It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that buying any old chef's knife in a shop will do. But if you’re keen to get culinary, then you’ll need to search for a quality cooking partner, rather than just a basic cutting utensil. The best steel chef's knives are designed to be versatile, and when you find the right one, you’ll just know.
Choosing the best chef’s knife for your kitchen can be fraught with challenges, however, and if this is your first time, then you’ll need to make sure that you look at all aspects before committing to any one knife.
In this guide, we will be telling you everything you need to know to choose a good knife that will quickly become your favourite and quality kitchen companion.
Table of contents
Get to Know the Chef’s Knife
Before you can even think about choosing a good chef’s knife, it is essential that you get to know this piece of kitchen equipment. There are many different types of chef's knives and while the general concept of each is very similar, there are some things that you need to know about the various aspects of this tool.
Handles might seem irrelevant thinking it is the steel blades that do all of the work, but the handle of a chef knife is one of the most important parts of the tool. If you don’t have one that feels secure and comfortable when holding it, you can be sure you’re not onto a winner.
When holding your chef knife, you shouldn’t have to strain yourself and when it’s wet, the handle and grip should not feel as though the knife is going to slip from your hand. You will notice that knives can have handles made from many sorts of different material from pakka wood to plastic. Some handles have moulded patterns that improve grip, however, not all chefs get on with this style so it’s important to test the knife out.
Moreover, you must choose a knife whose handle has a good amount of clearance on the underside. This will prevent you from banging your knuckles on the surface of the kitchen counter, as you are cutting. But then, the height of the blade will also count towards this so you’ll need to look at both when making a decision.
You might hear this being called the shoulder, shank or collar but all of these names refer to the same thing and bolster is certainly the most common term. This is the site at which the handle and blade meet. It is a thick piece of metal that adds stability and strength to the overall structure. What’s more, it is also designed to act as a guard against anything sharp for your fingers whilst you are slicing and chopping.
Depending on the type of knife you buy, the bolster may differ slightly in that forged knives tend to only feature a half bolster. In the case of the Japanese knife, there might not be a bolster at all. The good thing about this is that it allows for full sharpening of the knife, along the full edge of the blade.
Regardless of the bolster, it is important that this feature does not alter your grip on the knife, especially if you feel as though it forces you to hold the knife more tightly.
For most knives, the heel is the thickest part of the steel metal blade. That is apart from Japanese forged knives. The heel is designed for cutting tasks that need a bit more force such as getting through thick-skinned vegetables like squash or cutting through tough meat tendons.
Some heels are so hefty that they prevent you from being able to complete a rocking motion by halting this motion abruptly. If this happens, we would suggest going for a different knife.
The spine is the top part of the blade which would normally have squared edges. Additionally, the spine will usually taper to the point; using a blade with a thick point would be very difficult.
It is important to look at whether the spine is rough or polished as this may affect how comfortably you grip the knife.
The edge of the knife is what does the cutting and when you purchase your utensil, you would expect the edge to be sharp and ready to slice and chop. With brand new knives, you should have enough sharpness to be able to slice effortlessly through a piece of paper with one clean, smooth cut.
If you like to use the rocking cutting technique, then you will need to look for a knife with a more curved edge.
Choosing Between Japanese and German/Western
One of the first things you will need to think about when starting your search and choosing a knife is whether you opt for German (Western) or Japanese. Any chef would agree that neither is superior to the other and both have their uses, but it very much depends on how you plan to use the blade.
Single bevel with an angle between 10 and 16 degrees
Sharp, thinner blade without bolsters
Hardened steel is often used that is above 62 on the Rockwell Hardness scale
Straighter blade more suited to fine slicing and chopping
Light and well balanced with a thin tip
Easier to damage owing to harder steel
Double bevel with an angle between 17 and 20 degrees
Thicker blade, often with a hefty bolster
Less hard steel with a rating between 52 and 60 on the Rockwell Hardness Scale
Curved stainless steel blade, ideal for rocking technique
Heavier and with a balance point at the tip
More robust but the edge will dull more quickly and will need more frequent sharpening
How to Choose Your Chef’s Knife
When you are choosing your new chef’s knife, there are other things to think about other than the heritage of the knife. It’s important to look over each feature carefully to determine whether the knife will be suitable for your needs.
● The weight of the knife is something that will affect how well you can use it in the kitchen. It’s a good idea to try out a few different weights and materials to see what feels best. Heavier knives may have gravity on their side, aiding them to almost ‘fall’ through the food. However, lighter knives have the benefit of easier maneuverability for tasks such as boning. Ultimately, it’s what feels better to you and the task at hand.
● You should think about the balance of the knife but again this is something that comes down to personal preference. You can test the balance by holding the handle. You will be able to feel if the handle is more weighted at the back or the tip and this isn’t a good sign. You need a knife that feels well balanced for you. You should also make sure that it isn’t balanced more on one side than the other as this gives it a tendency to teeter to one side when you start to chop the food.
● The size of the knife is the final important factor to consider. Usually, domestic cooks will choose an eight-inch chef's knife as these are the most versatile. However, it is once again essential to consider your own preference. Some people like the smaller size of a paring knife but then you don’t get the versatility with this design. While others like a larger ten-inch chef's knife, but this could feel too big for some users. Try out different sizes and see what feels right for you.
When you choose the right chef’s knife, you will instantly notice how it improves your effectiveness in the kitchen. It just feels good. Finding a good knife isn't just about the price, and it’s highly unlikely that your hand will just fall onto the right article.
Japanese knives, German knives; thin blade or thicker blade; straight or curved; serrated or smooth-edged; stainless steel or carbon steel; santoku or boning; for preparing vegetables or fish... Home cooks and chefs will agree that you’ll need to shop around and take some time looking at different options to find your perfect culinary match!
There are always differences in cost when purchasing either amateur or professional level equipment - regardless of the industry. So, it shouldn't be surprising that chef's knives are a bigger commitment than consumer ones. So much more is demanded of a good chef's knife when it comes to sharpness, types of steel, metal quality, durability and ease of use.