Published November 1, 2002. From Cook's Illustrated.
We evaluated cutting ability, blade shape and sharpness, weight, and handle comfort to find the best chef's knives.
When purchasing a chef's knife, traditional kitchen wisdom has its dictates: Buy a knife with a forged, not a stamped, blade; buy one that's heavier rather than lighter; and buy one with a bolster, that piece of metal between the handle and the blade that both protects your fingers and provides extra weight for better balance. We wondered if traditional wisdom still holds true.
The weight and balance of a chef's knife is said to depend on how the blade was manufactured. Forging, which involves pounding a relatively thick, red-hot billet of steel into shape under extreme pressure using a forging hammer and die, produces a slightly thicker, heavier blade. A forged knife also has a bolster, the thick piece of metal between the blade and the handle. A bolster adds weight, is said to improve the balance between the blade and handle, and can protect your fingers by separating them from the cutting edge.
Other knives have stamped blades, which began life as thin sheets of steel called ribbons. Blade-shaped blanks are punched out of the ribbon in a huge press, almost like cookies being cut from rolled dough. Manufacturing techniques now allow bolsters to be attached to knives with stamped blades.
So, were the forged knives the hands-down winners? Well, it turned out that impressions of weight and balance are highly subjective. Regardless of whether they were doing heavy chopping or light mincing, some cooks appreciated the maneuverability and quick moves of the lighter knives in the group, which all weigh about 7 or 8 ounces. Other testers, however, preferred the heavier forged and/or bolstered knives, weighing 9 to 10 ounces, noting that the weight of the knife made heavy chopping tasks slightly easier. In the rankings, though, the lighter knives came out slightly ahead. In our tests, then, stamped blades were at no disadvantage to the forged blades. In addition, evidence did not suggest that a bolster necessarily improves balance.
Twenty-five years ago, the basic choice in handle material was wood versus a wood-plastic composite. Now consumers have quite a few more choices. There is stainless steel as well as many kinds of molded plastic handles, including textured, smooth, flat-sided, rounded, straight, curved, and "ergonomic." Most of our test kitchen staff prefers molded plastic handles.
That is not to say that each and every one of the molded handles earned high regard. One in particular was universally disliked for its excessive girth; it was a poor fit in all the testers' hands, be they large, medium, or small. The hard black handle on another swung too far in the other direction. While it was not considered outright uncomfortable by anyone, testers called it "skinny," "shallow," and "small." Simply shaped molded plastic handles, without exaggerated curves, bulges, and long flat planes, were clear winners.
All blades curve gently from the heel to the tip, but the more pronounced that curve, the more easily a knife will rock on a cutting surface. This rocking action is especially useful for fine mincing because it allows you to use the length of the blade. In general, blades that rocked easily drew more positive responses.
First of all, let it be said that all of the knives in our testing did a perfectly good job even after we butchered 30 chickens and cut up the same number of butternut squash. And all but one of our knives had impressively sharp cutting edges fresh from the box. Our testers were divided into two camps: those who prefer a lighter knife (7 to 8 ounces) and those who like the power of the heavier models (9 to 10 ounces). (However, based on prior testing, we don't recommend that you buy a knife that weighs less than 7 ounces—it will be too lightweight for many tasks.) As for forged versus stamped, it simply doesn't matter, nor does the existence of a bolster. And as for the handle, it has to fit your hand much like a glove. Before you buy a chef's knife, pick it up and see how it feels. Most folks preferred a softer, textured plastic handle to either steel or hard plastic but, once again, we discovered testers who were exceptions to the rule.
Editor’s Note: Perhaps the single most used tool in our kitchen, we continuously evaluate different model of chef’s knives. For ease of evaluation, we’ve organized our testings in three separate reviews: Chef’s Knives, Innovative Chef’s Knives, and Inexpensive Chef's Knives. While our winner has remained constant, this approach allows our readers to evaluate any special features that may hold a special interest.