After 75 hours of research, talking with four experts, and testing 13 chef’s knives in our own kitchen, we think the MAC MTH-80 8-inch Chef’s Knife with Dimples ($145) is the best for most home cooks. This Japanese-made stamped knife was, hands down, the sharpest, most durable, and most comfortable model we tested. Its razor-sharp blade diced onions, turned bulk carrots into classic French cuts, and sliced through tough butternut squash better than any other knife we tried. It even cut through delicate basil without causing the edges to brown—something none of the German knives could equal. Its durable high-carbon blade will also stay sharp longer than almost any other knife blade we found at this price range. At $145, it’s not cheap. But we think its combination of performance, durability, and comfort make it an investment that could last a lifetime. From that perspective, it’s a bargain.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $145.
When we originally reviewed knives in 2012, we didn’t include hands-on testing. For this update we wanted to see what a variety of testers of different skill levels preferred. Selecting a chef’s knife has a lot to do with personal preference. Ideally, you’d try a number of knives to see how they feel in your hand. But after more than 15 hours of testing with fellow Sweethome writers and editors in our New York City office and in-depth interviews with knife experts, we’re confident that the MAC MTH-80 is one of the most universally appealing knives out there and will make chopping tasks for most people much easier.
If our main pick sells out, we’d get the Tojiro DP ($60). Its extremely sharp blade—similar to the MAC’s in shape and steel composition—is relatively easy to maintain and the knife is better-balanced than many models we tried. It also comes at one of the best prices we’ve found for a Western-style Japanese knife. But testers with larger hands found there wasn’t enough knuckle clearance between the Tojiro’s handle and the cutting board. Its blade is also less durable than the MAC’s; the edge may develop small nicks from cutting hard vegetables such as butternut squash or raw beets. Although we think the Tojiro is a great knife, it needs a little more upkeep than the MAC MTH-80.
If you are accustomed to the feel of a heavier German knife, the Wüsthof Classic Ikon 8-Inch Cook’s Knife ($145) is sharp, sturdy, and fits our criteria for a good knife. Compared to the other forged German knives in our testing sample, the Ikon’s thinner blade made for smoother cuts through butternut squash and carrots. It was also more agile at peeling the skin from a butternut squash due to its thinner blade. The Wüsthof Classic Ikon’s blade is made of softer steel than the MAC MTH-80, which means it will dull faster. It’s also heavier than the MAC MTH-80, weighing 9 ounces—2.5 ounces more than the MAC.
If you’re simply looking for something cheap, durable, and crazy sharp, we like the Wüsthof Pro ($25). Just like our top pick and runner-up, it has a stamped blade, but the slicing action isn’t as smooth. It has a big, cushy handle that’s best for large hands, but also pretty comfortable for smaller hands. The position of the handle can make it difficult to get a proper pinch grip on the blade, forcing you to adjust your grip completely on the handle. Overall, though, it was the most well-liked by testers of the five budget knives we tried.
I have an extensive culinary background that spans almost 18 years. I’ve cooked in the kitchens of brewpubs, small cafes, and fine dining restaurants. I also did some catering, which gave me opportunities to work behind the scenes at really cool parties like Elton John’s 60th birthday gala. I’ve sliced and diced thousands of pounds of onions, carrots, and celery. I also spent 6 years in a test kitchen, developing recipes for food stories that appeared in magazines including Martha Stewart Living and Everyday Food and contributed to the cookbooks Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, Dinner at Home, Everyday Food: Fresh Flavor Fast, and Martha Stewart’s Entertaining.
For this guide, I consulted Brendan McDermott, chef instructor of knife skills at Kendall College in Chicago; Murray Carter, a knife craftsman who has completed more than 19,000 knives and calls himself a “17th generation Yoshimoto Bladesmith;” Howard Nourieli, owner of Bowery Kitchen Supplies in New York City; and Wendy Yang, Showroom Manager at Korin, a Japanese knife shop in New York City. I read Chad Ward’s An Edge in the Kitchen cover to cover and looked at reputable editorial sources including America’s Test Kitchen, Good Housekeeping, Consumer Reports, and Cooking for Engineers. Since this is an update, I also took our original writer and Sweethome associate editor Michael Zhao’s research into consideration.
If you’re currently using a dull hand-me-down chef’s knife, or your subpar knife set isn’t cutting it anymore, it’s probably time for an upgrade. Likewise, if your once-nice knife has been used and abused and never sharpened, or sharpened improperly, and you find it doesn’t seem to hold its edge (even after sharpening), it’s time for a new one. And if you’ve only ever used a stainless steel knife you may want a model—like our main and runner-up picks—made of high-carbon steel that will stay sharp longer.
Generally, you’ll find chef’s knives in two styles:
A chef’s knife can tackle 80 to 90 percent of cutting tasks, such as breaking down vegetables, chopping herbs and lettuces, and slicing onions and scallions. It should handle simple meat cuts, like cubing beef for stew or slicing chicken into strips for a stir fry. (It is not, however, the best knife for breaking down a chicken—you’ll want a boning knife for that.)
To do all of this, the knife has to be sharp. It should be able to slice through paper straight out of the box. As long as you hone the blade and maintain thoughtful upkeep, it should remain sharp through moderate use for 6 to 12 months before you need to sharpen it. (For more on the difference between honing and sharpening, see Care and maintenance.) Dull knives are not only frustrating to use, they’re dangerous. People try to compensate for a dull blade by applying more pressure, which can cause the knife to slip off the food and nick a hand (or worse).
The best knives have handles that fit comfortably in the hand. This depends on the size and shape of your hand and the way you grip your knife. After you feel out the size and shape of the handle, look for knuckle clearance. There’s nothing quite as annoying as banging your knuckles on the board while chopping.
Knife balance means different things to different people. The blade, handle, and sometimes a bolster (a metal cuff at the base of the blade) all contribute to a knife’s weight distribution. Some people want a blade-heavy knife, while others think the blade and the handle should be the same weight. A half-bolster or bolsterless knife will be more blade-heavy, whereas a full bolster throws more weight in the handle.
Bolsters aren’t for everyone. These metal cuffs can help balance knives with a heavy blade—such as the Wüsthof Ikon—where you want more weight in the handle. A full bolster extends to the heel of the blade, while a half bolster doesn’t. For lighter knives like gyutos, a bolster isn’t necessary. Chad Ward said, “I happen to like my knives blade-heavy, so a bolstered knife that shifts too much weight behind my fingers feels awkward and out of control. It’s all a matter of feel and preference.” Full bolsters, in particular, can even make sharpening more difficult, because eventually you’ll need to grind down the bolster to sharpen the blade.
There’s debate about the importance of a knife’s tang—a piece of metal extending from the blade into the handle. Some cooking supply shop salespeople might tell you that a tang that extends through the whole handle helps balance the knife, making it stronger. Brendan McDermott agrees: “Having the full tang really helps balance the blade so the handle and the blade can remain at an even balance, but it also again shows that it’s one piece of steel.” Chad Ward, on the other hand, argues that a full tang is unnecessary (in his book he says that even katana swords didn’t have a full tang). Wendy Yang at Korin said that traditional Japanese knives with a stick tang can be sent back to the factory in Japan to be repaired if the handle gets damaged or broken (not an option with a full tang knife). All the Western-style Japanese knives we looked at have full tangs with riveted handles. I personally think the reason for that is the Western consumer uses that as a benchmark of quality because that’s what they’ve been sold on for years with German knives.
Blades are either forged or stamped, and both methods can produce high or low quality knives. Forging, the oldest method, uses heat and pressure to shape the blade. Boutique knife makers, such as Murray Carter, still pound out the shape of the blade with a hammer, but most mass-market Western-forged knives are drop-forged. In this process, a manufacturer takes a blank of steel and heats it to an extremely high temperature—much higher than with hand forging—and uses a high-pressure hammer to pound it into the shape of a blade. “Drop-forged became a term associated with a higher quality product because of the technological advancement in the process,” explained Carter. But he argues it was a step back metallurgically because the extreme heat involved ruins the tight grain integrity—which is important for edge retention—that hand forging delivers.
Stamped blades, as the name suggests, are stamped out of a larger sheet of metal before further refinement and sharpening. The quality of these knives varies widely, from the flimsy knives found at grocery stores to our top pick and runner-up. Knife makers like MAC and Tojiro heat-treat their blades to make them just as strong as forged steel. In an Edge in the Kitchen, Chad Ward says, “There is some great steel out there now, better than anything ever before used for kitchen knives. It can be drop-forged or it can be laser-cut out of sheets. With proper heat treatment, the method of shaping the blade has more to do with manufacturing processes and knife styles than anything else.” He calls these heat-treated stamped blades “machined” to differentiate them from regular stamped knives. Cook’s Illustrated also points this out in their chef’s knife equipment review.
When buying a knife, it’s good to spot check the spine and edge for defects. Hold the handle with the edge facing downward and look along the spine to make sure the blade is perfectly straight.
Next, turn the knife over and examine the edge. If you see any light reflecting back at you, that is a roll spot in the factory edge, which you can grind out with sharpening, but you shouldn’t have to sharpen a brand-new knife. Don’t be shy about asking for many versions of the same knife to decide on the particular one you want to take home. At Korin, they usually bring out two to three of the same knife so you can examine them and choose the one you like.
You can get a decent chef’s knife for $40 or a truly exceptional one for $400. The experts I interviewed agreed that a home cook doesn’t need to spend more than $150 on a chef’s knife. It all depends on the quality you need or want.
We couldn’t test all of the possible contenders that fit our criteria, so we focused on popular, widely available knives. We also did not include Japanese santoku knives in this review, since these are better suited to vegetables and not as versatile as standard chef’s knives. In the end, we brought in 13 knives that all had an 8-inch blade, clocked in at $150 or less, didn’t have a full bolster, came recommended by experts and trusted editorial sources, and had stellar Amazon ratings.
We peeled and broke down a butternut squash to test maneuverability and how smoothly they cut through the notoriously hard gourd. We gauged blade sharpness by dicing onions, making classic French cuts with carrots, and thinly slicing scallion greens. We tested whether the knives could handle delicate tasks by cutting basil leaves into a fine chiffonade and observing whether the herb’s edges bruised and turned black.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $145.
The MAC MTH-80 ($145) is our favorite knife because it’s crazy sharp and will stay that way longer than most other knives. It was the only knife that was comfortable for all testers to hold and use. We found it had the best weight and balance; it felt more agile than the German models and more durable than the other Japanese knives. The dimples in the blade also make for slightly less food stickage. The MAC MTH-80 is the only knife in our testing sample that I can safely recommend to most people without reservations.
Out of the box, the MAC sliced straight through paper, which is something our previous pick, the Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch Chef’s Knife, couldn’t manage. It also made straight cuts through the thick center of butternut squash, which, again, the Victorinox couldn’t do. Even the Henckel Pro, a pricy German drop-forged knife, was a crooked cutter. The Rada, which was dangerously flimsy, completely failed at cutting butternut squash.
With fibrous carrots, the MAC always made clean cuts, unlike the Victorinox, which cut part way, then cracked the rest of the carrot like an ax splitting wood. The cut edges of basil stayed mostly green with very little oxidation, meaning the MAC’s razor-sharp edge broke very few of the herb’s cells. All the budget knives turned basil black within 5 minutes. To be honest, all the Japanese knives did a superb job with the basil test, because they’re sharper and thinner. The drop-forged German knives fell somewhere in between, only causing a moderate amount of bruising and oxidation to the basil.
Because the MAC’s stamped blade is made of very hard steel that has a Rockwell hardness of 59-61, it will keep its sharp edge longer than softer blades, such as those of the Wüsthof Pro, both Messermeister knives, and Henckels, which are hardened to 56 HRC. At the same time, the MAC’s blade is made of a proprietary steel that’s not as brittle as the super hard Japanese VG-10 steel used for most gyuto knives. This means it’s less likely to chip, which the Tojiro did after cutting hard pumpkin. And because the MAC’s blade is slightly thinner than the German knives’s blades, measuring .0976 inches at the thickest part of the spine, it will be easier to maintain its sharp edge as you get toward the spine. In comparison, the Wüsthof Ikon measures .1187 inches.
Of our five testers, everyone agreed that the MAC was really comfortable to hold and use. Personally, I like the simple shape and smaller size of the handle, which allows for a gentler grip and reduces fatigue during longer chopping tasks. Even those with larger hands, such as my significant other, found the handle gave plenty of knuckle clearance. By comparison, the Tojiro DP didn’t offer enough knuckle clearance for larger hands and the Global G-2, which has a tapered stainless steel handle, was offputting for some testers. The MAC’s handle is slightly short, but the length of the little curve from the bolster down to the heel gave adequate room for large knuckles.The handle of the Shun Classic, on the other hand, was so long and unwieldy that it kept jabbing into my forearm.
Our testers also universally liked the MAC’s weight. At 6.6 ounces, it’s lighter than a German drop-forged knife, but heavier and sturdier-feeling than many Japanese knives. Part of that, again, is due to the thickness of its spine. At the thickest part the Togiharu comes in at .0754 inch, the Tojiro DP at .0817 inch, and Global G-2 .0754 inch. The MAC’s relatively thicker .0976-inch spine gives the knife some heft and it doesn’t feel as delicate when cutting through tough vegetables like butternut squash, but it still has a smooth slicing feel of a thin blade.
The MAC was the only knife we tested with dimples on both sides of the blade to reduce food sticking to the knife. We don’t think this is the MAC’s biggest selling point, as it was only mildly effective, but it did come in handy when cutting butternut squash. Slices stuck to the blades of every knife we tested, but removing them from the MAC’s was much easier. By comparison, slices suctioned to the Messermeister Meridian Elite’s blade and it took some muscle to remove them, which made me feel uncomfortable about possibly cutting myself.
Cooking For Engineers rated the MAC their top pick after an exhaustive test of chef’s knives. Chad Ward calls the MTH-80 in An Edge in the Kitchen “…a treat to use,” adding, “They are extremely popular among chefs and line cooks because they are comfortable, reasonably priced, high-quality knives that come with an aggressive edge and hold it for a very long time.” There are also glowing Amazon reviews of the MTH-80, where it receives an average of 4.7 stars from 76 reviews.
We understand the MAC’s price may be offputting for some. But because it’s made of quality materials, we think it could last a lifetime with proper maintenance. Check out our care and maintenance section for tips on keeping your knife in fighting form.
If you’re used to cutting with a German knife, you will need to change your cutting style with the MAC, adapting to a push and pull cutting motion. It takes a little getting used to. I made the switch to Japanese knives as a young, super green line cook, fresh to New York City kitchens. If I can change the way I work while a maniacal chef throws plates at my head, then anyone can.
The MAC, like all Japanese knives, requires a little more care because the blade’s hardness also makes it more brittle. You will not want to leave the MAC in a sink, where the edge may bang against plates or glassware, and never use it on hard surfaces such as glass or granite. If you need a knife that will take more of a beating, we’d suggest a German drop-forged knife with a stainless steel blade, such as the Wüsthof Ikon.
There are some reviews on Amazon complaining about blade staining. I spoke with a MAC customer service representative, who explained that the knife’s high carbon content means that sometimes, especially when it isn’t rinsed and dried after cutting corrosive acidic foods (like citrus or tomatoes), you might see a rust spot. If you want a completely stainless knife that can take a crazy beating, get a Wüsthof. But a little attention to care will keep your MAC clean and spot free.
Lastly, you need to find a reputable knife sharpener for Japanese knives. Because they are thinner and more brittle, the person working on them needs to understand these differences and proceed accordingly. The MAC is pretty forgiving because it has an even bevel, therefore doesn’t need to be sent off to a specialty Japanese knife sharpening service.
It’s not quite as good as the MAC, but for $60 the Tojiro DP is an exceptional knife. The thin, razor-sharp Japanese blade made perfect cuts of carrot and clean basil chiffonades with little bruising or oxidation. Chopping onions was very smooth and testers enjoyed using this knife, praising its sharpness and easy handling. One of our testers bought it as soon as she tried it. But there are several reasons it didn’t win over the MAC.
The handle is too small for bigger hands. Although the women in our testing group found the handle comfortable, when I had a man with larger hands hold the knife, he didn’t have enough knuckle clearance, which turned chopping into an annoying task.
The Tojiro’s steel core also appears to be more brittle than the MAC’s homogenous steel construction. After breaking down a butternut squash, we found a tiny, almost microscopic nick in the blade. As it turns out, the company’s website recommends the knife not be used for cutting pumpkin (or frozen foods), because the hard vegetable can chip your blade. The MAC is most likely made of higher-quality steel, which in turn makes it sturdier.
The Tojiro is shaped like a classic gyuto, with a straighter edge, no bolster, and a pointed tip for accurate cuts. It has a full tang, and the handle is secured with rivets. Like the MAC, it has a bit of heft to it, which makes it feel more durable than the lighter Global G-2 and Togiharu.
In An Edge in the Kitchen, Chad Ward cites the Tojiro DP as “the bargain of the century.” He goes on to say, “The quality of the handle fit can be variable, and the handles themselves are blocky, but the performance of these knives is outstanding, especially for the price.” It receives an average of 4.6 stars of 141 Amazon user reviews.
We think the MAC is a better, more agile knife, but if you really like the heavier weight and more substantial feel of a drop-forged German knife, or if you don’t want to change your cutting style to accommodate a Japanese knife, we recommend the Wüsthof Ikon ($150). It has a super sharp edge and tip and, compared to other German knives, a thinner blade, a more comfortable handle, and more manageable blade curve, which gives the user better leverage.
It made clean cuts through butternut squash and quickly diced onions, although carrots did split slightly. Like the other drop-forged German knives, it caused moderate bruising to cut basil. Compared to the MAC, the Ikon was less agile and sharp. When breaking down a butternut squash, the MAC was faster and more precise at peeling the skin away.
Compared to the MAC the Ikon’s blade is pretty thick, measuring .1187 inch at the spine. But it isn’t as thick as the Messermeister Elite at .1461 inch, or the Henckels Zwilling Pro at .1298 inch. The Ikon’s thinner blade makes the knife a tad lighter than the those knives and means it will be able to take a keener edge than the thicker knives over the long run.
Many testers liked the Ikon’s smooth, rounded handle, which molds nicely into the palm. It was much more comfortable than the Messermeister Elite’s handle with its hard angles. The Ikon’s gently curved blade also made it more comfortable to use. The Henckel Pro, by comparison, had such an aggressively curved blade that chopping and cutting was awkward (the edge also wasn’t very sharp). I felt like I had more control with the Wüsthof and food stuck to the blade less than with the Meridian Elite.
One advantage the Ikon has over the MAC is that its stainless, softer steel blade will take more of a beating. If you drop a Wüsthof into a sink or leave acidic food residue on, it shouldn’t stain or corrode. But that kind of treatment will also destroy your edge, so don’t do that to your knife.
For a budget knife, we like the Wüsthof Pro Chef’s Knife ($25). It was introduced 4 years ago for professional cooks in restaurant kitchens and only recently offered to the general public. Of five budget options, our panel of testers liked this knife best. It has a cushy rubber handle and stamped blade that was by far the sharpest of the budget knives. It doesn’t really compete with the Mac or our other top picks. With this knife, you’re sacrificing longevity. It’s a great model for beginning cooks, but you might eventually want to graduate to a higher-quality knife.
The Pro diced an onion quickly (although not as smoothly as our other picks), thanks in part to its sharp pointed tip. It made clean cuts through carrots with minor splitting. It wasn’t good for peeling a butternut squash, but the Victorinox was more cumbersome with its dull blade. Like all the budget knives, it turned the chiffonade of basil black pretty quickly.
It comes with a cushy rubbery handle that’s comfortable to grip,and accommodates large hands. Personally, I didn’t like the handle much; its size hindered my pinch grip. I found all of the budget knives’s handles too big and awkward. But most of our testers weren’t bothered by the Pro’s handle.
There aren’t many Amazon reviews for this knife, but most of them are favorable; people seem to really like the large handle. We will be longterm testing the Wüsthof Pro for 6 months and will report back. I’ll even take it to one of my stones after excessive use to see how it takes a new edge.
I tested all of these knives with a classic pinch grip, the most secure way to hold your chef’s knife. I strongly urge you to train yourself to use the pinch grip. You’ll have more control over your knife and as a result cut yourself less. Also, you’ll become faster at chopping tasks.
German knife blades are curved and designed for a rocking chopping motion. This is when the tip of the knife mostly keeps contact with the cutting board and the heel is raised and lowered while the guiding hand pushes food underneath the blade.
Because Japanese knives have straighter edges, it’s best to use a push-pull motion, lifting the whole knife off the board for each cut. If you decide to make the jump from German to Japanese knives, this will take some getting used to.
It’s easy to care for a knife, it just takes attention and 2 extra minutes. Simply hand wash the blade, dry it thoroughly, and put it away. Never put it in the dishwasher. It’s not good for the edge to bump up against other things, such as glassware and ceramic—materials that are harder than the steel. Don’t use anything abrasive on the blade, such as a Brillo pad or the rough side of a Scotch Brite sponge, which can make little scratches in the metal.
Never throw unprotected knives into a drawer where they dull quickly. Wall-mounted magnetic strips, like the Benchcrafted Mag-Blok we recommend in our small apartment gear guide, are better and safer. If you don’t want a magnetic strip mounted to your wall, buy a blade guard. That way you can store it in a drawer or knife roll and the edge is protected. You could use a knife block, but personally I don’t like them because their narrow slots can’t be cleaned. I shudder to think of what grows in a knife block over the years.
Only use your knife on a wood, plastic, or rubber cutting board. Do not, by any means, let your edge hit glass, granite, or ceramics (not even a quick slice on a dinner plate!). Murray Carter explains, “Anything that has any degree of hardness that approaches metal, especially ceramic that’s 10 times harder than metal … as soon as it makes contact with the edge, it dulls it.”
Keep a sharp cutting edge longer with a honing rod. This doesn’t actually sharpen the blade—its sole purpose is to realign the microscopic teeth on a blade that bend and get knocked out of whack during the course of use. Although steel is a classic choice for honing rods, sometimes the material is softer than your knife, rendering it useless. A ceramic rod is best because it’s harder than the hardest steel, but the grit is smooth so it won’t chew up the edge of your knife while it realigns the edge. Hone it before each use and you’ll be golden.
Watching a chef whipping a knife down the rod towards their hand at lightning speed, it’s easy to see yourself taking a thumb off. But it’s not as difficult as it looks. There are two ways to effectively hone a knife:
If you’re starting out, it’s safer to place the tip of the honing rod on a cutting board, with the rod perpendicular to the board. Start with your knife towards the handle and pull down from heel to tip. Repeat on the other side and continue for four or five reps. The key with both of these styles of honing is to make sure the edge bevel is flush to the rod.
The way most pros do it is to point the tip of the rod up and and pull the knife down towards the handle.
Eventually your knife will need to be sharpened. Depending on your use, that could mean every 6 months to a year. You’ll know it’s time when you have to work to get through skins of tomatoes or cucumbers. If you’re going to get a pro to sharpen your knives, it’s important that you look for someone who really knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, that’s really hard to find. My best suggestion for this is to ask a local chef where they would send their own personal knives (not the cheap kitchen knives they give to the prep cooks). Generally, chefs sharpen their own knives, but they usually know of a reputable knife guy.
It’s a scary undertaking at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be putting a new edge on every old, crappy knife in your arsenal. I personally like to use Japanese stones. I have a 1000 grit and a 3000 grit that I use often. I also have a hand-me-down stone from my grandfather that’s a superfine 6000 grit for the most precise work. I particularly like these videos from Murray Carter and Korin that show you how to use the stones.
In a previous version of this guide, we warned against knife sharpeners, but after doing research on sharpening and trying many such devices ourselves, we’ve found that not all knife sharpeners are created equal. If you’re investing in a quality, expensive knife like our main pick, we still believe that a whetstone used properly will provide the sharpest, smoothest edge. But if you want to sharpen our budget pick, a German steel blade, or an inexpensive stamped blade, go ahead and try one of our knife-sharpener picks. In our tests we found that well-designed ones work nicely, causing minimal wear to knives while creating a fine edge. And their convenience encourages people to use them regularly, which makes for safer chopping and a happier kitchen experience. However, make sure to avoid the cheapest knife sharpeners, which will quickly eat away too much of the blade’s metal.
We wanted to test the Zhen 3-layer VG-10 Chef’s Knife ($55), but they have discontinued the current model and won’t have the new model until the fall. This knife comes at a great price and has a small cult following on forums. The reviews on this are mixed, but we want to see for ourselves. We’ll update this guide once we test the new model.
Steel hardness is measured on the Rockwell C scale. Used for more than 100 years, this method compares the forces necessary to indent various hard steels. Steel, at its most basic, is primarily iron with carbon added. Decent high-carbon steel knives should register anywhere between 55 HRC and 64 HRC (Wüsthof and other German knives are generally 56 HRC and Murray Carter’s steel registers at 64 HRC). The higher you go, the more expensive the knife. The benchmark for “very hard steel” is 60 HRC, according to Wendy Yang at Korin Japanese Trading in New York City.
Modern knife makers add elements to their steel to increase stain resistance, machinability, and hardness; improve grain structure; and increase shock resistance. Some argue that these additives contribute to a stronger knife. Murray Carter says these are unnecessary ingredients to cover up inferior steel that’s full of contaminants, namely sulfur and phosphorus. All steel has these contaminants, it’s the degree to which they are present that makes all the difference.
In An Edge in the Kitchen, Chad Ward explains the composition of most German knives is X50CrMoV15, which roughly translates to 80 percent iron, 0.5 percent carbon, and 15 percent a combination of chromium, molybdenum, and vanadium. Chromium protects from corrosion and is what makes the knife stainless, while molybdenum and vanadium increase machinability, wear resistance, and refine the grain. This stainless steel is usually hardened to 56 HRC, which is softer than Japanese knives but can take a beating well and can stand up to a certain level of mistreatment.
Japanese steel generally has higher carbon content and, in addition to the ingredients in German steel, contains tungsten and cobalt, which improve hardness. VG-10, made by the Hitachi Corporation, is the most popular alloy and is what people think of when they think of Japanese steel. It makes hard blades that take and hold an edge very well but are also pretty brittle. This is why many gyutos are laminated with softer stainless steel to protect against shock and staining. The softer steel makes sharpening easier, too, since there’s less hard steel to grind away There are many other proprietary alloys that come out of Japan, some softer, some harder; we are just using VG-10 as an example.
You will see knives made from American steel, and while some of it is fine for knives there are a couple of formulas that don’t perform as well. In An Edge in the Kitchen, Chad Ward says, “I wouldn’t make garbage can lids out of 420J or 440A, but some manufacturers do use them for kitchen knives.” These types of steel are low carbon and highly corrosion resistant. They stay pretty but don’t hold much of an edge.
Quality stamped knives and drop-forged knives go through a heat treating process. The heat treatment is the process of getting the steel to the desired hardness. This includes, but isn’t limited to, annealing, quenching and tempering. In short, annealing relieves the steel of inner stress and prepares it for shaping and grain refinement. Quenching hardens the steel and tempering relieves some of that hardness to make it less brittle.
Global G-2 gyuto ($80) gets an honorable dismissal. It was a good contender and it would’ve been one of our top picks, but some people couldn’t get on board with the handle, which is made of hollow dimpled steel. Our kitchen editor Christine Cyr Clisset and I loved it for its light weight and razor sharp edge. Since it was so close, we will longterm test it and give notes in 6 months. The G-2 comes highly rated by Cooking for Engineers.
Togiharu Molybdenum Gyuto ($95) is a classic lightweight gyuto. Again an honorable dismissal, this knife is sharp and precise. Like the Tojiro, it lacks knuckle clearance for large hands, but I’ve used this knife professionally for 7 years, and other than needing to be sharpened a little more often than other knives, it’s decent. It’s thin, so I think it’ll be too delicate for hard vegetables. Chad Ward also praises this knife in An Edge in the Kitchen.
Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch Chef’s Knife ($40) was our previous pick and the favorite knife of America’s Test Kitchen. This stamped knife gets a lot of love from many people. It has an ergonomically-shaped plastic handle that most people like. I used to give this knife to friends who were new at cooking as a great starter knife. Sadly, it didn’t stand up to the competition. It was the only knife that didn’t cut paper straight out of the box. Also it split carrots and couldn’t cut butternut squash straight, and testers didn’t like the handle much. It’s fair to mention that we aren’t sure if there have been quality changes to the Victorinox or if they might have switched factories. Since this was our previous top pick, we decided to test a second brand-new Victorinox with Fibrox handle to be sure we didn’t get a lemon. The results were the same both times. Compared to the Wüsthof Pro, our budget pick, the Victorinox didn’t have as sharp an edge or tip. Our testers also didn’t like the feel of the handle, saying the texture of the plastic was offputting. They much preferred the softer handle of the Wüsthof Pro.
Messermeister Meridian Elite ($130) came recommended in Chad Ward’s An Edge in the Kitchen. The drop-forged blade was sharp enough, but it wasn’t as smooth as the MAC or the Ikon. It was heavier than the Ikon, and the testers thought is was awkward to hold.
Messermeister Four Seasons ($45) was another stamped budget choice and pretty much on par with the Wüsthof Pro, but is almost twice the price. Our testers found the handle uncomfortable due to the sharp edges on the spine that kept digging into our forefingers.
Henckels Zwilling Pro ($130) drop-forged knife was just awkward. The curve of the blade was too severe and made chopping difficult. It was hard to maintain control of the knife.
Shun DM0706 Classic ($135) was mediocre. The long stick handle kept jabbing into my wrist and the cutting edge was only adequate. It felt like a heavy German knife with a Japanese name. While it has a lot of favorable Amazon reviews, like all the knives in our testing sample, the negative reviews complain of the blade chipping. That didn’t happen with us, though.
Rada Cutlery French Chef Knife ($13) is comically inexpensive. Stamped from American stainless steel scraps, this knife is flimsy and couldn’t make straight cuts in butternut squash or carrots. Like the other budget knives, it turned green basil leaves into black-lined strips. It has a favorable Amazon rating, but I can’t understand why.
Other knives we looked at but dismissed:
Wüsthof Classic 8-Inch ($130) has a loyal following, and it was the very first knife I bought as a budding restaurant cook at the tender age of 19. It has a full bolster that makes upkeep and sharpening difficult.
Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Pro ($100) has a full bolster, a dealbreaker. Also, I’ve never had great experience with this brand. Their blades always seem to come less than sharp and go dull pretty quickly.
Mercer Culinary Renaissance 8″ Chef’s Knife ($45) is a cheap drop-forged knife. They used to be made in Germany, but now are all produced in Taiwan. With better drop-forged options out there, we figured you really get what you pay for in this case.
Mac Knife Chef Series French Chef’s Knife, 8-Inch ($95) and MAC Chef Series Hollow Edge Chef’s Knife ($95) are less-expensive offerings from MAC. It seemed repetitive to bring these in. Since the MTH-80 has such glowing reviews and is made of higher-quality steel, we made an executive decision to test only that one. We’ll consider testing this for the update to this update.
Wüsthof Gourmet 8-Inch Cook’s Knife ($80) and Wüsthof Grand Prix II 8-Inch Cook’s Knife ($100) are other Wüsthof offerings we dismissed. Unlike the Classic, they don’t have full bolsters, but the Gourmet is a cheaply made knife and the Classic Ikon beat the Grand Prix II in number of positive Amazon reviews.
Henckels International Classic 8-Inch ($55) is similar to the Wüsthof Classic that we didn’t test simply because of its outdated full bolstered design, which can’t be properly sharpened.
Miyabi Kaizen 8-Inch Chef’s Knife ($170) sits just outside of our price point cutoff and it looks like the Shun, except $35 more. Those rounded handles aren’t comfortable to use for long periods of time
For everyday meal prep, we highly recommend the MAC MTH-80 chef’s knife. It’s one of the sharpest and most universally comfortable-to-use knives we’ve found, and it should last a lifetime with proper maintenance and care.
Photos by Amadou Diallo.
Originally published: June 5, 2015