Photo from Reviews.com

Back in the ’90s, my parents lived in Boston and one of my favorite expeditions when visiting them was to a Newbury St. housewares store I loved. I no longer remember its name–and it probably isn’t there anymore–but back then they had an astounding array of reconditioned knives. I built my knife collection there and still have many of them, including a chef’s knife.

But back in San Diego at Great News!, a much-loved housewares store that finally did go out of business, I bought what immediately became my favorite, go-to, pack-when-I-evacuate-for-a-fire knife. It’s a Wusthof Dreizack Culinar santoku knife. I didn’t even think I needed a new knife until a friend who worked there put it in my hand. It fit perfectly. I have small hands and this knife made me feel for the first time that I had control.

You can talk about materials, craftsmanship, and price–all of which are important. But ultimately if a knife is going to be an extension of your hand, what makes a perfect chef’s knife is very personal.

“My mother-in-law bought me a Wusthof Ikon Santoku because she liked how it looked,” said personal chef and food blogger Carol Borchardt. ‘I’ve been in love with this knife ever since. It feels great in my hand because of the shape of the handle.”

For personal chef Suzy Dannette Hegglin-Brown, it was important to find a great knife guy and build a relationship with him. Hers, she said, is old school and knows what she likes.

“I like a well-balanced knife. I do not like a heavy knife,” she explained. “So my knife is a cross between a Global and a Henkel. The brand is an F. Dick. It fits my hand well. Not too heavy so I don’t get tired… Not so light that I feel like it’s cheap. It is an extension of my own hand. I love this knife. I have two of them. One for home and one for work.”

Photo from Suzy Dannette Heglin-Brown

San Diego chef Christian Eggert is a knife fanatic. He has been collecting them since he was a kid and said he has about 40. For Eggert, the quality of the steel is his first priority. “It equates to the knife’s ability to hold and edge and be resharpened.” However, he suggested that less experienced cooks should go with a Kyocera ceramic knife.

“They need to be careful with the brittleness of the ceramic as far as impact and cuts that require blade flexibility, but the warranty and inexpensive repair far outweighs the cost of a real knife,” Eggert said. “If you go for steel, though, I would recommend nothing less than a S30V or VG10 steel. These hold a true edge and can take a fair amount of abuse. When they want to get to a top layer steel R2 is world class along side D2 or other steels that add resilience and sharpen ability.”

Christian Eggert’s Mr. Itou knife

Then there’s grip. Linen micarta, Eggert said, is the best. “It gets grippy when wet and wears like iron. Ideally it should just about balance on your pointer finger. I like a little weight in my knife so I use a full tang custom (Mr. Itou). But again, even though they are very light, the Kyoceras are the knife I would recommend to most people for their ease of use, edge holding, and they are very light which reduces fatigue overall.”

Of course, a light knife isn’t for everyone and it can take time to get used to it if you’ve been a longtime user of heavier knives. Personal chef Jim Huff picked up an 8-inch Wusthof classic chef knife at Sur La Table because it felt “right” to him (and he got a nice discount as a student taking a class there). But he’s since picked up a Wusthof Pro Chef’s Knife that is much lighter. “I’m still adjusting to using it at home,” he said. “Up till now I’ve always preferred the heavier knives.”

Almost every quality food magazine invariably has stories dedicated to how to buy a good chef’s knife. Do a Google search and dig in. But you might also want to check out Reviews.com’s recent piece that lays out various features that aren’t subjective. They culled a list of 170 knives to 11 top performers. Then they put the knives through a series of tests–cutting herbs, carrots, butternut squash, and chicken. And they found that, just like the rest of us, the test wasn’t going to work as planned since right out of the factory, they would all perform well. Instead, it would be fairly subjective.

“Were we able to grip it comfortably? Was it too light or too heavy? Did the spine rub awkwardly against our index fingers as we chopped? These are the details that can make or break a cook’s relationship with their kitchen knife.”

But, even given the variety of testers, they were able to narrow the field down to some favorites, based on the user’s experience.

For many of us, of course, some of these choices come down to price. For Carolyn Tipton Wold, she went with what she was used to when she was training to become a personal chef and it wasn’t the most expensive. “I have a set of Wusthof and another well-known brand, but they couldn’t hold their edge when sharpened. Professional sharpeners wouldn’t sharpen them because the steel was too soft. I went back to my training knife and for $25, I haven’t been disappointed!”

Eggert noted that a Kyocera santoku will cost less than $50. Depending on the material, a Mr. Itou santoku will range from $400 to $600. More familiar names, like Kramers, Shuns, Henkels, and the like have a high price based on branding. But, Eggert said, there are far superior knives with a smaller price tag.

Serious Eats has a terrific guide by J. Kenji López-Alt. Here’s his list of things to consider (aside from personal preference). To my mind, these will help get you to personal preference:

  • 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?

Once you hit all your priorities in terms of these four issues as well as price, then it comes down to how it feels in your hand and how it makes you feel about getting the tasks done with it. (And keep that feel-good condition. Don’t neglect sharpening and honing them!)

What chefs knife do you use and how did you come to choosing it?

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