If I had a limited budget to spend in a kitchen, the one thing that spend a decent amount on would be the ubiquitous chef knife. Why? Because it’s used for everything. From slicing tomatoes to dicing fish to everything in between, your chef knife will see more use than any other knife in your collection. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you decide what you want to buy.
Like most things in life, the price range of knives can vary from as low as a dollar to several thousands. For most people, $100-$200 CDN is a reasonable amount to spend for a knife that if properly taken care of, will last a lifetime. You will also want to budget approximately $50 for a high quality steel.
Country of Origin
In general, you’ll be looking at either German or Japanese knives. German brand names like Wusthof and Henckels are household names whereas Japanese brands like Global and Shun have only begun to take off in recent years. In general, you will find that Japanese knives are sharper due to the harder steel alloys used. This allows the knife manufacturers to grind the edges are more acute angles which result in a sharper edge. This is quantified with a hardness measure called the Rockness C hardness.
Japanese knives tend to measure between 59-60 on the scale which allows the edges to be ground to 15 degrees whereas German knives tend to measure between 55-58 with a bevel of 20 degrees. For reference a straight razor blade is ground at a 10 degree angle.
Construction – Stamped vs Forged
Knives are either forged or stamped. When a knife is forged, a hot piece of steel is pressed into a blade mold and hammered into place. This makes for a stronger blade because the forging process aligns the grains of the metals.
A stamped knife on the other hand is simply stamped out from a flat sheet of steel. This results in a cheaper blade that is not as strong as a forged blade. You might find a stamped knife or two that isn’t complete and utter garbage, but why bother?
Construction – Everything else
If you aren’t looking at the blade, then you are looking at the handle which comes in all different types and sizes. You have metal handles, plastic handles and wood handles. What you choose is ultimately up to you. They’re all pretty much the same.
What you do want to look for however is that the rivets (in the case of plastic and wood handles) are tight and flush with the surface. This prevents nasty little green things from growing in your knife. You’ll also want to look for a full tang which is the metal insert that runs through the handle. This along with the bolster (the fat piece at the end of a blade) helps give the knife balance.
There are steel knives, plastic knives, titanium knives, ceramic knives and a million and one different types of materials. To keep things simple I’ll be discussing the various types of steels.
Carbon Steel has been around forever.. with good reason too. It’s fairly cheap, it holds an edge well and it’s easy to sharpen. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass to maintain as it can rust. When cutting things like citrus fruit or tomatoes, the acids in the food can cause discoloration. A piece of steel wool will fix those problems though.
Stainless Steel is a generic term which refers to steel alloys that contain more than 10% chromium to prevent rusting. They are often alloyed with other metals such as Titanium, Molybdenum and Nickel to change the characteristics of the metal.
Because of the chromium content, these steels are resistant to staining and rusting. However, the introduction of the alloys also makes them harder to sharpen. Knife manufacturers have overcome this problem by creating High-carbon Stainless steel which gives the users the best of both worlds. You’ll find that these often contain Molybdenum and Vanadium in trace amounts.
Chef knives are between 6″-12″ in length with 8″ being the most popular. What you choose is mostly up to your personal style of chopping. If you like to rock the knife back and forth, then a longer blade might be more suitable whereas if you like to lift up and down, then a shorter blade will be better for you (or even a Santoku knife).
Discussions of specific brands
I’m going to stick to the knives that I have had experience with as I can’t possibly cover everything out there.
Henckels – look for the 2 man instead of 1 man in the logo which is a quick and dirty way to get the higher quality Henckels. One thing to note however is that Henckels uses a 3 piece construction where the tang and bolster are lower grade steel than the blade. It makes for a cheaper knife to manufacture which unfortunately isn’t reflected in retail pricing.
Shun – popularized by Alton Brown, a foodTV host, I can best describe Shuns as wannabe Japanese knives made by an American company (Kershaw). Yes they use Japanese techniques as evident by their Damascus* line, but they are a little half-assed with only 32 layers. The handles however are nice because of the way they are contoured to fit your hand. Shun also came out an elite line of knives which are made with a different process.
Hattori – these are the knifes that I eventually settled on when buying my knives. Made in Japan, they’re 63 layers of Damascus goodness and are the sharpest knives that I have ever used. They are also incredibly light when compared to German knives. The thinness of the blade does make them easier to chip though as I discovered when trying to cut a frozen block of food (which you shouldn’t do).
Other knives you might want to look into include Mac, Misono and Wusthof all which have good reputations and reasonable prices.
*Damascus steel is a method of constructing blades where a piece of steel is folded over itself several times. This results in a neat wavy pattern and apparently a stronger blade. It’s how Samurai swords were created back in the day and if it’s good enough for Samurais, then it’s good enough for me.
Ok, I have the background info, now what?
My best recommendation is to go to a knife shop holding some knives in your hand. You’ll quickly get a feel for what types of handles you prefer. If you find something you like with good balance, then buy it.
Can you recommend some online places to buy knives?
If you’re looking for German knives, then I’d recommend heading over to Paul’s Finest. His prices are reasonable and he knows his stuff. Service through email is outstanding.
If you’re looking for Japanese knives, then look no further than Japanese Chefs Knife. The site looks like garbage, but nevertheless the prices can’t be beat and the selection is unreal. Another thing to note that this is the distributor where Paul gets his Japanese knives from.