The right chef's knife will be your kitchen workhorse. The best will cut easily through poultry joints and thick-skinned items like squash, yet cleanly and evenly slice and dice more delicate foods like tomatoes and onions without turning them to mush or giving them ragged edges. Experts say you really only need three knives in your kitchen: a chef's knife, a paring knife and a serrated bread knife. See our suggestions for the latter two elsewhere in this report. For those who would like the versatility and handy storage options of a knife set, those, too, are discussed elsewhere in this report.
It was close, very close, among top chef's knives, but for quality, performance and price, you can't beat our Best Reviewed pick, the Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef's Knife (Est. $35). It performs as well or better in professional tests as much pricier chef's knives, but at a price that's less than dinner for one at a nice restaurant. Victorinox has made and supplied knives to the Swiss army since the late 1800's, and, as many reviewers point out, it's a company that knows knives.
The blade of the Victorinox Fibrox is made from rust-resistant, high carbon steel. It's stamped, not forged, which some see as a drawback, but others say it only matters how well the knife performs, not how it's manufactured. This chef's knife is sharpened to 15 degrees, which results in a very thin, very sharp edge. It's reported as easy to keep honed, and to re-sharpen as well. The handle is made of the proprietary "Fibrox," which reviewers describe as a rubbery, grippy texture that is easy to hold securely. The handle shape gets particular praise for comfort, with reviewers saying it just works for almost everyone in spite of its lack of a specific ergonomic design -- a feature that professionals say often backfires on other knives because it limits the fit.
The Victorinox Fibrox gets top marks in professional reviews for sliding through tough-skinned squash and easily butchering chickens with a minimum of effort on the cook's part. On the more delicate side, it evenly slices tomatoes and dices onions without crushing. Quite a few professional chefs weigh in at Amazon.com, saying that this is the knife they use both at home and at work because it performs as well as pricier knives, but they don't have to worry about losing it, leaving it lying around, or beating the heck out of it since it can be so easily and cheaply replaced. Victorinox is dishwasher safe, although most reviewers don't recommend putting knives in the dishwasher as it can affect their performance. A few again point to the low price, saying they like the convenience of tossing it in the dishwasher even if they have to replace it every year.
As we said, picking the best chef's knife was a close call and either of our runners up -- the Mac Knife MTH-80 8-Inch Chef's Knife (Est. $130), or the Global G-2 8inch Chef's Knife (Est. $100) -- would also be a worthy addition to your kitchen -- although both come in at significantly higher price points.
The Mac Knife MTH-80 is the top pick at TheSweethome.com, where, in testing, it performed equally well cutting through thick squashes and chopping -- without crushing -- delicate basil. Owners agree, saying it performs any task beautifully, and maintains its sharpness well. It has a beveled edge and dimples that helps to keep starchy foods from sticking as you slice -- something that can slow down food prep.
There are a couple of downsides to the Mac Knife, though. Some say that, although it's generally comfortable, it's also heavy and gets tiring to use after a while -- especially during long food-prep session. We also read a number of reports of rust or pitting of the blade, even from those who said they were very careful about caring for it properly.
It has been our Best Reviewed chef's knife in the past, and the Global G-2 8-inch Chef's Knife is still a darn good knife, say reviewers. It gets some gripes from users for its smaller, tapered handle, which some -- particularly men -- complain is too small for their hands and hence not comfortable for long cooking sessions. However, in cutting performance, it gets absolute top rankings in professional tests and from owners. Reports say it cuts through carrots and potatoes effortlessly, yet cleanly makes thin slices through tomatoes and onions. The edge retains sharpness very well and for long periods, and it's said to be very easy to hone and sharpen. It's also an absolutely beautiful knife with its one-piece, stainless steel construction.
The Victorinox and the Global knives come with a lifetime warranty; the Mac Knife with a 25-year warranty. Serious cooks love the Victorinox Fibrox, but they also highly recommend it for beginners, calling it a good knife for learning since there's little cash outlay. Try it, they say, and when you hone your knife skills, perhaps you'll want to splurge on one of the others mentioned above.
The santoku knife is a Japanese alternative to the traditional chef's knife, with a shorter, thinner blade and a straighter cutting edge. (The name "santoku" roughly translates to "three uses," meaning that the knife is suitable for cutting meat, vegetables and fish.) The santoku's narrow blade excels at delicate tasks such as thinly slicing vegetables, and beginning cooks might find it easier to control than a larger, heavier chef's knife. In recent years, santoku's have fallen out of favor with experts, who say that a chef's knife is sufficient for most kitchen tasks. However, they're still popular with home cooks.
The Wusthof Classic Santoku Knife (Est. $130) earns nearly perfect ratings from hundreds of users at retail websites and it's a top pick in professional reviews. Although it's made Germany, this knife is closer in shape to a traditional santoku, with a nearly straight blade. Owners love it for fine work, such as chopping smaller items like chilies or fruit. They say it's extremely well-balanced and very versatile. It's particularly popular with vegetarians, who say it excels in finely slicing or evenly chopping any vegetable without dragging or leaving uncut pieces.
We didn't see the OXO Good Grips Professional 6-1/2-Inch Santoku Knife (Est. $20), in any professional roundups, but it's a budget-priced santoku knife that gets very high ratings from users. Owners say they love the slightly smaller size, which makes it easier to use, especially for those who are just developing their knife skills. This OXO santoku knife is reported as well-balanced, and the slightly curved blade makes it easy to perform fine tasks like mincing garlic. It's also plenty sharp, they note, and is just a great value for the price.
Ceramic knives aren't as commonplace in kitchens as metal knives, partly because they have more limited applications. On the plus side, ceramic knives are very lightweight -- one professional housewares tester describes them as "fun" to use. They also stay sharp longer than many steel knives -- which is good because they're not as easy to sharpen as steel knives. In addition to being lighter, they are more brittle than steel knives, which makes them unsuitable for heavy work, like cutting up chickens, or for crushing seeds or garlic (as cooks often do with the side of a chef's knife). If it's dropped, a ceramic knife could break, and you need to be sure to only use a soft cutting board to avoid nicking the blade. However, for people who cut up a lot of fruits or vegetables, ceramic knives excel and are highly praised by reviewers for their performance and for keeping fatigue at bay during long cooking sessions.
The Kyocera Revolution Series 7-Inch Professional Chef's Knife (Est. $55) is one ceramic knife that earns kudos from experts and owners alike for its super sharp blade and easy-to-use design. Testers at ChowHound.com say the Kyocera "does an amazing job of peeling and slicing vegetables." Owners love that it's so lightweight that they can chop and peel veggies for hours without wearing out their wrists. However, for some cooks that's a con, and they prefer the heft of a steel blade, saying the ceramic Kyocera feels too flimsy.
Kyocera ceramic knives stay sharp for a long time, owners say, and Kyocera offers a free, lifetime sharpening program, though a nominal shipping fee does apply. The company does not recommend sharpening ceramic knives at home. We read a few comments from cooking enthusiasts who say they use their Kyocera knives heavily and they stay very sharp for about a year, then they just buy new ones. Kyocera ceramic knives come with a lifetime warranty, and the company gets excellent reviews for customer service.