Any professional or home chef can attest to the importance of a sturdy, dependable chef’s knife. Also known as a French knife or a cook’s knife, the chef’s knife is one of the most common cutting tools used in food preparation, particularly in Western kitchens. A good chef’s knife can be used to cut meat, slice vegetables, and chop herbs, among a variety of other uses. But with this versatility comes the inevitable confusion of choosing which knife to buy when shopping through all of the options and variations that the industry has to offer, especially if this is your first big knife investment. But don’t let that scare you away to a land of low-quality “budget” knives. Arming yourself with a bit of knowledge about exactly what a chef’s knife is and how it is used is a quick and easy way to narrow the search.
Although the chef’s knife was originally designed to disjoint and separate large cuts of meat (specifically beef), the modern chef’s knife is intended to be useful for a wide variety of kitchen tasks. The long, gently curved blade gives the chef’s knife a sort of “generic” versatility that allows it to be at least reasonably effective, if not very effective, in most situations. While it may not be quite as well equipped to chop hard foods like a cleaver or offer the precise maneuverability of a pairing knife, the chef’s knife is still typically the go-to tool for all-purpose chopping power in the kitchen. Most standard chef’s knives measure in at about eight inches long, and are usually about 1.5 inches wide at their widest point, offsetting the handle from the knife’s edge for extra leverage and grip. The shape of the chef’s knife allows for it to be used to chop, slice, mince, and even crush ingredients with little need for the user to change his or her grip.
Although chef’s knives are designed to be easy to use and widely applicable, there is still a good bit to know when purchasing a new knife. There are a lot of knives to choose from out there, and the browsing through all of the different options can often be overwhelming, especially if you are not familiar with some of the terms. Here are a few important things to take into consideration when looking for a quality chef’s knife:
One of the main differences to keep in mind when shopping for a chef’s knife is whether the blade has been forged or stamped. Forged blades are created through a long, multi-step process in which the metal is heated to high temperature and then beaten (usually via manual labor) to form the shape of the blade. Once the metal has cooled, the blade is then ground and sharpened. Stamped blades, on the other hand, are cut (by stamping) from a sheet of steel. The stamped blades are then heat treated for added strength before they are ground and sharpened.
The primary difference between stamped and forged blades is that forged blades will typically tend to be stronger. The impacts from the hammer during the forging process create localized compressive forces around each impact site. As the metal is hammered, the internal grain (the “shape” of the material’s molecular structure) of the metal is deformed to follow the general shape of the blade, giving the knife a consistent, continuous grain pattern throughout the metal that is less likely to crack, fracture, or buckle under stress. This results in a blade with higher and more resilient strength characteristics than their stamped counterparts. However, this increased durability does come at a cost—literally. Because forged blades take much longer to make and require constant, skilled physical labor, they tend to be significantly more expensive than stamped blades. Because stamped blades can be mass produced, they are typically more affordable for the average budget. Professional chefs and active home culinarians, however, will likely find the additional strength and increased edge-holding capabilities of a forged blade to be well worth the extra investment.
Chef’s knives are typically made of steel. While other materials like ceramics are sometimes used, the majority of chef’s knives will be comprised of carbon steel, stainless steel, or laminated steel:
One last thing to consider when shopping for your knife is the tang, or the portion of the blade that extends down into the handle. A full tang knife features a tang that extends through the full grip of the handle. Typically, the tang of a full tang knife actually comprises the “backbone” of the handle, with pieces of wood, plastic, or composite affixed to either side of the tang to complete the grip. A partial tang knife, on the other hand, features a shorter tang that does not extend the full length of the handle. The handles of partial tang knives are manufactured separately, and are fitted around the tang of the blade and held in place with adhesives, epoxies, bolts, or screws.
Because full tang knives are effectively made of one continuous piece of metal, they are almost universally stronger than partial tang knives. The additional metal in the handle also helps to balance the weight of the knife making them easier to control, overall. Full tang chef’s knives are also much better suited to applications that require forceful or heavy use, as there is no junction between the blade and the handle to break or loosen as the knife absorbs forces. However, because full tang knives are longer-lasting than partial tang knives, they are usually more expensive. Although they are not as strong, partial tang knives may be a more cost effective solution for heavy duty or corrosive applications (like butcher shops and fish markets) that call for more frequent knife replacement.
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