Finding the Right Edge: A Guide to Choosing, Trying, and Buying the Best Chef's Knife
Buying your first knife can be daunting, but once armed with a bit of know-how, the task becomes much easier. I know I've walked down the knife aisle at many kitchen stores scratching my head. The selections are broad and the features of each knife brand can be confusing at times. When I first began cooking, I used a cheap grocery-store knife that I couldn't even hold properly. Its handle was so square and boxy that I could not form the proper pinch grip needed to use it. And the blade was beyond cheap. Now I've graduated to using much better knives and decided to pass on my knowledge of knives as well as test a few chef's knives, five to be exact, to find what knife was best in performance, sharpness, and comfort, among many other aspects. Knives are an investment and can last a lifetime. It's best to know some facts about them before jumping into buying a set just because it makes you look professional.
One knife can do almost everything in the kitchen. A chef's knife is that single most important tool; it's the work horse of the kitchen. An 8-inch version is just perfect for home cooks. There are many things to consider when shopping for the right chef's knife. First, don't be led to believe the salesperson's pitch that a set of fourteen knives is a must for a properly equipped kitchen. Three knives will suffice in a well-equipped kitchen, a good-quality chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife under $50. Don't be led to believe that a knife only works on that one ingredient it's named after. A bread knife can stand in for all those that are serrated: tomato knife, sandwich knife, deli knife, etc. I like to think of the bread knife as a long utility knife, great for many tasks that require cutting with a serrated edge. The one knife that you should not skimp on is the chef's knife. Be prepared to spend between $100 and $200 on a quality stainless-steel chef's knife. In that price range, there are plenty to choose from including the top-selling German and Japanese knives. Trying the knives in a store that allows it will help you determine which one to purchase. But there are a few important terms and definitions that are good to know beforehand. Here is a summation of what to look for in a knife.
Blade. There are two main types or shapes of chef's knives. The most recognized shape is the curved or bellied, produced by the German knifemakers. Just as popular is the long and lean wedge-like shape, produced by the Japanese and French knifemakers. The Japanese call the chef's knife a gyuto. In this review, the Tamahagane San has the classic gyuto shape. These knives have rather straight edges making chopping easier, especially if you use the up-and-down motion. A longer bellied knife, such as a 10-inch version, has more of a straight edge whereas an 8-inch version has less of a straight edge since the belly takes up much of the length. That's one reason why professionals prefer longer knives. Home cooks who tend to use the rocking motion to chop will usually prefer a bellied knife. The Messermeister I tested had the biggest belly, making the rocking motion pronounced. But even a lean Japanese knife with a slight curve can be rocked but using the up-and-down motion is easier.
Steel. If you remember the knives that butchers used back when butcher shops were still common, they usually used carbon knives. These knives were not stainless, instead they took on a grayish hue from use, a tarnished or patinated appearance. Nowadays almost all knives produced are stainless steel. It's rare to see a chef still using a carbon knife, which is many times discouraged because of the metallic taste it can transfer to certain foods. Today good knives are not simply made from any steel, but are composed of an array of minerals to create a very sharp steel. Carbon, chromium, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, and vanadium or tungsten. These are the minerals that good knives are made of. German knives tend to have their edges sharpened at 22 to 26 degrees and are commonly composed of X50CrMoV15 stainless steel. This code translates to .5 percent carbon (X) and .15 percent mix chromium (Cr), molybdenum (Mo), and vanadium (V). Both Wüsthof and Messermeister are made of this composition and rate a 56 in hardness on the Rockwell scale, which is the softest a knife should ever be. A higher carbon content makes knives stronger and allows them to take a steeper edge, at about 15 or 16 degrees, than a softer knife with less carbon. Japanese knives are made with the highest carbon content and with the addition of cobalt are very strong. They rate a 58 to 61 in hardness on the Rockwell scale. The trend today in Japanese knifemaking is to create a central core out of VG10 or some other high-carbon stainless steel and then clad it with layers of softer stainless steel, which stains less. The Shun I tested has 16 layers of softer steel on each side of its high-carbon stainless steel core. The only downfall of high-carbon stainless steel is that it can be brittle, which is why many Japanese manufacturers (including Mac) warn against using their knives on certain hard foods, such as winter squashes and of course, frozen food or bones. But chef's knives in general shouldn't be used to hack through bone or frozen items, use a cleaver.
Forged vs. Stamped. Knives made in the European tradition are forged, meaning that a piece of metal is beaten into shape by hand or by machine. The resulting look is typically a knife with a thick bolster and a full tang, the metal that extends through the handle. This look is so desired that many manufacturers of stamped knives weld on a bolster or collar to make their knives appear forged. Stamped knives are made just as the term implies, large knife-shaped cookie cutters come down on big sheets of metal, cutting out knife-shaped cookies. Cheap grocery-store knives as well as quality knives are made in this way. But quality stamped knives are taken a step further: ground, shaped, and treated to the highest manufacturing techniques so that the end result differs very little from forged knives. The advantage of quality stamped knives, also called machined, is that they can be made of much harder steel that is thinner and more nimble than forged knives. Picture forging, the old-fashioned way of knifemaking: it's basically beating a chunk of metal into a knife. To accomplish that the metal must be softer. All knives go through rapid heating and cooling to strengthen the metal at the molecular level, so in the end it's hard to tell the difference between forged and stamped.
Handle. Besides the blade, proper fit and hold are the most important things to look for when buying a knife. If you can't hold it comfortably, then what is the point of using it? There are so many possibilities in handle design that shoppers can easily be misled into believing myths about knife handles, mostly told by preachy salespersons. One of the first misconceptions is that a full tang visible through the length of the handle is best. And usually they will be trying to sell you a Wüsthof, which has a huge presence in kitchen stores. A full tang does not make a knife better. Knives that don't have visible tangs most likely have rat-tail tangs. The blade is created with a stubby rod that is then later inserted into a handle. Knives with rat-tail tangs are actually more difficult to manufacture than knives with full tangs. In fact Samurai swords were and are made with rat-tail tangs. The invention of the full tang made the process of manufacturing quicker, because handles could be riveted in place by machine instead of being handmade as knives with rat-tail tangs were. The tang makes no difference in the performance of the knife.
Bolster. A cause of disagreement among manufacturers is the bit that lies between the blade and the handle, called the bolster or collar. European knifemakers tend to produce knives with very large bolsters, some even extend the full width of the blade. The Wüsthof Classic features a very large bolster. The downside of a bolster is that sharpening the blade becomes tricky. The entire length of the blade cannot be sharpened in a bolstered knife and leads to a hollowing at the heel. Japanese knives have more of a collar than a bolster. It's a vast improvement, not just for reasons of sharpening but also comfort. Bolsters are sometimes marketed as finger guards, which leads consumers to believe that only a bolstered knife can be safe. This misconception is easy to proliferate among home cooks. Pick up a Japanese knife or any of the German knives with reduced bolsters, and you will see how much better it is.
Balance. The bolster argument also leads into a discussion about balance. Those that say the bolster serves as a finger guard also say that the knife has better balance because of it. The Wüsthof Classic is balanced exactly at the point where the bolster lies, but better knives (those without bolsters) tend to have more weight toward the blade. These knives actually make work easier since the blade will be doing the heavy lifting instead of the cook. If the knife is handle heavy, then it will be more fatiguing. I discovered, from just testing a Wüsthof Classic in the store, that its huge bolster actually makes cutting quite unbalanced.
Maintenance. Unfortunately most home cooks use blunt knives, either they buy good knives and fail to ever sharpen them or they buy sub-par knives that were never sharp to begin with. All knife manufacturers claim to make the sharpest knife. Even with proper use a knife requires maintenance. In addition to the three knives I suggest as basically necessary, the honing rod is also good to have. Many confuse a honing rod as a sharpening steel, which it is not. Constant use makes the edge of a knife roll and the honing rod is used to bring the edge back into alignment. Honing can be done weekly or even daily depending on how often the knife is used. Sharpening is best left up to professional services, either in-store or by mail. The sharpening device that is sold with many sets tends to cut away too much of the edge. What it really does is butcher the blade. To further prolong the life of your blade, a wood cutting board, either edge grain or end grain, is necessary. Glass and plastic boards make a knife's edge roll, whereas the grains of a wood cutting boards accept the knife's blade. Oak, acacia, bamboo, and teak are some of the best and hardest woods used to make cutting boards. If a wood cutting board is out of your budget, a polypropylene board would be a good option, but even better is an epicurean board, which is a new product on the market made of eco-friendly bonded layers of paper treated with resin. The board is dishwasher safe, which wood boards are not. A polypropylene board wears fast and must be replaced as soon as it starts to sliver or look hairy. And please don't ever cut on your countertops.
Chef's Knives Tested
In my quest to find the best chef's knife, I tested five knives from very well-known knifemakers. I tested two German knives, the Wüsthof Classic Ikon and the Messermesiter Meridian Elité, and three Japanese knives, the Shun Classic, Tamahagane San, and the Mac Pro. I particularly wanted to test the Mac because it's the brand preferred by professional chefs. Testing the Mac Pro with a Granton edge also let me see why these dimples are so popular in Asian knives. My criteria for testing was simply to use the knives in my regular cooking on a variety of foods and take note of the performance of each. All of them were very sharp out of the box, some lost the edge quicker than others, and one in particular maintained a sharp edge the longest. Before testing began, I had my own stereotypes to contend with. I had always preferred German knives to Japanese knives because I like their weight. Japanese knives appeared to me as showpieces more than tools. For months I researched what makes a knife a knife and what makes it better than others. What I've learned is that choosing a knife is a very personal decision. Truthfully any sharp knife that is comfortable and made from quality stainless steel can be a good knife, but there are other factors that add up to a good knife.
Wüsthof Classic Ikon 8-inch Chef's Knife
weight: 8 3/4 ounces
blade length: 8 inches
blade width: 1 13/16 inches
blade thickness: .128 inch
full length: 13 3/8 inches
retail price: $175
The Wüsthof Classic Ikon is a modern update of the Wüsthof Classic, which is probably the best-selling knife in the market. I don't like the Classic because of the full width bolster. Not only does it add more weight to the knife, it also makes sharpening troublesome. The Classic Ikon gets rid of the unnecessary bolster and redesigns the handle. The tang is fully visible through the handle and an end cap finishes it off. The ergonomic handle, my favorite feature of the knife, is comfortable and attractive with curves that fit nicely in the palm of the hand. It is available in the black or white polypropylene and black wood. The Ikon performed nicely and very similarly to the Messermeister in all my tests. It is a bit shorter in length and width than the Messermeister but is the thickest of all the knives. The only con I could come up with is the sharpness of the heel of the blade. I preferred the rounded heels of the Messermeister and Shun, making them a bit safer. This knife is also the most expensive out of all those tested. It's even more expensive than the Wüsthof Classic most likely because it serves as a modernized showpiece. There is no doubt that it's a great knife, but Wüsthof is one of the most expensive German knife brands and there are other knives that come close to beating it at performance.
Messermeister Meridian Elité 8-inch Chef's Knife
weight: 8 3/4 ounces
blade length: 8 1/4 inches
blade width: 1 15/16 inches
blade thickness: .1 inch
full length: 13 9/16 inches
retail price: $127
The Messermeister is a classic and very classy knife. It has the look of a true German knife from the visible tang to the rivets in the handle. It has a nice belly, which is a feature of German chef’s knives. The only downfall of the belly on an 8-inch knife is that the area for chopping with an up-and-down motion is greatly reduced. A 10-inch version of this knife might be a better solution. Chefs and cooks prefer a longer knife for this reason. For home cooks, who use the rocking motion, it's less of a matter. Though with this knife the rocking motion becomes a bit exaggerated because of the belly. The knife also has a nicely sized bolster that stops just short of the edge of the blade, which is just how it should be. For me the hold is comfortable, but not all hands would find the bolster or the boxy handle comfortable. Compared to the Wüsthof, it is the same weight but is slightly longer and wider. It is the widest knife in the pack at nearly 2 inches. I tend to prefer wider chef’s knives especially for very technical French-style cutting. Wider knives also make it easier to scoop chopped vegetables. The knife functioned exceptionally well on all tasks, from delicate slices to large cuts. It split a winter squash right in half, a feat that none of the Japanese knives could or should attempt. I'd like to think of it as the power horse of the bunch and it soon became my favorite. Messermeister is one of the lesser-known German knife brands, but I think they are as good if not better than Wüsthof. Messermeister knives are a great value and out of all the knives surveyed here, it is the least expensive. It really has the biggest bang for your buck.
Shun Classic 8-inch Chef's Knife
weight: 7 3/8 ounces
blade length: 8 1/4 inches
blade width: 1 13/16
blade thickness: .091 inch
full length: 13 7/16 inches
retail price: $150
The Shun is no doubt the knife with the most intrigue. Its wavy Damascus finish recalls Samurai swords and is achieved by grinding the 32 layers of softer SUS410 steel, which are layered over the VG10, 60 Rockwell core. Its high carbon content makes for an extremely sharp knife that holds an edge longer than most. Its only downfall is that it does stain even though the manufacturer says it does not. The Shun is one of a kind, from the blade to the handle, which is made of ebony black Pakkawood. The tang is not visible, but the handle features a steel end cap suggesting a full tang is present. For an ergonomic handle one would expect waves and bumps but the Shun’s handle is smooth except for a D-shaped handle, which snugly fits into the grip of anyone who is right handed. Left-handed knives must be special ordered. The blade itself is also slightly cocked to the right. Interestingly the shape of the blade resembles the German bellied knives more than the Japanese gyuto. For me the handle is very comfortable to hold, but I have heard complaints about the D-shaped handle. It’s what I would call an acquired taste, making the Shun not for everyone. It's always a good idea to test a knife before you buy it. A good kitchen store should let you hold their knives and test them on cutting boards. With Shun, be sure to try it and like it before you buy it.
Tamahagane San 8-inch Chef's Knife
weight: 6 ounces
blade length: 8 5/16 inches
blade width: 1 14/16 inches
blade thickness: .061 inch
full length: 13 3/8 inches
retail price: $138
This Tamahagane San looks great right out of the box. The beautiful laminated wood handle takes center stage and the gyuto-style blade is beautiful too. It's a three-layer Japanese stamped knife made of VG5, 58 Rockwell at its core and SUS410 as the outer layers. Its super thinness and 14-degree edge comes in handy for delicate cuts. It worked its magic on cutting through tomatoes without the slightest trace of resistance. However on hard vegetables, this knife just does not have the heft of the German blades. The biggest con is that the thinness makes it a very bendable knife, but that is not a benefit of a good chef’s knife when rigidity is preferred. The Tamahagane is the lightest and thinnest blade among all the knives tested. Even though the handle is comfortable and ergonomically shaped, the hold is not comfortable. The right angle where the blade and the handle meet is the point of contention. The handle has no visible tang except for a small steel dot on the end to indicate it does have a rod for a full tang. I also found that the blade stained the most. With considerable testing, I found this knife to be the most fatiguing, because I had to do most of the work. You would think that a light, thin knife would be easy to work with, but it wasn't so here. Yes it did perform well in almost all tests, but hard vegetables like carrots were tough to cut through. It takes more effort than should be needed to use this knife.
Mac Professional 8-inch Chef's Knife with Granton Edge
weight: 6 3/8 ounces
blade length: 8 inches
blade width: 1 15/16 inches
blade thickness: .091 inch
full length: 12 11/16 inches
retail price: $145
Mac knives are also Japanese, even though the name suggests otherwise. It is an incredibly hard knife at 60 Rockwell. This particular chef’s knife features a Granton edge, which is also called dimpling. I don’t see the benefit of a dimpled knife at all. It makes it look more interesting, but after much use I did not notice any clear benefit. Out of the box, this is the sharpest knife with a 15-degree angle. It has the virtues of a Japanese blade with a European handle. The only con I can see is that the knife is not as wide as is usual with chef’s knives. Instead the blade slopes steadily toward the tip. This shape is not likely to encourage scooping ingredients safely. Another concern is its limited power. The instructions inside the box do warn that Mac knives are not for use with hard winter vegetables like squashes. For regular vegetable duty this knife is supreme. I couldn’t believe how well it chopped parsley; it cut right on contact. German knives are said to do the work for you by being heavy, but this knife does the work for you by being razor sharp. It stayed sharper longer than the other knives tested. The most noticeable difference of the Mac is its short handle, which did not pose a problem at all. I found it to be one of the most comfortable knives and one of the easiest to use. I highly recommend the performance of this knife.