The Difference Between Chef’s Knives
Check out a selection of the knives here:
I’m Will Griffin I’m a knifemaker and the knife is the most important tool that a chef uses. A chef’s knife is the most versatile knife in the kitchen if you have to buy one knife make it a chef’s knife. First, let’s talk about steel this knife here is Japanese made in a western-style you can see it has a lot of similarities to the Wusthof here which is German made. The big difference between these two is that this knife is made of carbon steel a high carbon steel not stainless steel this knife will react with the environment so it will patina and darken over time and potentially rust as well. The patina on this steel right here is from six or seven years of use in a professional kitchen whereas the stainless steel knife won’t patina or rust over time in most normal circumstances. The reason you might choose a carbon steel knife carbon steel is easier to resharpen and many people myself included prefer the aesthetics of a knife that adapts to its environment over time.
The next thing to talk about is the hardness of the steel you can control the hardness of the steel based on how you heat treat the steel as part of the knife making process. Here’s the Japanese made knife with a very high level of hardness in the steel the benefits of it are that it maintains its edge for a long so you don’t need to sharpen the edge as frequently. The downside of that is the edge is more brittle. I have an example of a very hard knife here that I dropped on my kitchen floor and the tip just broke right off. The Wusthof is a good example of a knife that’s a little bit softer. There’s pros and cons of that as well so the softer knives won’t retain an edge as long but the edge won’t chip as easily and the whole knife, in general, will be more resistant to shock and abuse if you were to drop it on your kitchen floor the tip would kind of bend over and you could probably bend it back straight.
The next thing to talk about is the blade shape so this type of profile or blade shape it’s very flat along the edge. It’s really well designed for slicing and for cutting things on a cutting board this way. The German-style profile with a very rounded belly is much more designed to cut this way on the cutting board so it’s a rock along that curved belly if we’re now just talking about European style blade shapes you’ve got the German guy here and then here is this French chef’s knife and you can see the difference in these profiles. The French chef’s knife is a little bit more similar to the Japanese one and that it’s pretty flat and tends to be a little bit more narrow. It’s still rounded here so it can still do that but the fact that it’s so straight on the back says to me that it’s designed also for a lot of slicing and sort of push cutting techniques as well.
Next, let’s talk about blade thickness. Here’s an example of a Japanese made knife that’s very thin. The thinner a knife is the better it is for most cutting tasks the only downside of a thin knife is that it can be more delicate when you start to talk about more robust foods anything where I might run into a bone or something you know this knife isn’t the knife for that job one element of the thinness is that it doesn’t have a lot of weight behind it that can be a pro or a con. It’s nice to have something that’s light if your chopping all day but also sometimes you feel like a little bit more weight can help you get through things and then the other example is the Wusthof here much thicker in cross-section thicker at the spine but also thicker down at the edge as well. The thicker knife is just going to do better in situations where there’s more stress but on the blade, one isn’t necessarily better than the other but I will say in general if you can cook in a delicate way then you should choose the thinnest knife that works for you because the thinner the knife the better it’s going to move through the food.
Let’s talk about double bevel versus single bevel knives. This is a Japanese made single bevel knife. The bevel refers to the part of the knife that’s ground on a grinder down to the cutting edge and you can see there’s a line that’s the transition between the bevel and the upper part of the knife. So this has a bevel on the right-hand side but it does not have a bevel on the backside. Essentially it’s flat although it’s actually concave. There are a lot of benefits of knives like this they cut extremely well these knives are ideal for cutting raw fish that’s why sushi chefs used those sashimi knives. There’s nothing like those in the world but there are a number of downsides with these types of knives the edges tend to be very very delicate because of how thin they are and it requires some learning and some experience to know how to sharpen this kind of knives because it’s a completely different sharpening technique than your double bevel. Another tricky part of these single bevel knives is that when you cut the cut tends to want to wander away from the bevel the nice just want to pull over to the left a little bit you can adapt to it and sort of adjusting your technique and you can do it but a double bevel knife will cut straight down. There’s a small bevel here and a small one here and it’s ground equally on both sides. The benefit of that is a little bit more meat right at the edge of the knife so it’s a little bit more robust they’re also easier to sharpen. Another feature of these single bevel knives is that there’s a handedness to them so this is a right-handed knife the handle is shaped to accommodate for right-handed grip and that the blade is actually a right-handed blade as well. So the bevel is on the right-hand side and the hollow is on the left-hand side so it’s designed for a right-handed person to cut this way. A left-handed knife would have the bevel on the left and the hollow over here and the person would cut this way if you’re left-handed be careful before you buy one of these.
Let’s talk about blade length 240 millimeter or let’s say nine inches up to around ten inches is a very common size for professional cooks a larger knife can be good for processing a lot of ingredients quickly you can line up more stuff on your cutting board and kind of get through it quicker. A larger knife has some downsides they tend to be heavier because there’s just more steel there they can also just be overkill if you have a small space. If you use a small cutting board I would say the most common size of chef’s knife out there has probably around an eight-inch chef’s knife. This is the 8 inch Wusthof here’s another 8-inch knife the Japanese-made knife that’s a great all-around size for most things and many people in restaurants use this size as well but I also think there’s something to be said for a knife that’s smaller than eight inches. Here’s the Wusthof six-inch chef’s knife and I think this is a great size for people who have limited space. You feel like you have more control over a knife this size especially like out towards the tip of the knife. I feel like I have more pinpoint control over that area than when I’m holding a knife like this and the tip is just so far away from where I’m holding it. So if you’re doing mincing shallots doing finer work a small knife is great and this is also big enough to chop carrots do whatever. So if you don’t do hours upon hours of prep work at home the savings that come along with a smaller knife might be something to think about.
Moving onto handles first we’re going to talk about the Tang design so here’s a Japanese maid chef knife features a hidden Tang style construction in the handle it means that the steel of the blade extends part of the way into the handle and then is usually glued in there and then there’s a handle material that’s shaped on top of that. Here’s an example of a hidden Tang knife with no handle on it so it gives you a good sense of what’s going on inside the handle of a hidden Tang knife and then if you compare the hidden Tang to the full tang knife here’s the Wusthof again the steel extends all the way through the handle and then there’s just two flat handle scales that are glued and riveted on to that steel so there is a lot more mass and material back here in the handle and that tends to move the weight of the knife back towards the handle. One difference to maybe think about is the hidden Tang knife design is a little bit less suited to very heavy applications I would say it’s not meant to be really hammered into the cutting board a full tang design is much more robust in that area. You could be a little rougher on the knife and not worry about the handle coming apart with the Tang for most cooking applications. I wouldn’t say there’s a big difference in quality or strength between these two types of handle designs. Knifemakers use a lot of different materials for their handles again it’s a matter of preference this particular knife is a Victorinox. Their handles are made of this fibrox material a very foodservice kind of oriented knife it’s easy to wash it’s certified to not harbor bacteria and things like that which is important in sort of institutional kitchens. So the material needs to suit the environment that it’s being used in there’s also the Wusthof they use step black plastic material it’s a man-made material that’s basically indestructible very easy to maintain it doesn’t warp or change and dimension a great material for ease of maintenance. I would say here’s a handle that’s very similar in design to the Wusthof this is the vintage French chef’s knife and this is when they were still using wood on their handles so that requires a little bit more maintenance than the man-made material a wood handle might be appropriate for somebody who appreciates the beauty of the natural material and the uniqueness of it as well. No two pieces of wood are exactly alike so there’s some element of nature finding its way into the knife which I appreciate. There are a really wide variety of handle shapes out there the most important thing when it comes to choosing the shape of the handle of your knife is putting it in your hand and seeing how it feels. One thing that’s characteristic of these is this flared out end of the handle here that tends to hold your hand in place and then it’s got a little swell here that kind of fits your palm if you look at the French version you can see how there are similarities about little differences they both have the swell here at the end but this one’s just a little more narrow a little straighter you can even bring in a western-style chef’s knife but made in Japan they’ve adopted a similar handle profile. Just with a little bit more angular I would say but it has that same swell there so that’s a common feature and then you can go to something like this is a Chroma chef’s knife and they’ve designed sort of an interesting thing here where the handle and this blade is one integral piece of steel. A knife like this I would certainly want to hold on to before I bought one just to make sure that that feels calm to me in cooking there are two main ways you hold a chef’s knife you hold it this way for doing heavy-duty chopping and then you hold it this way with your fingers up pinching the blade and that’s for more fine work.
So this leads us into a discussion about the balance of a chef’s knife I would say balance is very much a matter of personal preference and when we talk about balance generally we mean where does the knife balance from this end to this end if a knife is more blade heavy it tends to balance out here if a knife is more pandal heavy it tends to balance somewhere along with the handle. This knife is very blade heavy some people prefer a more handle heavy knife some people prefer a more blade heavy knife a knife that balances in the front of your hand where that first finger kind of tends to be a knife that feels balanced if the balance point were to be way out here and I’m holding the knife here that’s gonna be a knife that feels very top-heavy if the balance is way back here it’s gonna feel like it takes a lot of extra work to get it to go this way so in general, you want to look for a balance close to where you’re holding it with this first finger and both of these knives are close to that this. One happens to be a little bit in front of it this one happens to be a little bit behind where that first finger is but they’re still generally balanced in that way. Another part of the handle to consider is the bolster if you look at this list off you can see that this knife has a bolster the bolster is this steel that’s around the heel of the blade that sort of transitions into the handle here if you take a look at one of the knives I made there’s no bolster here. So it’s just the blade steel that’s the difference now it’s sort of a safety feature the bolster it prevents your finger from slipping up here and getting nicked on the very heel of the blade that seems to be the main function of what the bolster is there to do but that also comes with a very serious drawback it becomes very very difficult to sharpen. This blade all the way down to the very corner no bolster you can get your fingers closer into where the blade is whereas in this knife there’s no sharp edge in the corner. I can’t use that for anything whereas this might I use this sharp corner to do things those are the main differences so as we’ve seen there’s a lot of variety in the materials and design and construction of chef knives so when it comes to picking one it’s important to find a knife that you connect with because you’re gonna be the one using it and the more you like using it the more you’re going to be in the kitchen and the more fun you’re going to have.