How to Shop for a Chef's Knife
Consumer Reports offers expert advice on how to choose the best knife for the job
Shopping for a chef’s knife can be daunting. Amazon alone offers more than 8,000 results for that search term, and Walmart stops numbering its offerings once you’ve hit 1,000. And if you include knife sets in that search, suffice to say, your options grow even more bountiful.
Consumer Reports recently tested eight chef’s knives, and we found a few standouts from the group.
We conducted a study with 15 participants, to learn how folks use their knives, but also how they feel about them, and what they’d improve on. The group comprised eight men and seven women ranging in age from 28 to 54, and included users of different skill levels. We also consulted an outside expert, Branden Lewis, associate professor at the college of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Chef Lewis teaches the skilled future graduates of culinary school, as well as total novices, who attend his knife skills courses at the university.
Say No to Knife Sets
Manufacturers of kitchen gear love to bundle stuff you don’t need with must-have items. But you should start with a single 8-inch chef’s knife, and skip the beautiful block of assorted cutlery you’re never going to use.
“I like to tell people that a good chef’s knife will cut about 95 percent of everything you need to cut in a kitchen,” Lewis says. “You’re far better off putting your entire budget into one great chef’s knife as opposed to blowing it on a big, mediocre set of knives.”
That’s a finding backed up by our study, which found that participants used their chef’s knives for everything from mincing and dicing veggies and herbs to dicing tofu and nuts, and even deboning or spatchcocking a chicken.
Then, Get a Great Bread Knife
“The 5 percent of foods you can’t cut with a chef’s knife can be cut with a bread knife,” Lewis says. “Aside from crusty bread, they’re great for pineapples, which have thick skins, or a tomato.”
Bread knives tend to be serrated or scalloped, meaning they have lots of teeth or grooves for carving through, well, bread, without crushing the loaf as you do with a straight-edged chef’s knife. Lewis says that it’s fine to splurge on a bread knife but that it’s not essential. If you’re going to choose a place to spend big, it should be for the chef’s knife, the real workhorse.
Forget the Periodic Table
Lots of knives use rare or premium metals like molybdenum and vanadium in their construction. But if you bombed high school chemistry, fear not. All you need to know is that almost all knives are made from different types of steel. The only term you should consider is “high-carbon stainless steel.”
“This is a blend that’s the sweet spot for most home cooks,” Lewis says. “You get the easy maintenance of stainless steel, which won’t rust, but the benefits of carbon steel, which allows for a sharper edge.”
All but one of our study participants reported sharpening their knives periodically, but the intervals varied from weekly to annually. Generally speaking, knives with more carbon steel will take an edge better, and they’re also easier to sharpen, because stainless steel is harder than carbon steel.
Spend a Lot . . . or Go Cheap
You can buy an 8-inch chef’s knife for as little as $5, or you can spend $100-plus. And there’s a strong case for either. What you typically want to avoid is the middle ground. “I usually tell folks to either spend more than $100 on a good knife, or less than $20, but don’t bother with anything in between,” Lewis says. “You either want something that’s cheap but does the job for a while that you can later toss, or something you can invest in and keep for a lifetime, with a good warranty.”
Cheap knives tend to arrive as sharp as pricey knives, but they’re often made of more stainless steel, which is harder and holds an edge longer. That makes them likely to stay sharp longer, but they’re harder to sharpen, so you may end up replacing them sooner. Pricey knives tend to have lots of carbon steel, which makes them easier to sharpen—exactly what you’d want in a tool you plan to use for decades.
In our tests, the most ergonomic option cost $40, and we found a single knife that did a decent job and cost only $20. All the rest worth recommending cost $100 or more.
Everyone in our study expected a long life from their chef’s knife, ranging from a few years to forever. Our advice? If you want something that’ll last a lifetime, splurge on a premium knife that includes a lifetime warranty, or buy from a company that allows you to mail in the knife for repairs or sharpening. “I chipped the tip of my Shun knife and was able to mail it in for a repair,” Lewis says. “They ground it down and re-formed the edge, and it was good as new.”
Try Knives Before You Buy
One of the biggest conclusions from our recent ergonomics assessment is that folks have different feelings about how a knife feels in their hand. That can affect everything from cramping to pressure points, which is why you need a knife that feels good to you. Skip any options with preformed grooves or specific spots for you to place your fingers or thumb—these rarely provide a comfortable grip.
Instead, shop at a store where you can try a knife before you buy it, or better still, somewhere with a generous return policy, so you can test the knife out in your own kitchen. Expect to do some experimentation before you find one with the perfect fit. “I love a D-shaped handle,” Lewis says, “but that’s not for everyone.” Everything from hand size to grip affects what feels good to any one user. And if you’re looking to avoid a slippery knife, look for options that have a metal handle with divots, or a wooden handle. Synthetic or plastic handles tended to be the most slippery in our tests. And a slippery handle won’t cut it.