A chef's knife is a jack of all trades and master of several. It's like the AK47 of the kitchen, there when you absolutely, positively got to chop everything edible in the room, as Samuel L Jackson once more or less said.
Because of the fetishisation of kitchen activities, you may be under the impression that buying a knife is slightly more complex than selecting a new internal organ, and likely to require more maintenance afterwards. However, by choosing the best chef's knife you can do away with the need for a large number of specialist knives, and have something that, with minimal upkeep, stays sharp enough to be useful, forever.
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Basic knife jargon buster
Chef's knife Multi-purpose knife, usually from 16cm to 24cm in length, although you can get much bigger knives that are still described as chef's knives. 20cm is the default length for most cooks, but T3 tends to favour shorter, more nimble, 16-18cm blades.
Cook's knife The exact same thing as a chef's knife.
Gyotu Japanese chef's knife. Due to the more complicated maintenance requirements and cutting techniques involved, I haven't actually included any of these 20cm-30cm, single-edged knives in this list, but it's worth mentioning that the name is Japanese for 'beef sword', which sounds vaguely rude.
Santoku A shortened Japanese chef's knife, about 16-18cm. The name derives from the Japanese for 'three virtues', because it is good at three things: slicing, dicing and mincing. So, in other words, it's a chef's knife. These are great tools and a superb alternative or addition to a Western chef's knife.
Tang The metal bit that runs from the beginning of the blade, down the length of the handle. Better knives usually have a tang that runs the whole length of the handle, riveted in place. This makes the prospect of the blade snapping off its handle much more remote.
Buying and maintaining the best chef's knife
The first thing to look for is weight. If your cooking tends to involve a lot of intricate slicing and dicing and you don't have forearms like Popeye you might want something at the lighter end of the shanking scale. If your diet consists largely of dense root vegetables, you want something heavier – or maybe just get a cleaver or chopper instead.
Actually knowing the weight in grammes of the knife isn't very meaningful, as knives balance in different ways, and chefs use them in varying manners. So, try before you buy. Don't just pick a knife up in John Lewis and wave it around – that'll just upset people. Hold it as you would when using it and do a bit of 'air slicing'.
It seems we say this in a lot of our buying guides but for chef's knives I'd really really recommend buying the most expensive one you can afford, from one of the highly reputable brands below. My personal favourite is Wüsthof, which comes down to the vagaries of weighting and feel, but none of these knives is going to let anyone down. They are all reasonably pricey apart from the Kuhn Rikon mega bargain at #5.
There is, in fact, a different approach to buying knives and it is this: buy a good, cheap one, and expect to chuck it out – or at least relegate it to 'spare' status – within a year or so. That's not a very purist point of view, but it's a perfectly okay way to approach knife buying.
Most knife brands have more than one range, from entry level to 'oh my gosh'. I'd usually recommend sticking to the cheaper ranges of the more expensive brands, but upgrading is always very tempting.
Taking Wüsthof as an example, its Classic range does everything that most cooks will need. However, it is worth stepping up to its pricier Classic Ikon range if you have the money. Is it then worth going up to its Ikon or Epicure range? I'd say for most people, probably not. It is tempting though, isn't it?
Maintenance should be simple. Sharpen briefly pretty much every time you use the knife, using a good pull-through knife sharpener, and you should seldom have any issues. That's particularly true if you use a sharpener made by the same brand as the knife. Just don't pull a Japanese blade through a cheap sharpener designed for western ones, as you may end up crying bitter tears, like seawater.
That's if you are a reasonably normal person. If you require absolute, meticulous, razor sharpness at all times, you may be better off with a steel, whetstone or electrical sharpener.
If your blade starts to look warped or misshapen, you have two choices: consult a professional sharpener if it's an expensive knife, or chuck it out and buy a new one, if it was cheaper. Okay, there are ways you can fix this yourself but for most of us, life's too short to get into trying to mend kinks, nicks and bends in stainless steel.
If you would like a more in-depth guide to knife maintenance, Tog has an excellent one. I really do think most people will look at that – all 18 pages of it – and think, "I had better lightly sharpen my knives regularly, then." Little and often.
If your knife says it's dishwasher proof, you may as well clean it in the dishwasher, despite what your mum will tell you. However, it is really not hard cleaning a knife by hand, so long as you remember not to lop your fingers off. Do this as soon as possible after use, and maybe even wipe dry rather than leaving it on the draining board.
That being said, I have totally mistreated all of these knives, disobeyed all of my own guidelines, failed to sharpen or clean them promptly and regularly, and they all still cut beautifully. Just don't, you know, use them to prune hedges or jab them into your granite worktop.
Speaking of which, wooden chopping boards are the best, but there's usually nothing wrong with decent plastic fibre ones. Please don't use glass boards, though.
The best chef's knives, cook's knives and santoku knives, in order
1. Wusthof Ikon 20cm Chef's Knife 4996/20
Best chef's knife pound for pound
Reasons to buy
Wüsthof is the only German knife brand that actually forges and makes all its knives in Germany. That's not to say that an expensive, Chinese-made knife is going to be any worse, but there is something reassuring about the historic and provincial, vorsprung durch technik of Wüsthof's knives.
This is from one of its pricier ranges and is perfect for any chef who prefers to do just about everything with one knife, rather than having a massive block or drawer full of speciality blades.
It's made from a single piece of chromium-molybdenum-vanadium blade steel (that's 'X50 Cr MoV 15' for the metallurgists amongst you) with the tang running the full length of the beautifully ergonomic handle.
Needing just a little sharpening now and then, its balance, sharpness and hint of heftiness mean it makes short work of just about anything you put under it. More petite chefs may prefer the 16cm version, or you could always get both.
2. Tog Santoku
Best shorter chef's knife
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Roll-forged from 21 layers of high-carbon steel, this is a classic example of a Japanese-style knife, adapted for the Western market. The light weight, excellent balance, and full tang handle, made of attractively finished Kebony Maple wood, make it a real joy to use.
It's not very detectable in the image above but the laser-etched blades also have noticeable streaks of copper running through them. This looks very nice but I am pretty sure its claimed 'antimicrobial' qualities are not something I'd rely on to guarantee food hygiene.
I've used one of these for years and taken, to be honest, very minimal care of it. It still slices like a dream.
3. Zwilling Four Star Chef's Knife
Best heavier chef's knife
Reasons to buy
Before you go any further, Zwilling is currently getting shot of its stocks of the Zwilling Pro Chef's Knife at a quite unbelievable price (£39, down from £109 a year ago). I suggest you go buy two while stocks last.
Now back to the one I'm actually meant to be recommending. This is a Zwilling Four Star II knife, which adds a bit of additional weight to Zwilling JA Henckels' classic blend of easy-to-wield, plastic, full-tang handle and ice-hardened steel shaft.
At a handy 16cm length, the squat shape and extra weight make this a truly formidable knife for dealing with the kind of starchy root vegetables that usually require more brute force, or a cleaver, or jigsaw. The 20cm version is presumably even more scary but this smaller one has proved itself a perfect blend of usability, with additional heft.
4. Global Ni Series chef's knife
Best Global knife for beginners
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Often probably purchased on looks alone, Global knives are nonetheless very competent blades.
From Japan, but with a thicker blade, so as to be more universally appealing than your more hardcore Japanese knives, the Global Ni Series is easy to use and available in John Lewis. You can't much less intimidating than that for those wanting to dip a toe into learning non-Western knife skills.
The marketing literature may claim Globals "remain razor sharp longer" but in my experience they really do benefit from regular sharpening to get the best results. I also hate the handle, but as that happens to be why most people love it, I'm going to accept I'm in a minority on this one.
5. Kuhn Rikon Colori Titanium Chef's Knife
Best cheap chef's knife
Reasons to buy
This is the kind of knife you buy, practically never sharpen, and it never lets you down, so long as you don't expect the kind of pro feel or results of the pricier shivs on show here. Everything Kuhn Rikon makes is on point, and its range of Colori knives is no exception.
This ice-hardened Japanese steel, titanium-coated chef's knife is the line's flagship blade and although it may look a bit Mickey Mouse, it really does give you a level of effortless slicing through meat, herbs and non-root veg that's comparable to a way more expensive knife.
If £20-£25 is too much, I've found that Kuhn Rikon's cheap Colori+ knives, which use a teflon coating to aid smooth cutting, are also excellent. And by that I mean excellent even if you ignore the fact they only cost about 15 quid tops.
6. Wusthof Classic 32cm Chef's Knife 4582/32
Best larger chef's knife
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
And for when sh*t gets really serious… This 32cm monster is good for everything from chopping through huge piles of herbs, to dealing with recalcitrant celeriac to, for all I know, probably decapitating fowl.
It's worth noting that very few people in the universe actually require a 32cm cook's knife, but if you want one, this is the one to buy.
The 'Classic' is Wüsthof's workhorse range, pitched above its more rough and ready Pro line for catering use. If you are looking to assemble a whole arsenal of knives, from santoku to paring knives, fruit knives to Chinese cleavers, Wüsthof Classic should be among your first ports of call, every time.