I want to slice and dice and julienne...but with what?
June 12, 2008 6:02 PM   Subscribe

How do I choose a great chef's knife? Feeling overwhelmed by all the choices.

I'm an avid cook and I'd like to get a great chef's knife. I'm hoping to spend around $100 or less. I've been reading previous askmefi questions, reviews on various online shopping sites, and Cook's Illustrated. I can't reconcile all the information.

It seems to me that the top brands (Henckels, Global, Wusthof, etc.), are all well-constructed and work well given appropriate skills and maintenance. If it comes down to personal preference in terms of the curve, balance, and feel in the hand, how do I choose one? Will any stores let me come in and chop some stuff up? (I'm in Boston. I have small-ish hands, if that makes a difference.) Thanks!
posted by supramarginal to Food & Drink (43 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I probably won't be the last person to say get one of these. Cheap and quality.
posted by pilibeen at 6:12 PM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Any decent store will let you hold the knives and mess around with them on a cutting board. Some will let you chop stuff. Just buy one that fits your hand and is a comfortable size and weight. Whatever you buy will work fine as long as you keep it sharp, learn to sharpen your knives and you'll be all set. My preference in German style knives is Messermeister, it's easier to sharpen the whole blade since they don't have a bolster in the way.
posted by foodgeek at 6:14 PM on June 12, 2008

If you have small hands, you might like a Global - they have relatively small handles.

You really can't go wrong with a Forschner, Henckels or Wusthof - they are classic, tried-and-true designs. Globals are a little more unique, but every bit as effective, and I really like mine.
posted by gnutron at 6:25 PM on June 12, 2008

My mother has had her set of (premium) Henkels for over 25 years, for what it's worth. She sharpens them herself day-to-day, with a professional job once every few years.

All you really need is one good knife. You can cheap out on paring knives etc, until you can afford more.
posted by sunshinesky at 6:28 PM on June 12, 2008

The MAC kinives are incredible for their sharpness, and their ability to hold that edge for much longer than most knives. I think the Global knives are similar. For a more traditional knife my other favorite is a carbon steel Sabatier. It can be sharpened to quite an incredible edge, but does require frequent sharpening, which is not a problem if you have a good sharpener. The best combination of low maintenance and sharpness are probably the stainless steel German knives like Henckels. Ninety percent of the time I go for my MAC Santoku. It makes paper thin slices of ripe tomatoes simple. The only downside of Japanese knives is that they are usually cut with a steeper angle which does not accomodate most electric sharpeners. I saw a new electric sharpener for Japanese knives advertised recently, but do not know yet whether it is truly an acceptable option.
posted by caddis at 6:30 PM on June 12, 2008

Weight is important (you want heavy, it makes it easier to use without pushing and squishing food), and foodgeek is right about bolsters being annoying, so avoid those if possible and get a knife where the blade continues all the way to the 'heel'.

You probably know this but: you definitely do not want one of those "never needs sharpening" space age goofy things with a weird serrated edge. They might as well say "you can never sharpen this."

Avoid exotic materials. I'm partial to Sheffield steel but it's more of a fetish than a requirement. Any steel or carbon steel blade is fine. If you're planning on using a dishwasher, you'll want a plastic or enamel or olivewood handle -- most wood will warp eventually and start to separate from the knife, though you an oil it to avoid this... if you remember.

A lot of this is really about personal preference. Once you have a decent knife, the best thing you could do is buy a good sharpening steel or stone and learn how to use it well.
posted by rokusan at 6:38 PM on June 12, 2008

And piggybacking on caddis: Henckels is fine, and I actually LIKE the 'unusual' angles of Japanese blades.

I wouldn't use an electric sharpener. Don't trust them. Nossir, never did.
posted by rokusan at 6:41 PM on June 12, 2008

Best answer: You have to hold one and feel its heft in your hand - buy the one whose handle fits your palm comfortably in a variety of grips and whose tip you feel you can control. Make sure it's balanced properly - with enough weight both at the front and back end, so you can both chop through bones and mince parsley. If you like to do that French rocking thing to mince, make sure it has a curve that feels natural across a board. I own one really great knife that fits me perfectly and use it for everything - from breaking down chickens to chopping onions to peeling potatoes to deveining shrimp.

And buy something you can sharpen and hone at home. Ceramic is fancy and trendy and all that, but it's brittle (no deboning!) and can't be honed with a few strokes on a steel.
posted by peachfuzz at 6:42 PM on June 12, 2008

Seconding or thirding the Forschners. I think they have mentioned on America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated that that is the chef's knife they both recommend and that everyone on their staff actually uses.
posted by stefnet at 6:51 PM on June 12, 2008

My (awesome!) answer to this from back in 2005 (when we could post pictures...) It comes down to whether you prefer the German or French blade shapes.
posted by nicwolff at 6:52 PM on June 12, 2008

Best answer: Since you're in Boston, go to Stoddard's -- there's one in the Prudential Center Mall if you don't have a way to get to Chestnut Hill. They will guide you and let you hold/feel/try the knives.

Do not worry about brand -- all the top-flight knives are reasonably on a par. You really just need to go by feel until you come to the one that fits your hand and feels like a natural extension of your arm.

In cooking school, they compelled us to use our 10-inch chef's knives all the time, and though I got used to it, I still feel more comfortable with an 8-inch blade. I, too, have smallish hands, and the shorter blade felt like I could control it better. But YMMV.
posted by briank at 6:53 PM on June 12, 2008

I basically agree with the sentiment here (and I used to sell knives). The best knife is the one that feels best in your hand. I happen to like a 10-inch Wustof for my main knife, my boy uses an 8-inch Henckels. I tend to be more comfortable with German knives mostly because that's what I learned with. I also prefer a knife with a bolster because of how I nudge the knuckle of my pointer finger securely in behind it, but obviously, bolsters drive many people nuts. So long as it's a quality knife that feels like an extension of your hand, it's the right knife.

You might prefer a lighter Japanese knife like the Global. Just hold a bunch and see what is the most comfortable. Pay attention to how it balances in your hand. Ideally, find a place that will let you cut with the knives and/or take a knife skills class to get your hands on some different ones. Don't buy the first knife you handle; go back and try it a few times to see which one clicks.
posted by mostlymartha at 6:55 PM on June 12, 2008

A good store will have a cutting board and some pieces of carrot or potato for you to try out a knife with. I wouldn't buy an expensive chef's knife without giving it a test-run like that. But that also means that if you insist on trying before you buy, you are limited to the stock at those stores -- all the funky knives online, and the discount retailers, won't do you any good. Any of the good brands will serve you well, but only if it fits your hand well and you like the shape and balance.

And make sure you have the means to sharpen it yourself, or know where to take it for periodic sharpenings. I use a steel fairly often, and one of those electric knife sharpeners periodically (I don't remember the model number, but it was well-reviewed at the time I bought it). Hand sharpening by an expert is probably better than my electric sharpener, but I've had pretty mixed luck hand-sharpening knives -- if you aren't going to be good at it, it is much better to use an electric sharpener or send the knife out for sharpening.
posted by Forktine at 7:04 PM on June 12, 2008

Best answer: I see that you are female and have smallish hands, just like me. I think you are going to run into the same problem that I have discovered - many knives are designed for larger hands, and unfortunately, you won't realize it until you've had the chance to actually use them. So, my suggestion is to visit friends with nice knives to see how you like theirs in action, if possible. If not, then make sure to pay attention to how the handle feels when you grip it - any discomfort or chafing will be exacerbated when you are chopping away for long periods.

As for Henckels, my parents have the Twin 4-star style, which is quite comfortable in my little hands. My ex had the Pro-S style, which literally gave me a blister. YMMV.
posted by gatorae at 7:06 PM on June 12, 2008

There's probably a Williams-Sonoma somewhere in your area; they will let you test knives for weight and balance (although I doubt they'd let you actually cut anything with 'em). A large W-S store will have a good selection of high-quality brands to choose from.

Once you have a good knife you'll want to learn how to sharpen it. A honing steel is a good investment since a few quick swipes before using the knife will keep the edge sharp for a long time without actually removing metal from the blade. (It re-forms the apex of the knife edge. This gets bent over and flattened during use, and the honing steel basically straightens it back up again.)

When the time finally comes to sharpen the knife, there are various options. Knives with bolsters don't work too well in electric sharpeners, as mentioned upthread. Old-fashioned sharpening stones work wonderfully regardless of bolsters, and there's something Zenlike in reworking a steel blade. I prefer Japanese waterstones over western oilstones because cleanup is easier. (You can get these from woodworking supply places.) I haven't tried diamond sharpening plates on my kitchen knives yet, but those also look convenient and tidy.

You will love, love, love your wonderful knife if you keep it as sharp as brand-new, so please invest in a good honing steel and sharpening system when you buy your knife.
posted by Quietgal at 7:18 PM on June 12, 2008

Thirding or fourthing the Forschner from the first comment. It's a great knife for the price. I've also got a Henckels, but I almost always reach for the Forschner.

Plus you've got $80 leftover to pick up some other useful cutting implements.
posted by treebjen at 7:21 PM on June 12, 2008

Piggybacking on rokusan: I wouldn't use a dishwasher. Don't trust them. Nossir, haven't since I saw those big old chips in my parents' knives, where other utensils had knocked against them.

(The most hallowed rule of my kitchen is when you're done with a knife you immediately wash it by hand and put it away. I am far from a neat freak in other areas of my life, and I appreciate an automatic dishwasher when I have guests, but the knives are soo worth the extra attention. Super bonus: You never, ever have to say, "Hey, where's my excellent knife? Did somebody—oh, it's in the dishwasher. Guess I'll use the crummy one.")
posted by eritain at 7:40 PM on June 12, 2008

If you're planning on using a dishwasher

aggh, don't do this to a nice knife.
posted by caddis at 7:52 PM on June 12, 2008

I talked to a professional knife sharpener who told me that a while ago Henckel switched to using steel from China, and he felt that the quality has suffered. I don't know if this is true but you might want to check it out.
posted by tula at 8:22 PM on June 12, 2008

One comment on size: I have a 10" Wusthof Grand Prix, and it's awesome and bold and it slices and dices... but if I were to buy again, I'd probably go for the 8". The only real reason to have a 10" (in my experience) is to cut large watermelons. And they don't really suffer from slices from both sides. I'm an average-sized male, and the weight isn't a problem, but a bit lighter could be ncie, too.
posted by zachxman at 8:29 PM on June 12, 2008

Following up on what tula said: Henckels has different quality lines. The premium line of knives is still made in Germany (and Spain, occasionally) but the lower quality lines are made in China or Taiwan.

That said, I really like my Wusthof Classic chef's knife. Since you have smaller hands you may like that Wusthof chef knives often come in the 6" length. I went to Williams-Sonoma and they let me handle all of the knives in the case.
posted by roomwithaview at 8:31 PM on June 12, 2008

As for Henckels, my parents have the Twin 4-star style, which is quite comfortable in my little hands. My ex had the Pro-S style, which literally gave me a blister. YMMV.

I seem to be able to do a lot more prep work without irritating my calluses if the spine of the knife I'm using has been rounded off -- a piece of fine grit sand paper will take the corners off in a minute or two.
posted by foodgeek at 8:34 PM on June 12, 2008

Alton Brown shills for Shun, and I tend to respect Mr. Brown.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:40 PM on June 12, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the great input, everyone. I'm off to try a few tomorrow at Stoddards and W-S. I promise not to put whichever knife I decide upon into my otherwise beloved dishwasher, and I do hope to learn to sharpen it effectively.
posted by supramarginal at 8:48 PM on June 12, 2008

I make no money at all from Shun, but I got my wife one of their ~8" chefs knives and it is awesome. Note though, part of the reason Shun knives are so sharp is that they are ground to a narrower angle than most european knives. A result is that the edge doesn't hold up to hard stuff, like being drawn over bone, as well, and may need more frequent sharpening.
posted by Good Brain at 9:47 PM on June 12, 2008

I talked to a professional knife sharpener who told me that a while ago Henckel switched to using steel from China, and he felt that the quality has suffered. I don't know if this is true but you might want to check it out.

Yeah, although not in the way this statement implies. And actually, I was about to make a point about this in re Henckels. Their top-range blades are still made in Germany. The mid and lower level lines of product are produced in other places. This is why you can find Henckels knives at department stores for $10. Henckels on wiki. I spent around $100 for the 7" Santoku style Henckels I use. As others have stated, one good blade can definitely be the one you use for 99% of your prep. And I definitely think that the quality of the steel does matter. It keeps an edge far better than the cheap stuff. And I know that it will last me for a long time.

But personal preference should rule out. Go pick up a few and see what feels right in your hand.
posted by ninjew at 10:33 PM on June 12, 2008

I love my Wustof santoku knife. Greatest thing I ever bought. I much prefer santoku blades to traditional chef's knives.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:36 PM on June 12, 2008

I love my Wustof santoku knife.

OK. I have the MAC santoku - awesome knife, it never seems to get dull. then, mom gives me the German version, I think the Wustof, it's a joke by comparison. It is a nice knife on its own, but it can not compare on sharpness or ability to hold an edge over time. I can not even tell you the company because this knife rests in the back of my surplus, unused knife drawer. The MAC, which is sharper, and never even seems to get dull, well, that is used every single day.
posted by caddis at 12:27 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was on my knife quest, I found out that if you go to W-S ask really nicely and they've had a cooking class recently, they will give you a potato or an onion and let you cut it with their demo knives. This was extremely extremely helpful. Maybe call in advance and ask if you can bring your own potato or onion just to better your chances.

I have a preference for Japanese knives, and ended up settling on a global 7". I tried the Shun knives and found that they were excellent, and far sharper than the globals (which was somewhat shocking; the globals are nuts sharp), but as much as I wanted to buy the Shun, the Global fit my hand better and agreed with my cutting style better, so I went for it.
posted by sirion at 1:05 AM on June 13, 2008

Also Alton Brown says to hone your knives at home, and sharpen your knives professionally once or twice a year. ~$5-10/year to keep your knives actually like new is not a bad maintenance fee, and a good knife sharpening place really does great work that I couldn't replicate at home. (Also keep in mind the Japanese knives tend to use different cutting angles than european knives, and often you'll need to go to a really good sharpening place that knows how to do the japanese knives; this is not necessarily a negative - places that can do the japanese knives tend to be good places.)
posted by sirion at 1:10 AM on June 13, 2008

The way we chose our knife (which is a santoku) was that we signed up for a knife basics course from a local cooking place. They let us try multiple types of knives for chopping/dicing/etc a variety of different types of foods. It was a great way to actually try out the different options before we decided what we wanted to buy.
posted by mcroft at 5:32 AM on June 13, 2008

I have the 8" Chef's Knife made by Shun and it is the best I've ever used in all ways.
posted by doomtop at 6:34 AM on June 13, 2008

Get a MAC knife. There's a reason Cook's Illustrated ranked them #1 overall in the world. It's the combination of "crazy sharp," "lightweight," and "comparatively low price" that does it, mostly.

I also recommend a santoku knife. I quite prefer that shape to a standard chef's knife, and as an added bonus they tend to be a bit shorter than chef's knives (beneficial if you've got small hands and a big knife is consequently unwieldy).

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I actually bought two ceramic knives that I use regularly, though I do have two Henckels knives I got for my birthday a few years ago that I use when a ceramic would be inappropriate, like for bone-in meats. I probably should have just gone with the MAC knives, since they apparently stay nearly as sharp for nearly as long as the Kyoceras do, and cost less)
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:00 AM on June 13, 2008

Oh, incidentally, I do believe Kershaw Shun knives came in second with Cook's Illustrated, partially due to the price but also partially just because they don't cut as well. They are gorgeous, though.
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:01 AM on June 13, 2008

Regardless of what you go with, I encourage you to check out Chad Ward's An Edge in the Kitchen, which is an absolutely terrific book about knives. He covers maintenance, basic skills and all that in addition to the hows and whys of knife construction.
posted by Atom12 at 7:39 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get a MAC knife. There's a reason Cook's Illustrated ranked them #1 overall in the world. It's the combination of "crazy sharp," "lightweight," and "comparatively low price" that does it, mostly.

If you read their review fully, you will find that they actually recommend the Shun Santoku over the MAC in terms of quality. However, the price of the MAC is much less than the Shun, which is why it is the best buy.
posted by doomtop at 7:52 AM on June 13, 2008

Oh, incidentally, I do believe Kershaw Shun knives came in second with Cook's Illustrated, partially due to the price but also partially just because they don't cut as well. They are gorgeous, though.

Again, Cook's Illustrated recommends the Shun over the MAC in terms of quality. It is the price that makes the MAC more enticing.
posted by doomtop at 7:53 AM on June 13, 2008

Additionally, if you are left-handed, the MAC will be a better knife. This is due to the construction of the Shun's handle being made to fit specifically in someone's right hand.
posted by doomtop at 7:59 AM on June 13, 2008

as another person with small hands, I highly reccomend searching out a 7" chef's knife. I have one from Wustof, and it's awesome. I find an 8" length to be too long and heavy, but a 6" to be too short to do any good.

Personally, I avoid any santoku style knives, but that's because their blade design and curve just don't work for the way I cut. they work well for slicing, where you lift the entire blade up and bring it back down, but I rock the knife when I slice, chop or pretty much do anything. but my husband loves it, so to each his/her own. definitely try out every knife you can, even different styles, before you buy.
posted by kumquatmay at 9:04 AM on June 13, 2008

I'm a little handed person, too; and my main knife is 6.25"/16cm. Which I find to be enough knife for 99.8% of the things I've had to cut in the past, I dunno, 9 years.

(For what it's worth, it's a Global; from the GF line (The GFs seem to be much nicer than the Gs. I want to say that F stands for Forged, but I'm not sure...). It has a nice heft to it; but it also wonderfully balanced. Some of the other Globals I've used.. not quite so much heft.)

I did also have an 8" damascus etched one for a while; and I found it was a lot like trying to use a sabre to cut things. And it discoloured really easily. Although it looked really pretty.
posted by ambilevous at 1:43 PM on June 13, 2008

just to add on about the santoku style. i've got wrists that are less-than-steel and i find the lightness of my santoku just beats the hell out of any chef knife i've used (after 9 years in kitchens). just because i've never had a problem with it, i have an older version of the sanelli santoku, which doesn't have the "granton" blade.

and don't forget to get a matching steel!
posted by tamarack at 8:46 PM on June 13, 2008

Just two more thoughts at this late date. I weighed my 10-inch Wustof and 8-inch Henckels just now. They both weigh 269 grams despite their large difference in size. I like the longer knife because I can make fewer strokes because of the longer blade, but as a noodle-armed, small-handed lady, I don't think I'd be able to handle the corresponding 10-inch Henckels. It would just be too heavy.

Also, and this is just personal preference, but do your research before you buy an electric sharpener. Back when I sold knives, I saw a lot of knives ruined by overzealous at home sharpening with even high-end sharpeners. They just take a lot of metal off and it's tempting to use it too often. I take mine to a professional about every six months and oh, the work they do down at Perfect Edge in San Mateo is like razory poetry. If you can find a skilled professional in your area, I think it's a better choice than sharpening at home, but as with everything knife-related, it's mostly a matter of preference. As many others have said, do be sure to use your steel to hone basically every time you use the knife.
posted by mostlymartha at 1:37 PM on June 14, 2008

When I said Wustof upthread, I apparently meant Henckels.
posted by caddis at 11:22 PM on June 14, 2008

« Older Oh the joys of family   |   I'll give you the shirt off my back, if you'll... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.