What is the best chef knife? That’s a question only answered by looking at your needs as the chef. Is it for professional use, or are you a home gourmet? How much time are you willing to spend maintaining the knife? What kinds of foods do you like to cook? All these questions – and many more – are important to choosing the best kitchen knife.
Why Buy a Premium Knife?
A good knife is the cornerstone of any gourmet kitchen. Great blades make clean cuts, maintaining the integrity of the food. Nice steel doesn’t contaminate the flavor of your ingredients. And a quality knife will last for a lifetime.
A quality knife is both more convenient and safer. A cheap knife is… cheap. They lose their edge, stain, and even chip or break. They might be poorly balanced, making them harder to use safely. And a dull knife is actually much more dangerous than a sharp knife. It slips when cutting and chopping, and any cuts they make are more painful and take longer to heal.
The features of a great knife are:
- sharper edges
- longer edge retention
- more durable
- perfectly balanced blade
- cleaner, easier cuts
- better materials that don’t affect the flavor of foods
How Does One Choose the Best Knife?
A chef’s knife (also called a French knife or cook’s knife in some circles) is the workhorse of the kitchen. And while it appears to be a simple tool, there is an astonishing variety among chef’s knives. This doesn’t even begin to include the other knives commonly found in a kitchen, knives such as:
- paring knife
- bread knife
- carving knife
- filleting knife
- santoku knife
- and many more…
Though each knife has its own unique features that suit it for a particular job, most knives share some of the physical features of a chef’s knife to some degree.
The Anatomy of a Chef’s Knife
The blade is generally quite broad and thick to resist bending and maintain strength. This comes from the original use of the French knife – disjointing bones in large cuts of meat.
The edge is the cutting surface of the knife. It is broken down into three parts: the tip, the belly, and the heel. The tip is simply the pointy end. The belly is the underside, typically curved on a cook’s knife to allow the blade to roll back and forth. The heel is the thickest part of the knife’s edge, and therefore the strongest, especially on European-style knives with a reinforced fingerguard.
Many chefs will maintain a different sharpness at each of the three parts of the edge to make the knife extra versatile. The tip will be kept very sharp for fine cutting and slicing. The belly will be kept sharp enough to chop effectively, but not so sharp that it’s prone to damage. The heel will be quite dull as it is used to pry apart bones and other rough jobs for which a sharp edge is either useless or dangerous.
The bolster connects the blade to the handle of the knife. A typical European-style knife has a heavy bolster that runs into a fingerguard, a thickened heel of the knife. In contrast, in Japanese-style knives he bolster is narrower and doesn’t run the full width of the blade. Instead, the blade turns 90 degrees up toward the bolster, resulting in a lighter knife.
Handles also come in a variety of shapes and materials. Many are polished wood, while others use a synthetic material. There is incredible variety among the shapes of handles as well: from smooth and simple to complex ergonomic designs. Regardless of handle shape, many of the best chef knives are full-tang. This means that the steel of the blade extends all the way to the end of the handle, otherwise known as the butt.
Other Features of a Knife
Type of Steel
High-Carbon Steel – An excellent steel for kitchenware, it’s tough and maintains an edge. It is prone to discoloring and rusting, however, so high-carbon knives need a lot of extra maintenance.
Stainless Steel – “Stainless” is actually a misnomer. It can rust, but it is highly resistant to rusting. Maintaining stainless steel knives are generally easier, but they do require more sharpening. Stainless steel knives don’t take as fine an edge and then lose their edge quickly.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel – The best of both worlds, this is tough steel that stays sharp while resisting rusting and discoloring. This is a common material for premium chef’s knives.
Titanium – An exotic sounding metal, titanium doesn’t make the best knife blade. When it is used to make a knife, a layer of very sharp titanium is often sandwiched between two sheets of steel. A blade of solid steel is generally preferred to composite metal.
Special Additives to Steel
Some knives advertise being “high-XXX steel.” But what does that mean? The following are some of the common additives to the steel used in kitchen knives.
Carbon – Carbon is present in all steel, but the more carbon present the stronger and tougher the blade will be. High enough carbon content, and it’s high-carbon steel.
Chromium – Chromium in steel is what makes it stainless steel and is resistant to corrosion and discoloration.
Manganese – This makes a blade harden better during the manufacturing process.
Vanadium – A very important additive for knives, vanadium makes a finer grain to the steel. This translates into a blade that takes a much sharper edge. Many high quality chef knives use high-vanadium steel.
There are several ways to shape the edge of the knife in the grinding process. Some are more common than others, and some will result in different cutting or maintenance features of the knife. While there are more edge shapes, these three are the most common among kitchen knives.
Flat (V) Grind – This refers to a flat blade with a V-shaped grind for the edge. It makes a triangular cutting surface that wears down into a very dull, square edge. It’s easy to sharpen, though. Most factory produced kitchen knives have a flat grind.
Hollow Grind – This is a very sharp edge in which the edge looks like a smaller blade attached to the larger blade. The sharp edge out of the box comes at the cost of dulling very quickly unless properly maintained.
Convex – These edges are ground to be rounded slopes towards the edge of the blade. They are a good balance between a sharp edge and durability, but they can be hard to sharpen. They are also difficult to produce, so they aren’t very common.
Chisel Grind – Knives with these grinds aren’t very common, being limited mostly to Japanese knives. It’s an especially common grind among sashimi knives. Knives with this grind have a long bevel on one side and a short bevel on the other. It looks like a very lopsided V. This results in one side of the blade being almost completely flat, perfect for making very clean cuts.
A good knife is well balanced. Period. This means that if you place the bolster of the knife on your finger, it should balance perfectly and not tip towards the blade or the handle. Balance makes a knife easier to use and safer as it reduces fatigue while chopping and gives the chef more control.
The “standard” chef’s knife is 8 inches (20 cm) long. There are some variations to this length, though. Chef’s knives can range anywhere from 6 inches (15 cm) to 10 inches (25 cm). The decision ultimately comes down to the person using the knife and what that person is using it for most of the time. Larger knives are better suited to heavier chopping, while smaller knives are best for delicate slicing and carving.
Weight is largely a matter of personal preference. Some chefs like old-fashioned, heavy chef’s knives. For chef doing a lot of heavy duty chopping (such as large cuts of meat or disjointing), it could be a serious consideration. Others prefer some of the extremely light, modern knives. A lighter knife allows for much finer manipulations, and much finer cuts.
The look and feel of a knife are also important factors. As a good chef’s knife will last for many years to come, it must match the chef’s own personal style. The best knives’ handles are typically done in dark colors, if only to prevent unsightly stains of the handle. But even the style of the blade (European or Japanese) could reflect one’s aesthetic preferences.