How To Find The Right Chef's Knife

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The most versatile of knives, the chef's knife, is ultimately the main knife you need. Its tip can be used for precision work, its mid section for general cutting, and its heel for heavy-duty tasks, like opening a can. If you treat your tool with care, spending money on a good chef's knife is a one-time investment. Blades are generally made from carbon steel or stainless steel, or a combination of both, and vary from 6" to 14" long, while 8" is the culinary school standard.

Carbon steel is physically stronger but can rust if not constantly cleaned and dried immediately after being cleaned. You can't leave these knives in the sink and avoid the dishwasher, or you'll end up with a rusty mess. Stainless steel is rust-resistant and can go in the dishwasher but cannot attain as sharp of an edge. Look for a "full tang," meaning the steel runs through the handle. Most brands offer left-handed versions; just ask and you shall receive.

The most important factors when choosing the right chef's knife are style, comfort, and balance.

Chef's knives are divided into two categories: Western style and Western style Japanese (Japanese for short).

Western style brands such as J.A. Henckels (8-inch high carbon stainless steel, $96.50) and Wusthof (Classic 8-inch, $115), are most commonly used in the United States. They are heavier, with thicker blades, which make them less prone to chipping or misshaping if dropped. The blades are shaped with a curved bottom and straighter top, allowing for a rocking motion when cutting. They can keep their edge longer and are less difficult to sharpen than regular kitchen knives. A thicker blade also makes it more difficult to perform delicate tasks.

Western style Japanese brands, such as Shun (8-inch Classic with scallops, $149.95) and Global (8-inch, $120), have become increasingly popular. Their shape has a curved top and flat bottom, allowing more blade-to-cutting board contact. They are lighter, enabling more control to maneuver and perform precision cuts. Unlike Western knives, they have the ability to become razor sharp, but are arduous to sharpen. You might notice that some are scalloped, which help prevent food from sticking to the blade.

The comfort of a knife is in the handle. The key is to have a relaxed and comfortable grip—you will know instantly if it doesn't feel right. Avoid those that feel bulky, or those that cause numbness or shooting pain.

A well-balanced knife means less hand and wrist fatigue. The point of balance should be where the blade meets the handle, meaning the blade and handle weigh the same. Weights of knives differ and are a matter of personal preference. Lighter knives allow for more maneuverability, but are less suited for cutting harder ingredients like winter squashes.

Your knife should be doing the work, not you, so if you're struggling, try a different knife. Many high-end kitchen stores will let you test drive a knife, so don't be shy. It's better to find out you don't like it before you get it home. Hold it in your hand. Chop or pretend like you're chopping a carrot, and test for feel, comfort, and balance. No one knife fits all—and though it may not make you a better cook, it will definitely point you in the right direction.