I’ve used a number of chef’s knives over the years and come to appreciate each of them for their unique feel — the heavy-duty Wusthof (my first chef’s knife) is great for cutting squash, whereas I love the Mac for mincing veggies and herbs. But a chef’s knife is an investment. And $150 can feel like a lot for a good knife — let alone for one you might end up disliking. So before hitting “buy” on Amazon or tossing the cheapest knife in the cart on your next outing, it’s important to ask yourself two questions: What does a chef’s knife offer, and what do you need it for in the kitchen?
High-quality chef’s knives offer versatility above all. Unless you spend considerable time deboning fish or peeling pears, you don’t need a special boning knife, paring knife, carving knife, serrated knife or other specialty knives because a chef’s knife should be able to accomplish 95% of your needs. And let’s not even get started on the counter space that’s consumed by a knife set in a giant block.
Since you’re going to be using it a lot, a chef’s knife should be a pleasure to use — properly weighty, but not heavy enough to make using it tiring; well balanced between the handle. As for the blade? Durable, since it gets so much use; and, of course, consistently sharp. There’s nothing worse than a dull knife.
The second question — what you need — is harder to answer. Luckily, I’ve tested some of the most popular chef’s knives on the market, and below are the best chef knife picks for every kind of home cook. We’ll update this list periodically. Grab your cutting board and tomatoes — we’re diving in!
This Japanese-style chef’s knife lies at the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to price, but it rests at the top of most best lists online for a reason: it’s a fantastic product. Not only is it super sharp (it slides through tomatoes without any tearing whatsoever), but its blade is thinner than heavier knives like Wusthof’s, which makes slicing snappier veggies like carrots feel like cutting a ripe banana with a butter knife. No, I’m not exaggerating — this is a super sharp knife.
Mac’s most popular chef knife is perfectly balanced, so you never feel at risk of losing control of the blade. Its belly is also comfortably rounded, which makes the rocking motion while mincing feel natural. The Wusthof was my favorite before I got my hands on the Mac, but after this Japanese-style knife arrived, I found myself turning to it for all my basic needs.
Wusthof’s 8-inch classic chef’s knife is a workhorse in the kitchen. It’s one of the weightiest knives I tested, which helps it slice more delicate foods such as tomatoes as effortlessly as warm butter and cut through more robust foods like butternut squash without exertion. The heavier knife weight helps guide the blade in consistent movements as you use it, but the Wusthof isn’t so heavy that you ever feel controlled by the blade.
The Wusthof was my initial pick for best overall knife until I got my hands on the Mac knife (above), and it still stands up as a top-of-the-line option. The only shortcoming of the Wusthof is the slightly softer steel used for its blade, which makes it not quite so razor-sharp as the Mac.
That said, the Wusthof classic is perfectly balanced between the handle and blade, and it has a heel to protect your fingers, which makes it feel all the safer to wield. One of the best measures of how comfortable a knife feels in your hand is breaking down a chicken — as it requires many types of cuts across skin, meat, fat and cartilage. When I used the Wusthof to break down a bird, it felt as though I’d been using the knife for years. I didn’t make a single errant cut or awkward motion.
This knife is top-to-bottom one of the best available at a reasonable price. It’s versatile and comfortable, and its high-carbon steel forged blade will keep a sharp edge as well as nearly any other knife — Mac and Global excluded — in this price range.
Global’s popular chef’s knife is a Japanese knife style blade, like Mac’s, which means it boasts a scary-sharp edge and a nimble-feeling lightweight body. Global’s design is also unique: the handle and blade are made of a single piece of high-carbon steel, and the handle is filled with sand to weight it. Like the Wusthof and Mac knives, Global’s 8-inch option is well-balanced and meets all your usual mise en place needs.
While the edge isn’t quite as sharp as Mac’s 8-inch blade, this versatile knife will feel great for anyone preferring lighter blades. And if you find it on sale for a cool $80, like I did, then you should absolutely snap up this lightweight kitchen knife.
For $50, J.A. Henckels’ Zwilling Gourmet 8-inch Chef’s knife is a great budget option. It doesn’t have the heel of a heavier-duty knife like the Wusthof or J.A. Henckels Classic, but it’s well-balanced and makes clean cuts on tomatoes and herbs, makes quick work of dicing onions and breaks down a chicken with relative ease.
The Zwilling Gourmet is a stamped blade, rather than a forged one, which means it likely won’t hold its edge as long as the Wusthof. It’s also lighter, which means your hand won’t be guided quite as well through a tomato or similarly delicate food.
All that said, the Zwilling’s cuts were consistently clean, it felt comfortable in my hand, and for $50, I’d be more than happy to add this knife to my kitchen.
Hands-down, the biggest surprise of my testing was the performance of Mercer’s $16 Culinary Millennia 8-inch chef’s knife. It’s not as well made as the Zwilling or Wusthof blades — both of which feature long-lasting full-tang design (the knife’s metal travels all the way from the tip of the blade to the butt of the handle in a single piece). But the handle design is perfect for teaching beginners how to hold and use a chef’s knife, guiding your thumb and index finger to the base of the blade. It’s well-balanced and honestly felt the most like an extension of my arm as I prepped various veggies, fruits and meats in my tests.
The light weight and cheap design mean you don’t get the long life or the full versatility you’d get from a workhorse like the Wusthof, but if you’re wanting a starter chef’s knife to learn for six months while you save for a bigger investment, the Mercer really is a great cook’s knife.
How we tested
Our procedures blended five tests — slicing tomatoes, dicing onions, mincing leafy herbs, chopping carrots and breaking down chickens — each with a 1-to-10 rating, with more general use and observation. I wanted to approach the procedures as the average home cook would, focusing on general use and experience. I also avoided over-emphasizing sharpness, as factory-sharpness doesn’t really tell you much about a blade beyond its first few weeks or months of use.
In fact, you’ll likely want to invest in a knife sharpener to get a sharp edge once you buy a chef’s knife. I wrote aboutin a separate story. We’ve also written about correctly. Taking sharpening seriously is key to a knife blade’s edge retention.
I took into account the type of steel used in the knife’s construction (most are high-carbon steel), the method (whether it was forged or stamped) and the general design (full-tang knives, for instance, last longer than blades attached to a distinct handle).
Beyond its measurable performance with various foods, I approached each knife as a package — experiencing how its weight and balance came together to create an experience that either felt intuitive or awkward.
The rest of the field
Overall, we tested 11 of the most popular chef’s knives for home cooks, including Mac, Global, Victorinox, Kitchenaid, Cuisinart, Homefavor, Farberware, Zwilling, J.A. Henckels, Wusthof and Mercer. Of these knives, three were the clear leaders, most others were solidly designed and only one stood out as really bad.
Mac, Wusthof and Global were my stand-out favorites for quality and performance, and if you’re really serious about adopting a high-quality chef’s knife, any of these three will do the trick. While I gave my assessments above, everyone will have their own slight preferences — the Mac felt best to me, but if I ate more meat and denser veggies, I would probably lean toward Wusthof as the more robust blade.
Mercer, Zwilling and to a lesser degree, offered solid performance and well-balanced products for beginners looking for a bargain (Victorinox gets a lot of love online for its price tag and balance, but it’s more expensive than the $16 Mercer and not quite as well balanced).
‘s and s knives were sturdier than the cheaper competitors, but they didn’t stand out in any single category.
The $50 , which seems like a natural winner given its reasonable price tag and similar design to the more expensive Wusthof classic, really disappointed me. It’s another workhorse of a knife, but its butt is heavier than it should be, so heavy prep gets tiring, and mincing feels awkward.
Finally, ‘s knife was the worst of the bunch: It is so poorly balanced, in fact, that I stopped the chicken test midway through for fear of cutting myself. The handle is extremely light, which leaves the center of balance for the knife an inch or two down the blade. That makes almost every type of prep, from slicing and dicing to mincing and chicken boning, feel awkward at best and dangerous at worst. In short, don’t buy this knife.
A chef’s knife can be your best friend in the kitchen — if you find the right fit. So take your time, figure out exactly what you need from your chef’s knife, and make an investment. You could keep buying those generic $10 knives from the store every time your knife gets dull, but if you’re really serious about upping your kitchen game, a high-quality chef’s knife is one of the best investments you can make.
More kitchen coverage at CNET