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Equipment: The Best Chef's Knives
If there's one kitchen equipment question I get more than any other, it's this one: What is the best chef's knife?
The honest answer? There is no such thing as a "best chef's knife." It'd be like asking a violinist to name the "best violin" or an architect to identify the "best material." There are many factors that come into play, and depending on what type of cook you are and how your hands, body, and wallet are shaped, you might opt for one over another. Here are some things to consider:
- Style: Do you prefer a slim-and-maneuverable modern gyutou-style hybrid knife, a rough-and-tough Western-style knife, or a more precise and delicate Japanese-style santoku?
- Design: A good knife should be as fine-tuned as a race car with every aspect, from the curvature of the blade to the weight of the bolster to the shape of the handle, taken into consideration for optimal balance and performance.
- Craftsmanship: Do the pieces all fit together tightly and firmly? Are the rivets going to fall out or is the blade going to separate from the handle? Is the finish on the handle smooth and pleasant to hold, and is the blade properly honed straight out of the box?
- Materials: Is the steel hard or soft? Harder steels in Japanese and hybrid-style knives retain edges for a longer time but are tougher to sharpen. Softer steels are easier, but need to be honed and sharpened more frequently. Is the composite or wood in the handle durable and comfortable?
But the most important by far is personal preference: Once a certain base level of quality and design considerations are taken into account, the rest is all about your own reaction. That knife is going to be an extension of your hand, the most important tool in the kitchen. Does it feel natural? Are you comfortable holding it? Does it look nice? When you first put it in your hand, did you think to yourself, "this is the one for me"? Cooking should be a pleasure, and there's no more surefire way to get yourself to enjoy cooking than taking the chore out of knife work.
The guide is divided into three broad sections that cover the major styles of modern chef's knives: hybrid, Western, and santoku. Just as some guitarists like the heavy hit of a Fender while others prefer the mellow singing voice of a Gibson, depending on your cooking style, you'll probably find yourself gravitating toward one genre or another.
While this guide is as complete as I can make it, the reality is that there are far too many knives out there for me to possibly be able to test all of them thoroughly. This list draws upon both my personal and professional experience with dozens of models, but if you don't see your favorite knife on here, tell us about why you love it—I'm always happy to be introduced to more options.
Modern Hybrid Chef's Knives
Japanese knife-making reflects Japanese cuisine, where extreme precision in knife work is of paramount importance. Traditionally, Japanese knives were specialized for very specific tasks—the usuba with its chunky rectangular blade designed for slicing vegetable, the deba with its triangular wedge-shaped blade for butchering fish and poultry, and the yanagi with its extra-long blade designed for slicing sashimi and other raw meat.
Compared to Western-style knives, these traditional Japanese knives are thicker, sharper, and, to be frank, more difficult to control without plenty of practice. Because of their flat cutting edges, it's nearly impossible to employ the rocking chopping motions Western cooks are accustomed to using.
Since the end of World War II, a new knife has taken the place of the three traditional knives and the santoku has become the knife of choice in most Japanese kitchens. An early hybrid between Japanese and Western styles, it kept the blocky tip of a usuba and combined it with the thinner profile and lightly curved blade of a German chef's knife, resulting in a knife that excels at slicing, chopping, and mincing (santoku translates roughly to "three virtues").
More recently, both Japanese and German knifemakers have moved on to an even newer style: Gyutou knives are designed to perform many of the standard Western tasks trading in heftiness for better control and precision. They're more maneuverable but a little less precise than santokus, with more deeply curved edges for better rocking.
Who they're for: Because of their light weight, ability to take an extremely sharp edge, and versatility, they're great all-around knives that excel at mincing, precision vegetable prep, light protein prep, and general feeling awesomeness. Their biggest downsides? They're not ideal for heavy-duty tasks like chopping through bones or splitting big 'ol squashes in half.
Here are my top picks.
My Favorite: The Misono UX10 Gyutou
The Misono UX10 8.2-Inch Gyutou is the cream of the crop with an extremely sharp edge out of the box. High-quality Swedish steel treated to a Rockwell hardness rating of 59-60 means that this blade can get sharp, and more importantly stay sharp through repeated use.
The heavy composite wood handle is comfortable in the hand and has a slim metal bolster at the top that makes gripping the knife a pleasure. If your hands are like mine, you will not want to put this baby down.
Because this knife is more heavily beveled on one side than the other, it is not ambidextrous—make sure to get either the right-handed or left-handed model for optimal performance.
High Performance, High Maintenance: Korin Suisin Gyutou
Very similar in weight and performance to the Misono, the Suisin High Carbon Steel 8.2-Inch Gyutou from Korin is tough to beat for the price, though it comes with a few distinct downsides. First, the high carbon steel is not stainless, which means that you'll have to carefully wipe it clean and preferably rub it down with mineral oil after each use if you want to prevent rusting and pitting. Secondly, I find the handle a little less comfortable than the Misono, though comfort comes down to personal taste.
On a Budget: Mac Chef's Knife
The Mac 7 1/4-Inch Chef's Knife is a real workhorse and an excellent value at a third of the price of my top-rated gyutou. The handle is made of pakka wood, a hyrbrid wood/polymer material that is lightweight but firm. It doesn't feel as luxurious or spring to your hand like pricier knives, but its sharp blade is tough to beat.
For Vegetarians: Global G-2 8-Inch Chef's Knife
I've owned a Global G-2 8-Inch Chef's Knife for over a decade now and it still gets regular use in my rotation. Its unique single-piece all metal design is a joy to hold—until your hands get greasy and it starts to slip and slide around. If you're a vegetarian and like a light, zippy knife, then you might consider the Global. If you butcher meat with any regularity, you'll want to look to the wooden-handled knives.
Classic Western-Style Chef's Knives
If you crave power but desire precision, then a heavy Western-style chef's knife is what you're after. Thicker and more wedge-shaped than either a gyutou or a santoku, Western-style chef's knives have been designed to be extremely versatile in the kitchen.
Sharp tips make them good for precise knife work (though their weight and thickness limits them in this field). Heavy construction and a wide bolster (the grippy ledge at the base of the blade) is designed to make it feel solid and strong enough in your hand to help you power through tough tasks. Chicken bones tremble and whole heads of cabbage have been known to take flight at the mere sight of one.
Thick metal and a full tang add weight to help let the momentum of knife do the work for you when chopping and slicing, while the heavily curved blade allows you to stabilize the blade tip while you rock it back and forth over fresh herbs and reduce them to dust.
The steel in most Western-style knives is softer than that of Japanese-made knives, which makes them easier to sharpen and hone, but requires more frequent maintenance to maintain an edge. A good steel should be used to hone your knife regularly, and it should be sharpened once a year or so, depending on how heavily you use it.
A Western-style chef's knife was the first knife I ever owned and, to be frank, if my cooking hadn't shifted to a more vegetable and fish-focused repertoire, I'd probably still be using the same 10-inch Wüsthof knife I bought before starting my first restaurant job 15 years ago.
Who they're for: This is the knife for the serious home cook who does a lot of heavy-duty prep and needs a single knife that will perform well at everything from mincing herbs to hacking through a chicken carcass. They are heavy and chunky, which means that if you have smaller hands or prefer a lighter knife, you should look elsewhere.
The Best: Wüsthof Classic 8- or 10-Inch
One of the most iconic knives in the Western world, Wüsthof's classic line is known for its durability and nice balance. It has a very strong curve to the blade which makes it easy to perform a rocking motion while chopping onions or mincing herbs. It's thick and stiff all the way to the tip, which lets you use this knife to bone out large poultry.
The composite wood handle is riveted for durability, smooth and comfortable to hold, and ambidextrous. Above the handle you'll find a very larger bolster (that nub of metal at the bottom of the blade), which makes gripping the blade natural and gives you plenty of leverage and control.
If you do lots of heavy-duty work, you'll want to look towards the 10-inch model.
On a Budget: J.A. Henckels International Classic 8-Inch
The J.A. Henckels International Classic 8-Inch Stainless-Steel Chef's Knife is the most inexpensive knife I know that still features fully-forged construction, a full tang, a solid riveted handle, and a lifetime manufacturer's warranty.
Fully forged construction means that, unlike a cheaper knife made from stamped metal, this one has a bolster that's fully integrated into the blade for easier gripping and better control. Its tang is integrated into the blade for higher durability and better balance.
It comes up short against its more expensive counterparts mainly due to design features like a more inexpensive handle material and a chunkier design that makes it a little less of a natural fit, especially for smaller hands.
Santokus are great all-around multitaskers that foster precision and control. With a santoku, rocking-style chopping is not particularly efficient, which means that you'll get used to really dicing those onions and slicing that garlic as opposed to haphazardly chopping.
The relatively straight edge and blocky tip makes these the best chef's knives for precise vegetable cuts and easy butchering of light-duty proteins like fish and chicken.
Modern santokus like the ones featured here do have a slight curve to the blade, which means that when you do find yourself with a handful of parsley to mince, you'll still be able to do it with relative speed.
Who they're for: These are the knives for the kitchen perfectionist. If you want every single piece of onion in your soup to be the exact same shape and size, a santoku will help you get there better than a Western or hybrid-style.
The Best: Misono UX10 Santoku
The Misono UX10 Santoku is the knife I use by far the most often. It's heavier and a little stiffer than other santokus I've used—which means you can do light bone-work like cutting through fish pin bones or chicken ribs—while still being quite light and maneuverable. Like its counterpart gyutou model, it's made of very hard Swedish steel that takes a razor-sharp edge due to its asymmetrical beveling and maintains it for a long time between sharpenings.
From the very first time I held this knife in my hand, felt its warm wood composite under my palm as my fingers wrapped around the form-fitting bolster, I knew this was the one for me. I've used a lot of knives in my time, but this was one of those rare cases where fresh out of the box I took it to an onion, found the tip of the knife already resting against the cutting board, and said to myself, wait, did I really just cut that? Because I didn't even feel it go through.
The one caveat? Sharpening this knife properly is essential, and it requires a bit of practice. If you do decide to buy this knife for yourself or a loved one, make sure you take the time to sharpen it correctly to maintain that awesome cutting edge.
Cheaper But Still Excellent: Wüsthof Classic 7-Inch Hollow-Ground Santoku
A mainstay in my collection for many years, the Wüsthof Classic 7-Inch Hollow-Ground Santoku has a lighter, thinner blade than the Misono with a more recessed bolster, making it a good choice for a small-handed cook who wants precision but doesn't need anything too heavy duty. The granton edge—the shallow divots cut into the blade—help prevent some foods (like thick slices of potato or carrot) from sticking, though honestly, I've never found it to be an essential feature.
One drawback of the granton edge: if you are a heavy knife user and sharpen it regularly, you'll eventually grind the blade down to where the divots start, which doesn't prevent you from getting a good edge, but will make the blade a little less durable.
For Very Light Hands: Mac Superior 6 1/2-inch Santoku
The lightest and most inexpensive of the three knives in this guide, the Mac Superior 6 1/2-inch Santoku is nevertheless a seriously sharp friend in the kitchen. It has a very thin blade that glides through vegetables without a second thought, though its thinness and hardness does make it a bit brittle, which means it shouldn't be used for cutting bones or very heavy, hard vegetables if you want to avoid chipping it.
If you're one of the legions of home cooks who has gotten used to the light weight and thin blade of the stamped-steel Victorinox Fribrox chef's knife, then you might consider this as your first upgrade. It has a similar weight and feel, but superior balance and materials with a sharper edge.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.