Nicole and I are going through the process of picking out a new chef’s knife. She’s cooking a lot more, and the knives we have today are just plain frustrating. We’ve got an older Wusthof, which is heavy, thick, and is a soft alloy that doesn’t hold an edge for long. We also picked up a cheap KAI set when we lived out in California a few years back; they’re prone to chipping and also have a steel alloy that isn’t great at holding a sharp edge.
I’ve been appreciative of knives since I was a boy. My dad likes to work with his hands for fun, and one of the earliest skills he taught my brother and I was how to care for knives. I can sharpen small knives without any real fuss and used to sharpen straight razors for fun. I’ve never had nice knives in the kitchen (my mom was afraid of them when dad sharpened them) so I guess I didn’t realize that anything other than knives for sushi were meant to get all that sharp. Out of frustration with the knives we had been using, I picked up a 6” utility knife from Shun a year ago. It’s been a revelation; the steel quality is more than good enough to hold up to frequent use, it stays sharp longer than any other knife we have, and it can be resharpened in minutes instead of hours. If we’re going to get a chef’s knife, it’s going to have to be every bit as good as this knife has been to us.
Shape and Size
Our kitchen isn’t huge, and neither is Nicole. We’re looking for something in the 8” or 210mm range. 8” is a pretty common recommendation for the appropriate length for home chef’s, but you can always go to a place like Willam’s Sonoma to test drive.
I don’t like the classic German chef’s knife shape (a really pronounced curve in the tip portion) so we’ll be looking for a ‘Gyuto,’ a Japanese chef’s knife in the classic French profile. The flatter profile allows for more dexterity at the tip, is easier for me to sharpen, and tends to work better for the way that I prefer to cut. Rather than rolling the knife through the food you’re picking the blade up off the board and sliding down and slightly forward.
Handles are also important, but these depend very much on the methods you like to use. I pinch just above the bolster and Nicole normally holds further down in a classic hammer grip. Finding a handle that works for both of us can be a little tricky.
There are tons of options available for kitchen knives now. Other than profile, this is the single most important choice you can make in a knife. You can pick between carbon or stainless steel, and pick between a variety of alloys for each type.
Stainless is easy to care for in certain ways. It won’t rust easily, doesn’t need to be rinsed and wiped immediately after cutting acidic foods, and won’t stain food. It is harder to sharpen, takes longer to sharpen, and doesn’t hold an edge as long. The best carbon steel is easy to sharpen to a frightening edge and holds that edge well. It has to be maintained at every use or will rust and damage the cutting edge. Over hardened alloys of either type are prone to chipping on the edge, so you want to make sure that the knife you’re looking at is well regarded for chip resistance. Fixing chips is laborious and greatly reduces the life of your knife.
Our nicest knife is a VG-MAX alloy; a Shun proprietary alloy that has excellent edge retention and corrosion resistance. It’s capable of being hardened in a way that minimizes edge chipping and is still easy to sharpen. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’d just buy it for the chef’s knife without a second thought if it weren’t for two problems.
- Handle availability. The only handles available don’t fit Nicole’s cutting style well. One of them also isn’t very ambidextrous, which gives me fits.
- Knife profile. Shun makes two chef’s knives in 8” lengths but they’re both German profiles. There is an available 7” French profile knife, but combined with the less than comfortable handles we’ve written them off.
There is a nice Shun 8” French profile exclusive to William’s Sonoma, but it is made of layered VG-10 and VG-2 steel. These steels sharpen well but are notorious for chipping in the hardness that Shun uses. VG-10 from other manufacturers is not considered to be nearly as delicate, so may be an option.
So what else can we look into for super durable knives other than Shun’s VG-MAX? I’ve looked around pretty carefully to narrow the options down and have the following list:
- Hitachi Blue Steel #2 is hugely well regarded for edge retention and ease of sharpening. It will patina as soon as you look at it and needs regular oiling to avoid true rust. You can sometimes find these as a carbon steel core with stainless on the outside; these are a little easier to maintain and will look good for a long time.
- SG-2 or R2 is a powdered super stainless steel that is pretty rarely used. It gets horrifyingly sharp and holds the edge while being very resistant to chipping. There aren’t a lot of options and it would be quite hard to get other knives in a set to match.
- VG-10 from some knife makers isn’t as hard. This makes it easier to sharpen and less prone to chipping, but it isn’t as great at retaining the edge. It’s still possible that I’ll just pick up the VG-10 knife from William’s Sonoma and resign myself to sharpening often. That’s ok if you’re willing to accept this as a necessity.
- Some knife makers don’t market their specific alloys, but are well regarded for durability. MAC is a great example of a relatively affordable, mass produced knife that you can easily maintain for a long time and would be at home in a pro kitchen or at home.
The Final Selection
Heck, I don’t know. What I do know is that I know more about kitchen knives now than I did before. I’m personally tempted to get two chef’s knives, one that fits the way Nicole works with it and one that meets my needs. I’m also willing to do more simple maintenance (wiping down, oiling, etc,) so I may be willing to use carbon steel for a less frequently used knife. Whatever we do wind up picking, we’ll make sure to keep you updated.