How to Buy a Quality Chef's Knife at Any Price
When it comes to cooking there are just a handful of kitchen tools you actually need (and no, an Instant Pot isn't one of them). Chief among these has to be a kitchen knife. There just aren't that many recipes that don't call for you to carve, chop, slice, halve, score, dice, or fillet something.
Though there are plenty of overstuffed knife sets out there, a chef's knife is the one you'll be reaching for about 99 percent of the time. That's why it's important to have a good one. Luckily, "good" doesn't necessarily mean "expensive."
But figuring out what makes a good knife can be tricky. Do you take a website's recommendation? Do you go by Amazon reviews? What's a good amount to spend? And what makes, say, a $200 knife better than a $20 one?
In order to find out, we spoke to representatives of several major knife manufacturers, and took a look at more than 20 different knives at all different price points, to get a sense of what goes into a knife, and what you should expect to get, no matter what you decide to pay.
What we found was that the main differentiating qualities are pretty basic:
- it needs to be sturdy enough to last you for a while,
- it needs to either stay sharp or be easy to sharpen (we'll get to that in a bit),
- it needs to be comfortable to hold and use.
Beyond that—maybe a distant fourth—is the look and feel. It's nice if the knife is also a pleasure to look at, since that'll make you want to use it, and to cook more, which is always a good thing—and as you might suspect, this is also where a lot of the differentiation comes when choosing a price point.
Here's good news: You can expect knives to be generally pretty sturdy. Unless you're buying a super inexpensive knife, and as long as you take care of it, you can probably get many years of use out of it.
So why should you ever buy a nicer knife? The same reason to have a nicer anything: Because having a tool that is a pleasure to hold and use makes cooking more enjoyable. And since that's really the main metric, how much you should spend is entirely up to you.
Joanna Rosenberg, a vice president of marketing at Zwilling J.A. Henckels, agrees. "People spend tons of money on all sorts of things, but for some reason, they feel like they should spend peanuts on a kitchen knife they're going to use every day for the next thirty years," she explained, over the phone. But deciding what to spend is a personal decision "I figure whatever you spent on the last nice meal you had should be a good benchmark on how much you want to spend on a knife."
So here's what more money gets: A nicer knife tends to be made out of higher-quality metal, or a combination of metals—which means you can choose one that either gets sharper, or that stays sharp longer, and you have more options in choosing one that's comfortable to hold and use.
In fact that's the biggest difference when it comes to selecting a knife—and the thing that's most worth your money. Not all knives feel the same, and more money doesn't necessarily translate to a better-feeling knife in your hand. This is why you should absolutely try to pick up and handle any knife before you buy it. Do you like a big heavy knife, or something small and easy to wield? Are you looking for a smooth wooden handle, one with some grip, or something that won't stain or discolor?
When we tested knives in our kitchen, the half-dozen of us discovered that we had widely diverging tastes—and they didn't always run toward the highest-end knives. Some of us found that we liked the heft and solidity of a big, sturdy knife, and were wary that a smaller, more expensive model would break if we were hard on it, while others preferred the balance and feel of something with a smaller handle, that was easier to wield. The choice is really personal, and when looking, it's good to have an amount you want to spend ahead of time, and then look at everything available in that range.
It's also important to think about how much you want to have to care for your knife. Like other "luxury" items, expensive knives require more care and maintenance. Every knife will need to be sharpened, of course. But a more durable blade may need to be sharpened more often, as the metal has more "give," while a harder knife may keep its edge longer, but is more prone to chipping or breakage and will need to be treated carefully.
What you don't need to worry about, at least when first buying a knife, is how sharp it is. Almost every brand new knife is going to start out sharp, so buying something based on how well it cuts is akin to buying a car based on how well the tires grip the road. (Though every expert we spoke to acknowledged, few people sharpen their knives regularly enough. Which is a shame, since it's often cheap or even free to do, and only needs to be one once or twice a year—there are even some fantastic tools that make sharpening a snap.) It's more important to look at how sharp you want it to get, and how often it will need to be sharpened.
A bit about specific knifes
When researching or shopping for knives, you'll probably come across a lot of phrases: heat-forged, ice-hardened, full-tang. A lot of it you can safely ignore. Not that those terms are meaningless—they just don't have much effect on whether you'll find the knife comfortable or sturdy, or where it falls on the durable vs. easy-to-sharpen spectrum.
But there are a few things you may want to know: In general, there are three basic styles of knife. One, German style knives, tend to be the least fussy. They are usually made of a solid blend of stainless steel metal, are heavier, solidly built, workhorses. The two most popular brands are Zwilling J.A. Henckels and Wüsthoff, and they look similar, but feel slightly different in the hand. You'll find knives at a variety of ranges here, but generally between about $50 and $150.
The next basic style is Japanese. These are often a blend of different metals, though still often stainless steel, and are commonly (but not always) made in Japan. These tend to be lighter, often thinner, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They're a little fussier, and they're often really pretty looking.
They're known for being sharper, but also for requiring a bit more maintenance and upkeep. They're also often (but not always) more expensive. Some well-known brands include Miyabi (which is actually owned by Zwilling), Shun, Kai (both brands are owned by the same company), and Global.
Matt Matsushima, director of operations at Kai, explained that traditional Japanese knives tend to be made with layered materials. It's why you often see pretty patterns on the side. "You can use a a harder center steel, that stays sharper, longer," he told me, over the phone, "but it stays protected by the softer outer layers."
Those harder layers are great for getting precise cuts, but if you aren't careful with them, you can more easily chip or damage the knife.
Both German and Japanese knives are available in most specialty cooking stores—at Sur La Table, or Williams Sonoma. And you can head into any of those stores and ask to hold, or to try out different knives. In fact, if you're in the market, it's a great idea to do that several times, at several different places, before making a purchase. That's the surest way to find a knife you’re going to enjoy handling for years to come.
The third major type of knife is a carbon steel. Some of these are made in Japan, though there are fine carbon steel knives made in France and elsewhere. They're harder to find, and they're fussier. They stain easily, rust readily, and tend to chip or break if you treat them roughly.
They're also amazingly sharp, and they can be sharpened easily, and will hold that edge very well. If you're the kind of cook who prizes sharpness above all other things, a carbon steel knife may be worth the effort of hunting one down and taking care of. You'll be able to make paper-thin slices of garlic, extra precise matchsticks of carrot, and will never worry about squashing an overripe tomato again.
Regardless of what you choose, the important thing is to find something that fits comfortably in your hand, that feels sturdy, and that gets—or stays—as sharp as you need it, and doesn't feel like a burden to maintain. If you have those, then you have the perfect knife—for you.