a profit, marketers of sets often rely on subpar or obscure, even useless, knives (think utility or tomato knife). They may also include inexpensive add-ons in order to sweetened the deal, such as holders, sharpeners or honing steels.  Buried in all that mess might be one decent or halfway-decent knife. The rest are largely window dressing.

Price is always your first clue. If it seems too good to be true, it is. For example, a good chef’s knife alone will cost between $70 and $150. A $90 set will most likely not include a good chef’s knife. You’re better off pouring that money into one good knife rather than several mediocre ones.

It’s always best to purchase your knives in piecemeal fashion, one at a time, starting with a chef’s knife. Choose the best knife your budget will allow.  Remember that no single manufacturer has a monopoly on all knives. The one that makes the best chef’s knife within your budget may not offer the best choices for paring or bread knives. This is why knife sets simply do not make sense.

What Matters Most: Steel

rparson quote1It should come as no surprise that the quality of a knife begins with the metal from which it’s made. To understand which metals make for the best knives requires a lengthy conversation that would delight chemists and metallurgist but leave most readers dazed and confused.  In the end, it boils down to two primary choices: carbon steel  and high carbon stainless-steel. Many professional chefs believe that the best knives are made from carbon-steel because of their ability to take and hold a razor-sharp edge. Unfortunately, carbon steel is fussy and susceptible to rust and corrosion from water and acids. Unless you’re meticulous with your knives—keeping them clean and dry at all times, carbon steel knives are not a practical solution for most home cooks.

Knives made from high-carbon stainless steel are a better choice. While stainless doesn’t take as sharp an edge as carbon-steel, it will stand up well against water and acids.  High-carbon stainless steel is comprised of various elements chosen to strengthen the metal and make it resistant to corrosion. There are numerous formulas for stainless steel used in today’s knives. Some manufactures actually stamp the formula onto the blade; a collection of letters and numbers not easily deciphered.  At the very least, what matters most are the words “high-carbon” somewhere on the blade or in the marketing materials. If in doubt, simply ask the seller or contact the manufacturer directly.

Longer Blades are Better

Given the various shapes, sizes and textures of the food you’ll be cutting, a 9- to 10-inch (23-25 cm) blade will cover a lot of ingredients large and small. Most chef knives sold in kitchen stores and online are 8 inches (~20 cm) long. (Anything shorter is a complete waste of money unless you already own a full-size chef’s knife.) We strongly encourage you to try a 9- or 10-inch blade. Many home cooks are intimidated by such a large knife and feel more comfortable with a shorter blade, but you need to size the knife to the job at hand and not the hand of the cook.  An 8-inch knife may be fine for dicing carrots and celery, but you’ll appreciate those extra inches when you’re cutting a head of cabbage, a watermelon, or even a large and gnarly sweet potato.  If you’re not comfortable with such a large knife, we refer you back to tip #1.  Taking a knife skills class will give the confidence to handle the longer blades.

Forged vs. Stamped

There are generally two categories of steel knives, forged and stamped.  These terms refer to the methods by which knives are manufactured.  A forged knife is created by heating a single piece of metal, called a blank, to near-melting point and hammering or pressing it into a blade.  A stamped knife (sometimes called  a machined knife) is made by passing a sheet of steel through a hydraulic press which cuts the metal into the desired shape; not unlike a cookie cutter. Some stamped knives are cut from layers of cladded metal and then machined, which sometimes creates attractive markings along the sides of the blades.

For years, forged knives were generally thought to be of much greater quality, but thanks to modern engineering, higher-quality stamped knives are able to hold their own. While it’s true that forging is an more expensive process, one can no longer assume that forged knives are inherently a better choice.  That being said, there are many poor-quality stamped knives out there. So do your research.

For many cooks the differentiator between forged and stamped knives is simply preference.  Forged knives are generally heavier with a thicker blade, while stamped knives are thinner and lighter.  Some chef’s appreciate the weight and heft of a forged knife, while others prefer the lighter option.  You will want to give each a try to determine your own preference. Western or German knives generally fall into the category of forged, while Japanese knives tend to be stamped or machined.

Bolsters & Tangs

When shopping for knives, you may encounter strong opinions regarding the bolster and the tang — arguments that are largely extensions of the forged-stamped debate.  The bolster, the thick band of metal between the blade and handle, is more or less a by-product of the forging method.  Some bolsters run the full length of the back edge of the blade (as seen in the knife above) and can make sharpening difficult, particularly near the heel of the blade. Other bolsters are “cut away” from the back of the blade.

Stamped knives do not inherit a bolster. One must be welded onto the knife if they have one at all. Fans of forged knives may try to reason that the bolster is a mark of quality or factor of safety, but neither are true.  A bolster does, however, help to balance the knife by adding weight behind the blade. Beyond that, it is a matter of preference.

The tang, the extension of metal that attaches to the handle of the knife, is also widely debated.  Some tangs run the entire length of the handle, called a full tang. With these knives, the handle “scales” are usually riveted directly onto both sides of the tang. Other knives have “stick tangs”, which extend partially into the the handle.  Some people believe that a full tang makes for a stronger knife, and there is some truth to the argument. However, you need to consider how the knife will be used.  If you were planning to prop open manhole covers, then yes, you might want a knife with full tang. But when it comes to cutting meats, fruits, and vegetables, a quality knife with a stick tang will do just fine.  One big advantage of a stick tang is that it allows for a more ergonomic handle. Some manufacturers offer both right- and left-handed models.

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Try Before You Buy

Would you buy a car without test driving it?  Of course not. So don’t buy a chef’s knife without trying it first.  Find a quality kitchen or cutlery store near you and ask to look at and hold as many knives as they sell.  (If they say “no”, turn around, walk out, and find another store.)  Examine each knife closely. Note the markings.  How does the handle feel in your grip?  Does the knife feel too heavy or too light?  Ask a lot of questions, even if you know the answers.  It will give you some assurance of the sales clerk’s expertise.  Inquire about the steel quality, the manufacturing process, and the manufacturer, and take notes.

When you’ve found one or two knives that you like, ask the clerk if they will allow you to test it right there in the store.  Many quality stores will provide some small vegetables and a cutting board for you to test the knives.  If not, ask about their return policy.  Can you return the knife if you get home and find you don’t like it or it isn’t sharp? Once you have all the answers, put down the knives, thank the clerk, and go home and start your research.  Look up the manufacturers’ websites.  Check online reviews. Test the facts the sales clerk provided to you, and shop around for price.

Buying a knife online is fine once you’ve fully researched it. Odds are good you will find a better price online than what a local brick-and-mortar merchant can offer, but that doesn’t necessary equate to a better deal. You need to factor in shipping and handling fees and any surcharges should you need to return the knife. These cost can easily close the price gap between local and online options. Unless that gap is substantial, it’s worth spending a little more to purchase from a local merchant who is willing to stand behind his or her products.

It All Comes Down to Preference

So you’ve set a budget, found a reputable knife shop, and have identified several chef’s knives–all made from quality high-carbon steel with blades ranging between 9 and 10 inches in length.  Some are forged.  Some are stamped.  Some have bolsters, some don’t. There are full tangs and stick tangs.  Now what?

In the end, it’s really up to you.  What feels best?  Do you like the sleek light feel of a machined Japanese-style knife, or do you prefer the hefty weight of a forged German model?  Given that you’re going to spend years cutting with this knife — sometimes for long stretches—what type of knife would you want to be holding?  Once you’ve confirmed the quality of the blade and reputation of the manufacturer, trust your instincts.  Confirm the store’s return policy once more, make your purchase, and leave the store with the peace of mind that you’ve made a sound decision.

Protect Your Investment

Once you’ve selected and purchased your new chef’s knife, make sure you protect your investment.  When budgeting for your knife, factor in some extra money to purchase a fine-steel honing rod (sometimes called a “steel”) and a decent cutting board.  These two items will ensure that your knife lasts a long time.

Despite the name and popular belief, a honing steel does not sharpen a knife.  Rather it preserves the very fine edge of the blade.  The actions of cutting and chopping tend to make segments of the blade’s edge roll to one side or the other, called a burr. The honing steel or rod, when used correctly, will keep a straight edge on your chef’s knife by pushing the burr back into place.

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Frequent use of a steel is extremely important, and a good knife skills instructor will show you the proper technique for using one. You should steel every time you use your knife. Otherwise, the edge can become permanently damaged making it difficult to sharpen your knives later.

Don’t make the mistake of purchasing a knife sharpener in place of a honing steel.  The steel is actually more important.  If you use your steel religiously, odds are good you won’t have to sharpen your knives but once or twice a year.

When it comes to cutting boards, there are several options, but nothing is kinder to knives than wooden boards.  Wood gently yields to a knife’s edge while still providing a firm work surface. But wooden cutting boards are porous and cannot be used in the dishwasher. We generally recommend two cutting boards. First a wooden one, which can be used to cut anything but meat, seafood and fish. These items should be reserved for an inexpensive, non-porous, high-density polyethylene cutting board.  We say inexpensive, because you will need to replace them frequently. Over time, deeper cuts and gouges will occur that can harbor bacteria.

If you cannot afford a wooden cutting board, bamboo and wood fiber-resin boards, like those manufactured by Epicurean, are acceptable substitutes, or simply purchase two polyethylene boards until you’ve saved enough money for a wood board.

Never cut onto a hard surface such as stone, metal or glass  These will destroy your knives in a short matter of time.

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Got Something to Add?

If you’re a professional chef or knife aficionado and wish to add to or take issue with anything you’ve read here.  Please be sure to comment below. We welcome your thoughts and opinions.

KJ Editors
The editors of The Kitchen Journals believe that all good cooking comes down to a working knowledge of ingredients, tools, and techniques. To receive email updates, click the subscribe link at the top of the page. Also follow us on Twitter at @KitchenJournals.