Why Chef Knives Are the Most Important Knives in Your Kitchen
- You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a knife set when a chef’s knife can handle 99 percent of kitchen tasks.
- The style, steel, and angle of your chef’s knife will all influence its performance.
- There’s a knife for every budget, but you don’t need to spend a lot to get a good one...as long as you know what you’re looking for.
If you’ve done any amount of searching online, you may be wondering: Is it chef knife or chef’s knife? Your ninth-grade English teacher might have a preference, but he or she isn’t here — you are. And the first thing you need to know is that the two are interchangeable. Some even call it a cook's knife. All of these terms refer to the workhorse knife in your kitchen.
Even the world’s best pro chefs, who can afford a different knife for every purpose, choose to use just one for the majority of their tasks.
The Most Important Knife for Any Cook
Knives are the basic building blocks of good cooking. Look at them as investments where quality is better than quantity. You basically need just three knives. The chef’s knife ranks at the top of this list, followed by a paring knife and a serrated bread knife.
Treat your chef's knife as a separate purchase. Bon Appetit says a knife set is not the answer — unless, of course, you can find one like Misen’s that only includes the essentials. In your average knife set, however, many of the knives don't even have a name, let alone a purpose.
Have you ever used a boning knife for its intended purpose? Do you really need kitchen shears? Will you be arrested by the culinary police for using a vegetable knife on a piece of fruit?
You're better off spending the money to upgrade your cutting board or buy a better chef’s knife. Let’s take a closer look at what makes this workhorse knife a chef’s favorite.
The Anatomy of a Chef’s Knife
Chef’s knives vary in length from 6–12 inches and are recognizable by a broad blade that tapers upward at the point. The reason for this shape is to allow you to rock it back and forth for mincing. We’ll take a look at each part of the knife, starting from the back and working our way forward.
This part of your chef’s knife is nearly as important as the business end — the blade. The handle is what makes a chef’s knife an extension of your hand.
The right handle is one that gives you the best comfort and security when using the knife. You’ll notice that handles come in a wide variety of shapes as you compare the different brands of chef’s knives.
Some handles even feature unique indentations. The shape of these indentations will determine your grip. But ultimately, the shape of the bolster may be even more important than the handle in determining how comfortable your knife feels as you chop.
This is where the handle and the blade of the chef’s knife meet. You also might hear it called the collar, shank, or shoulder. The bolster keeps the fingers of your gripping hand away from the blade. This thicker and unsharpened portion of the blade can continue all the way to the heel of the knife, adding to the weight and balance.
We recommend a sloped bolster. This type of bolster will travel gradually onto the blade face and encourage a proper "pinch grip" for better comfort and control. The bolster is important because it can actually help force you to hold the knife correctly, which makes cutting more comfortable.
The blade of your chef’s knife needs to be securely connected to the handle. The tang is the part of the blade that extends inside the handle.
When you look at different brands, you may see that the tang is visible all the way to the end of the handle and even has the same size and shape as the handle. This is known as a full tang, and it symbolizes the traditional approach to knife making.
Some of today’s most popular chef’s knives do not have full tangs. This doesn’t change the quality. Manufacturers are simply finding more efficient ways to bond blades to handles and use less metal.
Our human version is what first makes contact with the ground as we walk and is meant to take the greatest force of our gait. The heel of your chef’s knife serves the same purpose. It’s at the bottom of the bolster, and it’s the broadest and thickest part of the blade. If you have a Japanese-style knife, it won’t have a heel.
The heel gives you a place to rest the back of the knife. It’s also where you would bring down the knife to start the rocking motion of your chopping. But the heel can get in the way if it isn’t designed correctly. If you choose a knife with a heel, make sure that it doesn’t interfere with the rocking motion of your chef’s knife as you chop.
Characterized by a square edge, it’s the top portion of the blade. The spine is where you’ll press with one hand to add pressure and help the knife cut.
The Cutting Edge
This is the length of the blade that does the cutting. Chef’s knives feature a gentle curve from the tip to the bolster that helps maintain a smooth back-and-forth rocking action for chopping and mincing. How sharp your blade is will depend on the blade’s angle, which is different for German- and Japanese-style knives.
German- or Japanese-Style?
Most manufacturers of chef’s knives come from either Germany or Japan, and even the ones that don’t tend to use either a German- or Japanese-style design. There are some key differences in the way your chef’s knife will look, feel, and perform, depending on which style you choose.
German Chef Knives
German brands are among the most popular manufacturers of Western-style kitchen knives and cutlery. The most popular have been around for centuries. Zwilling J.A. Henckels, for example, was founded in 1731.
Wüsthof and its recognizable trident logo have been around since 1814. (The Wüsthof Classic 8-inch Cook's Knife is a perennial best seller.) There’s also Victorinox Fibrox, founded in 1884. They make kitchen knives but are better known as the maker of the Swiss Army knife.
While each German knife-maker has unique characteristics, their overall style features a substantial wedge-like heel, which makes the knife heavier. The German Wüsthof 8-inch Cook’s Knife is more than 4 ounces heavier than the Japanese Global Classic Chef’s Knife. You’ll appreciate that when you’re trying to slice a winter squash in half.
German knives also feature a wider-angle blade — usually around 20 degrees — which makes them less sharp than a Japanese blade, but also makes the blade less delicate. So a German knife can take more abuse than a Japanese one.
Japanese Chef Knives
Asian manufacturers — particularly Japanese knife makers — aren’t new to the market either. Kikuichi Cutlery has been making kitchen knives for over 150 years but can trace its history of blade forging back to 1267.
Japan’s knife-makers have introduced an innovation to the chef’s knife that has resonated with consumers. These knives feature little to no heel, which reduces the overall weight and heft. Fans of this style say it’s more maneuverable and does a better job at fine slicing. That fine slicing ability may also come from the angle of the blade, which — at around 15 degrees — is much sharper than a German knife blade.
The trade-off is that the blade features less of a curve, so it doesn’t rock as smoothly as a German-style chef’s knife. French cutlery manufacturers tend to design their chef's knives with a curve that’s more similar to the Japanese-style than the German.
At Misen, we combine our favorite elements of German and Japanese knife making for the best of both worlds and recommend the narrower blade angle of Japanese-style knives. The sharper blade leads to a better cutting experience.
How Chef Knives Are Made
Beyond the style of your chef’s knife, you’ll also have several options in the way the knife is manufactured that could affect the knife’s performance. Here are some things to look for before you buy.
Hollow-Edge Chef Knives
A manufacturing style you’ll come across from both German and Japanese knife makers is a hollow-edge chef's knife. It features indentations on each side of the blade, which create small air pockets to reduce friction when cutting. This helps keep food from sticking to the knife as you slice.
Blade Composition: Forged or Stamped?
A chef’s knife made of forged steel features a single bar. The steel is heated and pounded into shape. Today this is mostly done by automated machines, but it’s still possible to find high-end knives that are made by hand. Forging creates harder steel that holds a sharp edge longer and tends to create a better knife.
The less-expensive manufacturing route is to stamp or laser cut the blade out of a sheet of steel then heat treat it for durability. If weight is a factor in your decision, you’ll find that forged knives are often several ounces heavier than stamped knives. Another characteristic of a forged knife is a full or partial tang, which will also add to the overall weight.
High Carbon or Stainless Steel?
Most chef’s knives are made of either stainless or high-carbon steel. There are benefits and drawbacks to both.
High-carbon steel creates a harder blade that will promote edge retention, but it can discolor and even rust if not properly cared for. The hardness leads to an extra sharp edge that gives you a better chopping experience, but also causes the blade to be more brittle. However, if you’re willing to put the extra care into your knife, the performance of a high-carbon steel chef’s knife will be noticeably better.
Stainless steel is resistant to rust and discoloration because of its chromium content, but this also makes the blade softer. They’re less prone to chipping, and while they won’t retain their sharpness as long as a high carbon steel blade, a chef’s knife with a stainless steel blade is easier to sharpen — giving you more options when you look at knife sharpeners.
How to Choose Your Kitchen Workhorse
Personal preferences will determine the chef’s knife you choose. It’s fair to say that there’s likely no such thing as “the best.” But this knife is going to be your go-to knife, so you’ll want to see an optimal return on your investment. There are lots of places that offer roundups of the best knives out there, so we won’t do that here. Instead, here are some things to look for in any chef’s knife you buy.
There are three things to consider before you buy your knife. There’s no right or wrong answer because it comes down to personal preference and your own cooking style.
If you’re a smaller human being, you’ll want to look for a shorter length first. The most popular choice is an 8-inch chef’s knife.
The length of the blade allows for ample cutting volume, but it’s not so long that it feels awkward for smaller hands. In general, the shorter the length, the more agile it will feel. If you're searching for something even shorter, consider a santoku knife (like this all-purpose powerhouse), which offers similar benefits to a chef's knife but is only 5–7 inches long.
The handle of a chef’s knife carries more weight than the blade, but the knife shouldn’t be weighted toward the back of the handle or toward the blade. That would force you to compensate for the imbalance as you use it, which would be uncomfortable over time because you’ll end up working harder.
Instead, look for a chef’s knife that’s weighted toward the knife’s bolster or heel. If you’re purchasing your knife online, make sure it’s a knife with lots of positive reviews that specifically mention great balance.
People who love to iron have strong preferences. Some say a heavy iron is best because it requires less effort. Others say a light-weight iron is best because it causes less fatigue. Chef’s knives are similar.
A heavier knife uses weight and gravity to cut through food easier while a chef’s knife that weighs less offers more maneuverability but less chopping power. If you prefer a knife that leans one way or the other, make sure you check the weight before buying.
Be Your Own Top Chef
Now that you know the anatomy of a chef’s knife, as well as the pros and cons of style, composition, and manufacturing process, you also have a better idea of why there’s such a wide range in pricing. Like many kitchen tools, you can pay a lot for your chef’s knife, but you don’t have to spend a lot to get a great knife.
We sometimes forget to consider how often we will turn to a kitchen workhorse like the chef’s knife. Once you determine a budget, make quality steel and craftsmanship your priorities. Everything else — from the handle design to balance and comfort — will come down to personal preference.