When pressed—and believe me reader, I pressed!—none of the knife experts I interviewed would recommend a knife for the title of Best Chef’s Knife in all the land. Each and every one insisted that the best chef’s knife does not exist. “What works for you is not necessarily going to work for someone else,” said Mari Sugai of Korin in New York City. “You don’t have to go with whatever the internet says [editor’s note: I gasped]—chances are, you’ll find something you like that will work for you.”
The knife that is the best for you isn’t the knife that’s necessarily the best for your brother or cousin or next door neighbor. Before you shop, give a bit of thought to what kind of cook you are (rather than the kind of cook you want to be). “The most important thing I can tell people is to be introspective about how you cut,” explained Jon Broida of Japanese Knife Imports in L.A. Ask yourself, are you an aggressive cook who loves to speed through tasks (as in, there’s always a bit of garlic peel in your not-so-finely chopped garlic), or are you meticulous and careful, plucking each and every tiny thyme leaf from even the little stalks? Even if the difference is not that dramatic, think: Do you value speed or precision?
Once you’ve taken a beat to self-reflect, consider the two major categories of knives available in the U.S. and figure out which one best matches your personal style. There is no right answer!
Traditional Western knives
Sometimes simply called German knives, this style of double-bevel knife originated in Western Europe. The blades are thicker than those of Japanese knives, with more of a curved shape to facilitate a rocking motion. Most have the same angle on both sides (i.e. 50:50), which makes them easier to sharpen.
Are they right for you? These are what Broida refers to as “get shit done” knives. Because they’re made of a softer steel than Japanese knives, they’re more durable, so you’ll be able to accomplish nearly any kitchen task, from halving a kabocha to scoring pork belly to cracking open a watermelon.
The caveats: They’re heavier and less sharp than Japanese knives, and, because the steel is softer, they need to be sharpened more often.
Brands to look for: Wüsthof, Henckels, Messermeister, Victorinox
Victorinox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife
Wüsthof Epicure 8″ Cook’s Knife
Japanese-made Western-style knives
Unlike traditional Japanese knives, which are mostly single bevel (only one side will cut), made of carbon steel, and used by professional restaurant chefs, these Western-style knives are double bevel (both sides are angled), made of steel that’s simple to maintain, and versatile. Many have an asymmetrical edge (the edge is at a much steeper angle on one side of the blade, i.e. 60:40 or 70:30), which also contributes to sharpness. Two common shapes in the U.S. are the gyuto (chef’s knife) and the shorter santoku.
Are they right for you? If you value sharpness and precision and often spend hours chopping and slicing, you might gravitate towards a light, sharp Japanese-made knife that keeps its edge for longer. The blades are thin, super sharp, and hard, meaning they hold their edge for longer (so you won’t have to sharpen them as often). They excel at precision slicing.
The caveats: Their hardness also makes them brittle, meaning they’re more prone to chipping or snapping if used improperly.
Well-known brands: Shun, Global, Togiharu, MAC, Tojiro
Tojiro 21-cm (8.2″) DP Gyutou
And the choice between the two isn’t always so, ahem, cut and dry: Some great knives blur the line between the categories—sharp like Japanese, durable like Western. As Joanna Rosenberg of Zwilling told me, the advent of better quality steel, better finish, and better heat treatments means that companies are able to produce sharper knives that are more durable and stay sharp longer. “The good German knives are coming out sharper and the good Japanese knives are coming out with more durability, but they haven’t met in the middle yet.”
The easiest way to decide what you prefer is to take a trip to a store where they’ll let you hold several different knives to see which feels best in your hand. If that’s not possible, order from a site with a generous return policy and a big selection, like KnifeCenter or Cutlery and More. The best chef’s knife might not exist, but the best chef’s knife for you is somewhere out there—you’ve just got to find it.
Here’s what else you need to know: