In the home kitchen – at least in the kitchens of homes I visit – it seems to be the most neglected of tools. Cheap knives, stamped of inferior metal, abound, knives unable to hold an edge even if they were sharpened properly in the first place. Even the good knives too often hide in a drawer, dull and therefore dangerous. Do yourself a favor and get a good chef’s knife. Get one for a kitchen-minded family member. Get one so that visiting friends (like me) have something to cook with.
I tested eleven candidates, a variety having in common a ten-inch (or thereabouts) blade, priced from $70 to $295. Should you prefer an eight-inch blade, you’ll pay a little less.
As to the styles, let’s slice through a potentially confusing path. All of the knives I looked at are considered French Chef styles, with a blade that broadens and curves from tip to heel. Although there are considered to be distinct French and German subsets to blade design, having to do with the taper of the blade, this distinction seems to be eroding, and I’m lumping them into the category of German style in order to contrast with Japanese.
But I still mean French-style Japanese-designed knives, as opposed to the completely different Japanese santoku style. Therefore, in my reckoning, German knives sport a thicker blade and full-length bolster (the thick chunk of metal at the heel of the blade), while the Japanese variety is thinner, keener and bolster-free, often with a D-shaped handle available in right- and left-handed versions.
Knives are either forged from hot metal or stamped from a ribbon of steel. What kind(s) of metal goes into them, how they’re weighted, how they’re sharpened – all of this adds up to a tool that should become almost unnoticeable in your hand.
Knife geography begins at the point, with the first third of blade designated the tip. The thick ridge at the blade’s top is the spine, while the edge is where the sharpness lives. Use the heel, which is the rear third of the blade, to hack through tough (but not too tough) material – chicken bones should be the toughest. The bolster is at the join of handle and blade, typically a thick wedge of metal that runs from spine to edge. A half or open bolster typically only circles the handle. The tang is the section of steel that runs into the handle, which consists of scales (made of wood or plastic or a composite) fastened to the tang with rivets. Some knives also have an end cap.
Bolster and tang provide balance weight, which is one of the reasons you really should try before you buy. But keep in mind that a better knife will allow you to develop better knife skills, which may change your balance preference over time.
The metal at the handle end – bolster and tang – provides crucial balance weight, one of the reasons you really should try before you buy. But keep in mind that a better knife will allow you to develop better knife skills, which may change your balance preference over time.
Handle and steel (and price, of course) are what distinguishes these knives from one another. Handles used to be fairly straight, with a rounded bulge at the end, but more ergonomic thinking has added more curves.
Basic chopping, where the heel does most of the work, calls for you to wrap your fingers around the handle only. When slicing, which is done at the tip, you move your hand forward so that forefinger and thumb grip the blade near the bolster. Look for a handle that encourages such travel, such as the Victorinox and Wüsthof knives described below, and, especially, the Henckels Twin Profection.
All of the knives tested sport full, visible tangs, and the Hammer-Stahl adds a perpendicular layer of tang as well for even more heft.
The Rockwell scale measures steel hardness, with higher numbers indicating a harder material that’s likely to hold its edge longer – but harder steel is also more difficult to sharpen. Japanese knives are harder because of the country’s different culinary requirements, and require a different approach, typically with a series of whetstones. Rockwell numbers, where available, are given below.
Your new knife should be sharp right out of the box. After a certain amount of use, the microscopic saw-edge gets pushed out of alignment, which you can correct by running the blade over a steel, a long, tapered sharpening tool made of steel or ceramic. When honing fails to restore sharpness, you need to apply a new edge, keeping in mind the angle at which the blade originally was sharpened. Be sure to check with the knife manufacturer for recommended sharpening and honing techniques.
|Miyabi 7000 MC|
|Shun DM 0707 Classic Chef’s 10|
|Mac MBK 95|
|Tojiro DP F-809|
|Wüsthof Classic Ikon 10" Cook’s Knife|
|Victorinox Forged 10" Chef's Knife|
The Wüsthof is a full 10" and lighter, at 10.5 oz. As with all the knives in its Classic Ikon series, it sports a gently curving handle with half-bolster and endcap. Weighted for good balance, I can switch between chopping and slicing with ease and like the full ten-inch blade length, offering plenty of area for re-gathering the food as I work through it.
|Henckels Twin Profection 8-inch|
|Henckels 10-inch Professional S|
|Saber 10-inch Chef|
|Forschner Forged 10" Chef's Knife|
|Hammer-Stahl 10-inch chef’s knife|
The Complete Book of Knife Skills by Jeffrey Elliot and James P. DeWan ($35, Robert Rose Inc.), an excellent, well-illustrated course that begins with knife manufacture and goes on to show the different knives and different cutting techniques needed for the more common kitchen tasks. I learned to slice quickly because I had a hot-tempered chef hollering at me, but this was years ago and this book reminded me that I needed some brush-up work. I can’t recommend it enough.