The best chef's knife – or best cook'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.
The best chef's knives, cook's knives and santoku knives, in order
Okay so the #1 chef's knife here is actually a santoku. They're just better for most people in most situations than a chef's knife. If you're a macho chef, there's plenty of 'proper', European cook's knives further down this list. This is my new go-to knife, although if I have guests and want to show off I will still always reach for the Wüsthof and start chopping up whole rabbits or whatever.
The first thing to say about this knife is the handle is a weird shape and polished like a stone. This frankly made me extremely concerned that it could slip from my hand at any second, potentially killing the aforementioned house guests or stabbing myself in the foot. However I am pleased to say that having used this santoku a lot, I have not accidentally stabbed anyone, and the slim, polished handle is actually very pleasing to hold and use.
For a knife that costs less than £50 this starts off very sharp. Okay, any new knife of any price starts off sharp, but when used in conjunction with Robert Welch's excellent sharpener, this one also stays sharp with minimal effort. At the moment, for the price there's no better chef's knife for day to day use. Easy to clean, too.
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- or Japanese-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 its mid-range 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 well balanced, not too expensive and in my experience keeps its edge a little better than Zwilling's very similar, and equally excellent chef's knives. Everything about it very no-nonsense, with a chunky, grippy handle, enough heft to get the job done and great balance. It's easy to clean, maintain and hone.
More petite chefs may prefer the 16cm version of this. Not sure anyone needs the 23cm one.
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 indeed, although 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. TOG also does the best smaller knife I've tried, the TOG Petty knife. Yes TOG knives are kind of pricey, but they're not that expensive and they are worth it.
• Buy the Gyuto direct from Japana for £280 – use code T320 at checkout to get £20 off
• Or buy the complete Japana Sakai Kyuba knife set – again, use code T320 at checkout to get £20 off
Continuing the Japanese theme, this brand has a very interesting story behind it. Apparently, this gyuto – Japanese for chef's knife, basically – is made by a legendary master knife maker under a pseudonym. For cultural reasons that I don't claim to understand, the blacksmiths there are prepared to make a knife for a Western brand, so long as it doesn't carry their name. That's also why this knife is merely expensive, rather than outrageously costly.
None of that would be terribly important if the knife was no good, but this and its siblings – you can also buy the gyuto as part of a set with a nakiri vegetable knife and a petty knife – are exceptional. Hand made from Japanese Damascus 46-layer stainless steel, with an octagonal maple wood handle, the knife is perfectly balanced and very light – part samurai, part ninja if we're going to get stereotypical, here.
As a result, it's a joy to use, although as chef's knives go it is decidedly on the larger side. In fact – and I admit this is not an opinion likely to curry favour with knife purists – I actually found myself more often using the nakiri from this set as a 'chef's knife', even though it isn't one, strictly speaking. The size and shape of the nakiri, as well as the razor sharpness, make it a superb choice for cutting just about anything.
The IO Shen Oriental Slicer doesn’t look like your average chef’s knife, but that's because it isn't. This cleaver-style blade with its curved cutting edge is ideal for getting through tough root vegetables as well as more delicate work such as rock-chopping herbs. The width of the blade also makes it ideal for scooping up chopped herbs or crushed garlic to add to a pan.
The knife has the heft of European blade with the sharper cutting angle of a Japanese knife, while the manufacturer says that the blade will hold its edge for longer due to its construction, which features a layer of extremely hard Japanese steel, sandwiched between two layers of softer stainless steel. Apparently, the softer layers add a protective shock absorbing element to the blade.
It’s certainly been our experience that the IO Shen requires sharpening much less frequently than a Global. The knife also also has a lifetime manufacturer's guarantee.
If you have the luxury of choosing two chef’s knives, a heavy German style blade such as the Wüsthof or Zwilling paired with a lighter one such as a Global will give you a pairing that will see you well for years. But if you want just one Jack-of-all-trades knife, then the IO Shen Oriental Slicer is a seriously good option.
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 20cm length, this is a truly formidable knife for dealing with the kind of starchy root vegetables that usually require more brute force, or a cleaver. The 16cm version has a more squat shape, but easily enough weight to also be extremely usable. Which you prefer comes down to personal taste.
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.
Kuhn Rikon recently got a massive boost by having the Kitchen Queen herself, Nigella, recommend a leopard skin print version of one of their knives but we have been fans for years before that, probably for the same reason as the Queen.
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.
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.
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.
Update: actually the new #1 knife is something of a bargain, which is partly why it’s the new #1.
There is, however, 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 now and then, 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. You can also use a sharpening steel to hone the blade.
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 whetstone or electrical sharpener. However, I recently read a bit of advice from a chef that has stuck with me: just get a pro to sharpen your main chef's knife (or all your knives) once per year, and other than that, just hone them as you go along.
Similarly, 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. Just take good care of it in the first place, and don't use anything lighter than a Chinese cleaver to cut through or remove bones.
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 hone 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 ideally wipe dry rather than leaving it on the draining board.
Storage should be on a magnetic strip or carefully placed in a drawer lined with a tea towel. Knife blocks are not the most hygienic or space-efficient way of storing knives but if that's what you prefer, that's up to you.
Personally, I have totally mistreated all of these knives, disobeyed all of my own guidelines above, failed to sharpen or clean them promptly and regularly, and they all still cut beautifully. As long as you don't use them to prune hedges or jab them into your granite worktop, they will survive and abide.
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, or I will come around and berate you.
- Now you'll need something to chop. Read our Hello Fresh review…