This post is such an easy dunk, with a big ol’ list of “affiliate links” to expensive-ass knives. Spoiler: the super expensive one happens to be the best one! Good news, though: there’s a best budget knife, too, so you can go ahead and buy that one. After all, when you’re selling, you don’t want the mark’s options to be “buy something or don’t”—you want it to be “buy something or buy something.”
Gross. Gross gross gross.
Listen, if you’ve been reading this thing for a while, you can probably guess where I’m gonna land on this:
Stage 1. serrated steak knife, wooden handle Stage 2. one decent santoku knife Stage 3. 92-piece Wusthof set Stage 4. $400 Japanese sushi knives Stage 5. one knife, whatever’s comfortable, surgically sharp@fanelli
Whatever knife you like is the best chef’s knife, full stop.
I’m not gonna try to sell you any “fancy” 1,200%-off-in-a-Facebook-ad sushi knives, here. There are gonna be a couple links in this post, sure, none of ’em promoted, none of ’em “affiliate” links. We’re not gonna engage with brands, here. What I am gonna do is talk about some of the things I look for in a knife, in case it resonates with any of you out there that happen to be shopping around.
“Strictly decorative” at best, “sort of in my way” at worst.
The usual decision here is between a wa-style handle (“Eastern”) and yo-style handle (“Western”). Western-style handles—your Wüsthofs and such—tend to have more squared handles, while Eastern style handles are either oval or octagonal. I like a wa-style handle, strictly because my Shun Classic was the first “fancy” knife I owned, and the one I logged the most hours with. It has a straight D-shaped handle, which would be very comfortable in the hand if I ever really touched it.
Like most western cooks, I use a “pinch grip”—holding the back of the blade, mostly with my thumb and forefinger. That’s why things like FINI Cutlery’s stubby-handled knife exist; the handle is just kind of dangling there with a pinch grip. Other than balancing the weight of the knife out, you don’t really need one.
As you can imagine, this has really led to my having only one hard-and-fast criterion for a knife handle: “made of, like, very nice wood.”
Steel is iron and carbon, fundamentally, with guest appearances from silicon, manganese, vanadium, nickel, molybdenum, and chromium.
There is an incredible amount of nonsense wrapped up in the topic of knife steel, I assume because it involves a lot of science, and marketers have a knack for fitting in a bunch of expensive nonsense between science-style words.
Iron and carbon.
Carbon steel will take a razor-sharp edge with relative ease. For me, that’s most of the decision made. Owing to a lifetime of woodworking, I don’t mind fussing over my tools a little—keeping them sharp, clean, and dry.
There are downsides, though, for sure. If you let a carbon steel knife rattle around in a drawer or leave it kicking around next to the sink, it’s gonna fall apart on you. It’ll tarnish, rust, and pit. It’s also, well, it’s mostly iron: it’s reactive in the same way cast-iron cookware is reactive. If you use it to cut acidic foods, you can discolor both the foods and the blade itself—the latter of which, I don’t mind saying, looks pretty cool. The former, not so much. I’ve had some super reactive carbon steel knives I couldn’t stand—effortlessly gliding through an onion, sure, while also turning the cut face of said onion a sickly grey.
If you add a pinch of manganese to carbon steel and quench it in oil, you have an O- series steel (O1 is the most common, at least in woodworking circles). It’s relatively soft, easy to sharpen, and generally able to take a sharper edge, at the expense of being too soft to hold that edge for long.
Add a little chromium and molybdenum and you can air-cool it after heat treating, instead. Then you have A- series steel, with A2 being most common. This steel is much harder, and thus able to hold an edge for longer—and the addition of Chromium means it tarnishes less. The downside is that the chromium will combine with some of the carbon during heat treatment, giving you chromium carbides—big dumb particles dispersed throughout the otherwise uniform steel. Chromium carbide is harder than the steel around it, meaning microscopic spots along the edge of your knife that won’t take an edge as readily—and because they’re sort of suspended, rather than fully integrated with the surrounding metal, they can break off or fall out, leaving gaps in the edge. A2 steel is harder, and will hold an edge for a long time, but tougher to sharpen, and way, way tougher to get as sharp as O- series steel.
If you bumped the amount of chromium up to ten- or twelve-ish percent, you have stainless steel (or “inox,” for “inoxidizable steel”). It resists corrosion, staining, and rust. You can probably guess the deal here: A2 is harder to sharpen and holds an edge longer than O2, thanks to the addition of chromium. Add more chromium, you get steel that sucks real bad to sharpen, comparitively, but will then hold that sorta-crummy edge for ages. Likewise, it doesn’t tarnish—like, you can leave a stainless knife, damp, on the side of your sink overnight without doing any real damage to it (but please don’t).
I have a couple of stainless knives; my Shun is stainless, and I still use it all the time. They work fine! Not great, but fine. A good go-to knife.
“Damascus steel” isn’t a type of steel. It is a good way of making two cheap steels look expensive. It just means they took two types of steel—usually high carbon and stainless—forged them together, and dunked the blade in an acid. The carbon steel will tarnish while the stainless will not, and thus a cool two-tone pattern forms. It looks rad as hell. It is also just a mostly-stainless steel knife.
There’s a non-zero chance of finding a good Damascus steel knife, but you ain’t gonna find it at Bed Bath & Beyond.
Any Steel Named After A Place, Newly Invented, Patented, Steeped in Deeply Offensive Orientalism, Etc.
Probably cheap stainless.
But This One is Made Out of Metal From Space!
Every kitchen knife is made of metal from space.
But The Facebook Ad Sai—
Definitely cheap stainless.
So, What’s the Best Knife?
I already told you: mine. It’s a Takayuki AS Bunka, 200mm blade. It’s small, light, and razor-sharp. I got small hands, and a bigass Final-Fantasy-sword knife might look cool (for a very specific value of “cool”), but probably wouldn’t be super comfortable for me. The cutting edge is flatter, like the Shun I got so used to, versus the rounder edge like you might find on a Wüsthof.
The core is made out of “Aogami Super Steel,” which—yes—should set off your newly-formed “Kickstarter scam metal” alarm, but here’s the composition: high carbon with a soupçon of chromium. Easy enough to sharpen, takes a relatively durable edge, and doesn’t tarnish much.
What I like about this one is that it has stainless steel cladding—a tarnish- and rust-proof wrapper around the fussier metal core. All the benefits of a high carbon cutting edge, with some of the maintenance benefits of stainless—I couldn’t leave it sitting in the sink overnight or anything, but I wasn’t gonna do that anyway. The hammered finish allegedly keeps food from sticking to the blade, and I guess it might do that, but definitely not to an extent where I have ever noticed it. It just looks cool.
A handle also is present! It looks nice enough; I don’t mind it. I will, at some point, replace it with one of my own. Thinking maple burl, ebony at both ends, copper accents, maybe D-shaped like my Shun was. I mean… I haven’t thought it through much or anythi—
JUST TELL ME WHICH STUPID CHOPPY BOI TO BUY
Listen, fine: for your first doesn’t-come-in-a-set-with-steak-knives chef’s knife, you could do worse than a Shun Classic—you can get them anywhere, they cost like a buck-fifty, and mine has been going strong for almost half my time on this dumb Earth. But still, know I’m only saying that because that’s the knife I got my preferences from. Find something that works for you and put in the hours with it, and lo and behold, you’ll have your very own list of knife criteria that the “best” chef’s knife will just happen to fit.
Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling something.