How to buy Chef Knives: The essential buyer’s guide.


If you are not entirely sure what knife to buy or what to look for when purchasing one. This is the best place to help you understand how to separate the good from the bad and give you the knowledge you wish you had a long time ago.

When the time has come to invest in a good knife, you probably would want to get one that suits your needs, but above all, one that is of great value. Buying a knife can be easy for some, but to others, it can take a lot of patience and sometimes even bandaids to find the right partner for the right knife. So, when you plan on investing hundreds of dollars, you first need to know what you are looking for. For example, have you ever asked yourself why there are so many knives in a standard kitchen knife block set? The fact is that it’s a marketing technique to make you believe you need all of them. However, technically speaking (not recommended), it is possible to use the same knife for all the different types of cuts. With some skill (more than a little), you might be able to chop pumpkin and later slice your steak with the same kitchen knife without making it a disaster. Except why would you want to struggle and do a mediocre job if you can cut sharp and precise but with minimal effort? There are only 5 types of knives every kitchen must-have. And in this guide, I will go through everything you need to pay attention to and all the things you need to know before buying a knife. In the end, you might even be able to call yourself a little expert in knife knowledge.

What type of knife should I buy?

The very first knife one should buy is the chef’s knife between 18cm to 21cm or a santoku knife. Both of these knives are all-purpose knives and will do a variety of tasks very well, but each has their weaknesses and strengths, so knowing the difference is important!

The santoku knife will be better for straight chopping. The blade shape of the western chef knife has a stronger curve and is better suited for more of a rocking action.

Single or double bevel blade

A classic German or French Chef knife is ground on both surfaces, customarily under the same edge of approximately 20 to 30 degrees. Not alone is this kind of a kitchen knife suitable for both left-handed and right-handed users, but it also has a satisfactory, not too sensitive edge. Japanese kitchen knives, on the other hand, are ground under a smaller angle, mostly between 12 and 18 degrees, and very often, the middle of the edge is moved lightly to the right or the left (e.g., in proportion 70/30). Even though this kind of a kitchen knife can be much sharper, it fails at the sensitivity to strikes, chipping, or rough use. If the center of the knife is moved to one side, it will make it suitable for right-handed or left-handed users. Traditional Japanese blades are ground solely on one side, along a flat bevel of roughly 12 degrees on one side, and a slightly curved surface on the other side. Thanks to this, it enables a much sharper angle and, consequently, even a much higher sharpness of the knife. It is easier to resharpen the blade, and at the same time, it fits for use by either right-handed users or left-handed.

A long-lasting sharpness.

Cutting through a tomato with eas means that your knife is sharp. 

But if you can manage to do this time and time again, it means you own a very sharp knife. Nearly all knives that are bought today, even those in the shopping mall—should come with that level of sharpness. However, they probably will dull shortly after. Only high-end knives can retain their sharpness for an extended period (if, hopefully, you’re using your knife correctly), or more precisely, can be restored to their initial sharpness for a long time. A blade’s edge quality and its ability to hold it for a long time are only possible if it’s made out of materials that are high quality. But we go into detail further below on the types of metal and their attributes.

What one should consider before buying.

When buying your first quality, kitchen knife, you should focus on only buying one knife. In the beginning, your primary focus should be on how it fits your hand comfortably and how easy it is to use. Once there, you can focus on different knives and buy the rest of the essential purpose-specific kitchen knives later and build a personal set of knives.

But before starting to buy anything, consider the following: 

  • What sort of a knife you require to have (think about the type of dishes you prepare)
  • The size of the kitchen knife you can use comfortably
  • If you wish to have a blade that is entirely made of stainless steel and if you can tolerate some patina
  • If you want to learn how to sharpen a knife yourself
  • How much money are you allowing yourself to spend on a good knife


Full tang vs partial tang.

You probably have heard or read the term “full tang” or “partial tang” somewhere. The tang of the knife is the blade’s unexposed portion that extends down the handle. By sandwiching the tang between both pieces, rivets are used to hold them together“full-tang” simply means that the entirety of the metal from the blade goes through the handle. Full-tang is not that bad, but seldom, knife crafters (especially retailers), try to trick you into believing that a full-tang is the best kind. While, in reality, this is entirely irrelevant, a full-tang knife is just more durable. So, next time you hear someone saying full-tang is the best, you know what to say. Back in the samurai era, swords were not (and still are) not full-tang, even though they were built for heavy-duty usage. So the tang is not really that important, just check the quality and how it feels in your hand, and you’re good.

So should I buy a full-tang or partial-tang?

It really depends on how you cook. You probably want to use a knife that complements your way of cooking. If you feel more comfortable chopping with a lightweight knife, go for a hidden tang, I would say. If you instead want to go for something heavier, a full tang is what you should aim for. A good thing to know, full-tang knives, in general, tend to be significantly cheaper than hidden tang, so an affordable full tang might be a good place to start.

Knowing what quality is.

Quality is the first thing that most of us think about when it comes to buying something. The same can be said for kitchen knives. For someone who has no idea what good quality means, this may be a problem. For example, if you go to a cutlery store and look at knives but have no idea what good quality is, you may ask the seller for some advice, and this seller may try to sell you something expensive, and this knife might not be even worth the price you pay. Or even worse, might try to upsell you something on top of it (like a knife block set). So, to know what good quality means we must dive deeper into details.

You can look at quality by splitting into 3 categories, materials used for manufacturing, how it’s manufactured, and finally, overall feel. Each of these categories has equal importance when it comes to the quality of the knife. If one fails, then it may have a significant decrease in the overall quality.

Materials used for manufacturing.

Carbon steel

Carbon steel is a material that has been used to make Kitchen knives for centuries. Essentially Carbon steel is iron with just a little carbon added in, and this is done, so it makes for a more durable blade that keeps an edge much longer than a typical solid iron blade. Even though these knives are known for being solid, they unfortunately also very prone to rust quickly. However, if adequately seasoned, carbon blades become more resistant to breakdown. Still, an ideal carbon steel knife will last you for a lifetime if properly cared for. Maybe some of you may have noticed, in today’s market, “modern stainless steel cutlery” has taken over. However, carbon steel knives are still loved by chefs who appreciate a dependable kitchen tool.

Advantages: The most significant advantage of Carbon steels’ compared to others is its ability to hold an edge for a much more extended period and price tag. The ease of sharpening and the level of sharpness once can reach with this steel is also noticeable. 

DisadvantagesCarbon steels sensitivity to stains is probably its biggest drawback. Even if you maintain it properly, they still suffer from oxidation and rust, which eventually will lead to patina to develop. It’s not the end of the world, but the blade’s color might change, and not many people like that. Even though I do not see this as a disadvantage, unfortunately, many do.

Stainless steel

As mentioned earlier, the market today has much more stainless steel than anything else, which is also why most standard household knives are made of stainless steel. It all started in the early 20th century when they added chromium to carbon, and thus a much more durable and more resistant to rust stainless steel was developed. Another advantage of this type of steel is that its also much slower to corrode when exposed to acids (which is why it has the name stainless steel). However, it’s important to know that no steel knife is completely invincible – they all wear away when exposed to acids, salts, and moisture or just time. You can easily avoid this by drying your knife after using or washing it (by hand always), but you already knew that, right?

Some things to consider when choosing stainless knives, they don’t keep an edge as well as carbon steel blades, and thus may need more sharpening. Manufacturers are constantly trying to find the ideal metal mixtures, to come up with the perfect balance of strong/sharp/soft/etc.

Advantages: Since we all work with food and juices in the kitchen, rust will eventually occur, and using a stainless steel knife gives you a significant advantage. Rust is by far the biggest problem anyone will have with a knife. However, most of the time, stainless steel is actually winning this fight. This is thanks to the fact that it’s composed of high amounts of carbon.

Disadvantages: Even though it shines when it comes to stain and rust resistance, stainless steel does suffer from a performance. Some types of stainless steel might not have this problem, but in most cases, they are all made from the same materials and composition, so it will be hard to find one with higher quality materials.  

High-Carbon Stainless Steel

You may already have guessed it; high carbon stainless steel is basically stainless steel with a little more carbon added. The high carbon concentration is supposed to make the knife stain-resistant and, at the same time, more capable of holding an edge. How effective this is in practice is still something that needs to be confirmed. Even though high carbon cutlery does hold its edge a little longer than standard stainless steel, it’s really not by that much. At this moment, these knives may be more of a gimmick until proven otherwise.

Advantages: Higher carbon steel truly shines when it comes to its ability to cut and yet remain stain-resistant. Also, its increased strength and edge retention are second to none.

Disadvantages: Because it is so durable, high-carbon steel can be challenging to work with. It doesn’t easily bend or can’t be molded into different shapes, thus limiting its utility in specific applications. Carbon steel is also extra sensitive to rust and corrosion than other types of steel.

Damascus Steel

When it comes to Damascus steel or pattern fused steel, it is more of a process than a type of metal. By layering a few different kinds of steel, artisan knife-makers produce unique patterns in their cutlery. Just check it out, and you’ll see that Damascus knives have lovely looking patterns throughout the metal blade, and you can see these patterns through the whole blade. If you see something called “Damascus-look,” it isn’t probably Damascus; it’s most likely a fake or just superficial pattern on the outside of the metal that looks the same. Producing a real Damascus knife can be super expensive, but they are worth it.

Advantages: Advantages are not many when it comes to Damascus steel. Aside from cosmetics and by forge welding softer steel with harder steel, which gives you some of the edge holdings of the more robust steel and toughness of the softer steel combined in a single blade.

Disadvantages: Its price is probably the most significant disadvantage. They are considered one of the most expensive knives out there.

Ceramic

Clearly different from all of the above, but when one is asked what the best knives are made of, ceramic should most definitely be on the list. In recent years ceramic knives are becoming more popular, and the reason for this is because they have a few advantages. Not only can they keep their edges for a very long time, but they are also super lightweight, and probably one of their best features is the fact that they don’t stain, rust, or react to acids. However, just like any knife, they also have a downside. They shatter and chip faster than most other knives if you don’t care for them properly, and this is something most people dislike about these knives. Imagine, when you’re working in your kitchen for yourself or making something for others, the last you wont to be worrying about is your ceramic knife to shatter into your salade. But there are other big up-side on using a ceramic knife. Cutting through veggies feels like cutting through soft butter, plus there is something really satisfying about a sharp white blade.

Advantages: The biggest advantage of ceramic is its capability to shine in harsh environments. Ceramic blades will not rust, and slicing into acidic foods will not have a damaging effect. Along with its stainless properties, ceramic is robust and lightweight. That means once you have sharpened your blade, you get to keep the razor-sharp edge for a long time.

Disadvantages: Thanks to all of the advances in technology, ceramic blades became more robust and more durable, but at the same time, they are still much more fragile than their steel counterparts. Ceramic blades may keep an edge for much longer, but if (and when) it dulls, sharpening may require professionals.

All of the materials mentioned above have their advantages and disadvantages, and you decide for yourself which suits you best.

Handle Materials

The handle is arguably the second most crucial aspect of a knife. Even if the blade has a very sharp edge, if it fails with the handle, there is no point in using it.
With pocket knives, there are many different types of handles. But, when it comes to kitchen knives, unfortunately, the options are limited. I did my best to find a few popular handle materials commonly used today, which I will share in this article.

Wood handles

Advantages: Wood is a very popular handle material in kitchen knives and is famous for its classic feel and look. Softer material can be very pleasant to hold. Another advantage is the number of types of wood options you can choose from. Wood handles are made with everything from maple to olive wood.

Disadvantages: Despite being the most common handle material, wood does have some downsides. For example, its sensitivity to bacteria is not something to be ignored. It can be especially tricky to completely clean and sterilize the handle, which is why you won’t see wood-handled knives at restaurants that often. Also, they are not as durable as some of the other materials and need extra care, which means hand-washing and treatment with mineral oil.

Examples:

Boker Damascus Olive Wood

Kanetsune Classic Damascus series

Laminated wood handles

Advantages: Instead of wood handles, laminated handles are made from laminated wood composites with synthetic resin. These recent years laminated type became increasingly popular because of their resemblance in appearance and weight to wood but without its issues. These are much easier to clean and take care of.

Disadvantages: The bad side of laminated handle materials are not that many, which is why they are so popular. Nevertheless, some knife enthusiasts may not want to buy it because they’re not actually wood.

Examples:

Boker 130414DAM Damascus Utility Knife

Seki Kanetsune black plywood handle Damascus steel knife

Synthetics handles

Advantages: Synthetic handles are usually the cheapest and can be broken down into several different classes, such as fibrox, polypropylene, plastics, and Santoprene, but here we will lump them together. Synthetic handles, which use human-made materials, are much more comfortable to maintain than wood handles because they don’t absorb any bacteria.

Disadvantages: Synthetic handles are much more brittle and susceptible to cracking when exposed to extreme heat. Exposure to UV rays (not that it would happen that often) may also wear them down significantly. The fact that synthetics are lighter than other materials, they may cause an imbalance in the knife.

Examples:

Victorinox Fibrox Pro Curved Boning Knife

Kanetsune Gyutou 240mm

Stainless steel handles

Advantages: Among all the handles materials, the most sanitary is the stainless steel handle. Cleaning and maintenance is a piece of cake. It’s the best attribute? It’s incredibly durable.

Disadvantages: If the synthetic handles are too light, stainless steel handles have the same type of problem but on the heavy side. Because of it, the handle may change the balance of the knife toward the handle, creating hand fatigue. Some manufacturers have countered the problem with hollow-handled knives. Also, how slippery it can be when wet is another issue. Again, some designers have added bumps or ridges to provide a better grip.

Chicago Cutlery Fullerton

How it’s manufactured.

Blades of kitchen knives can be manufactured in two different ways: they are either stamped or forged. And at the moment, there’s a big debate between the two that completely unnecessary.

Let’s look at Forged first:

When you hear the term “forged,” this means that its made from one single piece of steel. The steel is heat-treated, and hammered/pound into its form. Essentially, what is happening is that the maker puts a piece of steel into a furnace till it’s red hot, then pulls it out and beats it into a knife, and is done manually. The blade is then sharpened and polished into the finished product. However, nowadays, the forged blade starts as a steel blank.

Here are some of the features of a forged blade:

  • They are typically considered higher quality.
  • Heavier construction compared to stamped
  • Thicker blade
  • Generally features bolster
  • Usually more expensive

Examples:

Dexter Outdoors 7″ Forged Duo-Edge Santoku Knife

Mercer Culinary Genesis Forged Boning Knife

Stamped:

Stamped blades are made differently; they are made from large, continuous sheets of stainless steel. A machine (usually via a hydraulic press, and heat-treated) is used to stamps out the shape of a knife. Then the blanks are ground, polished, and sharpened.

These are some of the qualities of a stamped blade:

  • Is typically made without a bolster
  • Thinner blade compared to forged
  • Lighter construction
  • Usually less expensive

Examples:

Ergo Chef Prodigy Series Stamped Santoku Knife

Which is right for me?

The forged blade is hyped up right now, and because of this hype, you might buy into it, and you also probably will conclude that it is the only way to go. However, that’s just not true. A long time ago, when forged blades were the only method to get reliable, high-quality knives, it was a no-brainer. However, today with all the advancements in technology, stamped blades are just as sturdy and well-made as forged blades.

A lot of professional chefs will still go for forged blades principally because of their reputation, but home cooks would have a hard time telling the difference. Basically, you have a higher possibility of getting a quality product when opting for a forged one, but this doesn’t mean that the stamped blade is of lower quality. I would advise, to just go with what appeals to you, and to not worry too much about whether it’s forged or stamped.

Overall feel

The overall feel of the knife is, in my opinion, probably one of the most significant deciding factors. If you have gone through the things you find essential when buying a knife, the last thing to do will be trying it out, feeling it in your hand and have a sense of how it is to work with it. Let’s just say you can try out a knife—how does it feel? Does it feel too light, or maybe too heavy? Would you say the handle feels comfortable? xamMaybe too big or too small? What about balance? You ‘de be surprised at how much effect it will have on your decision. Most people (logically) preferably have a knife that weighs evenly. But, that is not the case for everyone, I know, for example, someone who prefers to have it a little heavier so they can use that weight to cut down the food easier. But you alone can determine what’s the right fit for you. So when you see something cheap or expensive for that matter. Don’t judge it immediately by its price, but go for a feel and try it out. If you do, you will also realize just like me that even sometimes, the high-end knives would sometimes not feel that comfortable in your hands. And that a cheaper one might be more suited. So you should search somewhere in the middle.

A few ways to test:

If possible, try out all the below methods.

  • Mince parsley
  • Slice winter squash
  • Dice an onion
  • Carve a melon
  • Cut carrots into thin strips

Don’t buy too expensive in the beginning.

If you are a young chef or just a home cook who recently started cooking, you shouldn’t waste a lot of money buying a set of kitchen knives, especially in the beginning. Start with the core knives, learn to work with them, and once you reach a level where you feel you can handle things pretty well, you can then invest a little more but still shouldn’t go for the high-end. The reason for this is, it’s not always worth it. If you can maintain your knives properly, you will have the same quality as you would with a high-end.

Knowing which brand to buy.

Outside of the materials used, some knife brands will vary in their design, sharpness, aesthetics, steel, weight, and edge retention. It is essential to know that many knifemakers can produce widely different quality knives using the same ingredient of steel. One person may not like the handle while the other would. Sensing the balance of the knife and using it quickly will probably help you much more than reading all the customer reviews.

Here is a list of well-known brands:

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