All About the Chef’s Knife

Chef knife

The most important unwritten rule in a kitchen is don’t touch a chef’s knives. If you break this rule, you should just look for another job because forgiveness is unlikely. Knives are an integral part of a chef’s job and are often thought of as an extension of their hand. Of all the knives in a chef’s bag, the most frequently used and cherished is the chef’s knife — after all, it is literally called a “chef’s knife.” 

A chef’s knife is a do-it-all tool, from slicing and dicing veggies to butchering meat (and, in only the most dire of circumstances, opening a can). Whether you’re a chef de partie or an executive chef, buying a chef’s knife is a big decision. You’re entering a partnership that’s going to span many years (if you’ve made the right choice!). 

Ultimately, the most important thing about a chef’s knife is that it’s comfortable for you to use for a long period of time. When you’re looking for your first professional chef’s knife, it’s vital that you shop in person. You need to feel the weight and balance of the knife in your hand.

Read this guide before you start shopping to familiarize yourself with the options available.

Length

The “size doesn’t matter” adage is not true for a chef’s knife. The typical range for the length of a chef’s knife is 7 to 12 inches. A longer knife can be better suited to high volume prep work, but it all depends on how it feels in your hand. A 12-inch knife may be perfect for one person and unwieldy for another. And if you’re on a tight budget, consider a knife with a shorter blade.

Shape

There are many styles of chef’s knives, some more multipurpose than others, and which one is the “best” depends on personal preference. Try to give each style a test chop to see which you like best. Click the names below to see examples of each knife style.

  • French — The French chef’s knife looks similar to an acute triangle. The edge of the blade is nearly straight across the bottom but slowly slopes upward at the tip. It’s ideal for using with a “push” technique for your cuts, but it can also accommodate the commonly used rocking motion. It’s a great all-purpose knife.
  • German — This knife looks similar to the French style, but it has a bit of a “belly” to it. Its more drastic curve means it’s ideal for using a rocking technique to slice and dice. Like the French version, this knife can tackle just about any food prep task you throw at it.
  • Santoku — One of the unique features of this Japanese blade is the tip, because it doesn’t really have one. Instead of ending in a point, the end curves downward. The shallow dimples along the blade are another interesting feature of Santoku knives. These reduce friction and help prevent food from sticking to the knife as you work.

As with most Japanese blades, this one is thin and extremely sharp. It’s also light and agile, meaning you can work quickly and with less fatigue; however, this also means it doesn’t work well for cutting hard food. This knife style is designed for cutting in a straight, downward motion, and can’t be used with the rocking technique some chefs prefer. 

  • Gyuto — This Western-style Japanese blade is similar to the German or French chef’s knives. It has more of a pointed tip for piercing and a belly for rocking. The Gyuto is great for a wider variety of tasks than the Santoku. It can tackle anything from dicing an onion to cutting through bones. It’s versatility and heavier blade makes it more expensive than a Santoku.
  • Chinese chef’s knife — Also called a Caidao, this style originated in China, but it’s popular in restaurants across Asia and is making its way to the Western world. This knife is rectangular and looks like a thin cleaver. And though it looks similar to a meat cleaver, a Chinese chef’s knife should never be used as one. It’s designed for cutting a variety of vegetables and boneless meats. Once the food is chopped, the wide blade can be used like a bench scraper to easily transfer the pieces to a pot or bowl.

Carbon or Stainless

There are two main factors to consider when deciding between a carbon steel blade or a stainless steel blade — aesthetics and maintenance.

A knife made of carbon steel will patina or darken over time and can potentially rust. The appearance of a stainless steel blade will not change over time, and it won’t rust. Many people like the aesthetics of a carbon steel blade as it ages.

In terms of maintenance, a stainless steel blade is softer than carbon steel and requires more frequent sharpening. A carbon steel blade will hold a sharp edge for a long time, but it is also more brittle than a stainless steel knife, meaning the edge can chip. Because carbon steel is very hard, these blades are better than stainless steel knives for cutting hard foods.

Forged or Stamped

One of the biggest factors affecting the price is whether the knife is forged or stamped. A forged knife is made from a single sheet of steel that has been heated and shaped. A stamped knife is cut out of a sheet of steel (think cookie cutter) and is then tempered. Forged knives are considered to be longer-lasting and higher quality, meaning they cost more. This doesn’t mean there are no professional chefs using stamped knives — the lower price point makes them more accessible, especially to cooks just starting their careers.

Buyer’s Guide

We’ve rounded up some popular options at a variety of price points for you to consider. But remember — always try out a style in person even if you plan to purchase online.

The prices listed below are for all 7- to 8-inch chef’s knives, though most are available in a range of sizes.

French Chef’s Knife

German Chef’s Knife

Santoku Knife

Gyuto Knife

Chinese Chef’s Knife


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