A chef’s knife is a basic yet essential tool in any cook’s arsenal, but with prices ranging from the ultra-economical to the extravagant, is a more expensive blade worth the cost?
We’ll break things down with the help of a cutlery specialist and a cutlery buyer to determine how to find an affordable knife for the average home cook.
What makes a chef’s knife different from other knives?
There are two major styles of chef’s knives ― German and Japanese ― and they couldn’t be more different.
Built thicker and heavier, German knives are good for heavy-duty work, ideal for tasks like splitting squashes and carving up chicken carcasses. They’re made with steel alloy that’s on the softer side of the Rockwell scale of hardness, an industry standard, (measuring in the low to mid-50s) “enabling these knives to take more edge abuse,” according to cutlery specialist Matt Matsushima.
This means the knife won’t get chipped on harder surfaces. While the blade of a German knife will dull more quickly than a Japanese style knife, it is easier to sharpen. German knives have the fatter blade of the two styles, typically angled at 20 degrees to 25 degrees, meaning these knives also require a bit more force to cut through items. Their rounder belly makes them the optimal shape to rock-chop comfortably.
Fine and thin, Japanese knives are ideal for slicing and dicing more delicate foods, like julienning herbs or slicing fish. Traditionally angled at a much sharper 10 degrees to 16 degrees, these knives are made of harder steel, ranging from the mid-50s to low 60s on the Rockwell scale, and ultimately are less tiring to use, according to Matsushima. The harder steel keeps the blade sharp for a longer period, but sharpening can be a pain when the blade does get dull. The harder and sharper the edge of a blade, the more delicate and brittle it is when sharpening.
Personal habits and preferences to consider
Two other noteworthy details apply to both styles: size and tang.
In the case of chef’s knives, longer doesn’t necessarily mean better. Some blades are 10 inches or longer, which isn’t ideal for most home cooks.
“A large chef’s knife is too much for even many trained cooks. A knife ranging from 5 to 8 inches is easier to handle,” Matsushima cautioned. “For a beginner home cook, we usually recommend starting with a smaller knife that’s 5 1/2 to 6 inches, then progressing up to 8 inches as they feel more comfortable.”
The steel tang is the unsharpened part of the knife’s blade, which typically extends through the handle. Depending on the construction, you can choose either a full, partial or full-composite tang, which affects the weight of the knife. For example, a composite tang will likely be lighter than a full tang knife.
How to tell what style is right for you? Consider how it will be used, whether for heavier tasks like carving into a pumpkin, or to simply chop and prep vegetables. Many specialty cooking and knife stores allow consumers to hold the tool before purchase. A good way to know if a knife is right for you is to hold it for weight and size before committing. Ideally, the knife’s bolster should fit comfortably in your hand and the tool should be weighted to feel light enough to maneuver with ease.
How this all translates into price
“The more human labor and specialty materials used, the more expensive the knife,” said cutlery buyer Nolan Adams. “Layered blades and natural wood handles are labor intensive, which will drive up the price, as will the use of specialty materials like hardwoods, animal horn and petrified wood. High-performing metals are also more expensive, though there’s not a visible indication of that ― you’d have to read the specs.”
This means that while your chef’s knife might lack the bling and flare of a fancy (read, pricey) chef’s knife, finding a high-quality chef’s knife on a budget is possible. Adams noted that more inexpensive knives can be sharpened to the same point as hundred dollar-plus tools, though if made with softer steel they will likely become dull faster. While Japanese knives tend to be on the pricier end, he recommends a few German brands that are reputable and cost-effective, includinkg Victorinox, Wusthof and Zwilling Henckels.
At the end of the day, the style and type of knife you choose is about what’s right for you. “Every cook, including a new cook, needs a chef’s knife. The style is a personal decision,” Matsushima said.
Here are five affordable chef’s knife options for a home cook, all under $155:
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Made with a tapered stainless-steel edge and an ergonomically designed handle, the German-style Victorinox Fibrox Pro Chef’s Knife is ideal for chopping and slicing.
A classic German chef’s knife, the Zwilling Pro Traditional Chef’s Knife has a wide blade and a full tang, ensuring this knife is both balanced and long-lasting.
With an ultra-thin blade and a lightweight body, Mac Knife Chef Series Chef’s Knife is an excellent example of a Japanese-style knife at a budget-friendly price.
The Japanese-style Tojiro Saku FU-808 Gyuto Knife is made of 10 stainless steel layers in the middle and 13 chrome stainless steel layers on the outside for an incredibly durable and tough tool.
Tradition and modernity come together in the Shun Sora Hollow-Edge Santoku, a chef’s knife with a Japanese blade and handle, laser cut for precision and performance.