Ultimate Guide: What to look for when selecting a Chef knife
It seems that no matter how large my kitchen knife collection gets, the vast majority of the work I do in the kitchen comes down to one and sometimes two knives, my beloved 8-inch chef knife and smaller chef knife that I use as a large paring knife.
We always advise our new customers that the chef’s knife is the most versatile of all the kitchen knives, If you have to buy one kitchen knife you’re going to get the most bang for your buck with a good high-quality chef’s knife. If you find that another knife is necessary with your cooking style, then you can add to your collection at a later point.
When It comes to finding the right chef knife it’s important to first understand how you will be using the knife. There are multiple ways to use and hold a knife and it just depends on what is comfortable for you. You’ll find that a knife that feels comfortable and graceful in your hand may feel clunky and unnatural for the next person. At the end of the day, you want a knife that will make you quicker, cleaner, and more efficient in the kitchen so we’ve put together this guide so that you can find a chef knife that will be a pleasure to use
What to look for in a chef knife.
The two main types of steel you are going to find for chef knives are stainless steel and carbon steel. The performance of each steel are on the same playing field, the differences come into the appearance and maintenance of the knife.
With carbon steel, the blade will react to its environment, and if properly looked after properly the knife will develop a lovely patina over time. Because this knife does react to its environment this type of knife is susceptible to rust if used on acidic foods or left wet for too long. This type of steel does require more maintenance but if you have the time to give to your knife then this can be rewarding.
Most modern knives are made using stainless steel for the blades. The reason simply being stainless steel can take more neglect and you can be confident that the blade won’t corrode.
You will inevitably get a few scratches on the blade but for the most parts, even after 5-10 years of heavy use, this knife will look just as good as when you bought it.
A common Steel across Europe and America knife production is the 420C - 440C, this steel can be hardened all the way up to 60-61 Hardwell Rockness but can also be left down at 54-56 hardness.
A good craftsman can control the hardness of the steel by controlling the heat treatment of the steel during the knife making process.
The benefit of leaving the knife a little softer is that as you use the knife and the edge rolls over you can bring it back to razor sharpness with a couple of passes on the honing rod. For the majority of home cooks are going to prefer their knives to be on the harder side, but this type of knife does have its place. In the meatpacking industry, the pros need their knives to be razor-sharp all-day so they can break down a beast, give their knife a quick dance with a polishing rod, and straight on to the next beast.
The harder the knife the longer it will maintain its edge sharpness for longer, the downside is hard knives are more brittle and you run the risk of chipping. I remember I had a knife that I dropped on my kitchen floor and the tip of the knife broke right off. If you take good care of your knives and are careful not to cut through bone or throw them into your knife draw you shouldn’t have to worry too much about damage.
We recommend new customers look for a knife around 58-59 on a Rockwell hardness and if you are looking to add to your collection maybe think about getting a 60+ Rockwell hardness knife.
When choosing your chef knife one of the biggest decisions you have to make is on the shape of the blade. You are going to want to make sure that you select the right blade shape for your cutting style.
Japanse profile chef knives are flat along the edge, great for chopping and push cutting, and up-and-down slicing techniques. If you are used to push cutting then you will find that you can work your way through your mise en place quickly with this style of knife.
German profile, edge the tip is towards the spine which makes it a good knife if you rock when using your knife. These knives are great for fine mincing as you can keep rocking your knife over your vegetables until they are cut to your desired fineness.
A French profile is between the German and Japanese profiles with the tip inline with the center of the blade. It’s still rounded at the tip but is more flat towards the spine so you can easily rock and chop.
Generally speaking when talking about blade thickness and slicing the thinner the blade the more effective the knife is going to be. The downsides when it comes to thin knives is that they become very delicate, so they should only be used for slicing through meats or vegetables.
You should never cut through bones with a thin chef knife. We recommend that everyone should have a quality chef knife for the majority of their slicing but also get a thicker “beater” knife for more heavy-duty tasks where you need a heavier tool.
A knife is an extension of your body. The size of the knife should be relative to the size of the user’s body. A good rule of thumb is that the chef knife should be about the size of your forearm. Hold the heel of the blade to the wrist and the tip should roughly line up with the joint of the elbow.
For most people, an 8-inch chef knife is going to be a suitable companion, but if you have to get through a lot of product there are benefits to getting a larger blade for speed, whilst if you don’t have a lot of space to work with a 6-inch knife will be fine for most tasks, you’re just going to struggle if you need to cut anything large like a watermelon.
Knife handles can be made from a wide range of materials, and its really about your personal preference between what type of handle you like.
It’s very common for more modern knives to have man-made handles, which are very designed to be comfortable for long periods of use and also extremely durable.
You can still find some chef knives with wooden handles, which whilst they do require a bit more maintenance from time to time, if you appreciate the beauty of the natural material and the uniqueness of each handle then the little bit of maintenance is a price worth paying.
Your chef knives can come in one of two styles, a western-style or octagonal.
The western-style handles are designed to be ergonomic and will usually have a swell towards the butt of the handle which is designed to keep your hand from slipping,
The benefits of the octagonal style handles are that they have ridges all around the handle, which makes the knife super steady in your hand. When you have a good grip in your handle you can be confident that it’s not gonna rotate and slide around.
I have known professional chefs who have sworn by the comfort and grip of either style of handle, so there really is no real benefit of one style of handle over the other. It comes down to the aesthetics you want and what you are personally comfortable with.
When talking about balance we are talking about where the balance point of the knife lies.
If the knife is more blade heavy then the balance point is going to be more towards the front of the knife, this is helpful for larger knives that need to do more heavy-duty work.
Handle heavy knives are good for more controlled tasks and this is what you want for when you are doing more precision tasks such as pealing and working with small vegetables.
Ideally, your chef knife will have a balance point somewhere around your front knuckle when holding the knife. We have tested all the knives that we sell and they all have the balance point somewhere inside the grip which means you could use them for hours with comfort and ease.
As we’ve seen there can be a lot of variety in the design and construction of chef knives. When it comes to picking your knife it is important to think about how you are going to use the knife and pick a knife that you are really going to connect with. As the most used tool in the kitchen, it is important that you find a knife that you are comfortable with, the more you love your kitchen knives the ore you’ll be cooking and the more fun you’re going to have