One of the most important tools every kitchen should have is a really good chef's knife. Because when you're cooking, your knife is like your sous chef. When it's dull, broken, or just not well-equipped, it'll slow down everything and turn cooking into a time-consuming, frustrating chore. And when it's good, you'll find yourself making excuses to use it all the time.
Though a decent chef's knife seems like something everyone would have, you'd be surprised by how many people don't. For example, all of my friends have chef's knives so dull, they might as well be made for kindergarteners. That might be because it seems like the best chef's knives are also the most expensive, but you definitely don't have to spend an arm and a leg to get something good. Here are four of the best chef's knives you can buy for less than $100, plus some tips from an expert on how to keep them in great shape, and what you should generally look for in a good knife.
There are two styles of chef's knives you should know.
Geoff Feder, owner of Feder Knives, tells SELF that there are two types of chef's knives: Full tang and hidden tang. Basically, a full tang knife (see above left) is heavier because the metal the blade is made of extends all the way to the handle where it's sandwiched between two pieces plastic (or whatever material the knife handle is made of). With a hidden tang knife (see above right), the metal extends only partially (if at all) into the handle, making the knife lighter.
So which one should you buy?
"Depending on how you cook, you want to use a knife that complements your style of cooking," says Feder. If you feel more confident chopping with something lightweight, reach for a hidden tang. If you prefer something a little heavier, full tang is the way to go. In general, full tang knives tend to be significantly more affordable than hidden tang, so an affordable full tang might just be the place to start.
The blade is usually made from one of two different kinds of steel.
Feder says that the blades on most knives are made from either stainless steel or carbon steel. He explains that carbon steel performs better, but it's delicate, so it's more susceptible to rust and damage. On the other hand, stainless steel is easier to maintain, but the quality isn't as high. Avoid cutting things high in acid with a carbon steel knife, as those ingredients can cause a film to form on the blade.
You only need to sharpen your knife a few times a year.
According to Feder, if you sharpen your knife regularly, it'll take less time overall to keep the edge sharp. "If you wait until it's super dull, it's much harder to bring it back," he explains, "[that's] one of the reasons most people have dull knives."
You should plan to sharpen your knife about two or three times a year, either on your own with a sharpening tool (Feder recommends using a two-sided water stone, like this one here), or professionally at your local hardware store. Sharpening knives is a skill in and of itself, so in general it's easier (especially for beginner chefs) to have it professionally sharpened. In the end, it'll cost you less to maintain it that way than it would to buy a brand new knife.
But you do need to hone it every week.
You know those long metal rods that always come in the box knife sets? That's a honing tool called a steel, says Feder. While sharpening removes steel from the knife to create a new edge, honing re-aligns the wire in the edge of the blade to keep it in working order.
When you use it, Feder says you shouldn't just mindlessly rub it up and down along the edge of your knife—that will do more harm than good. Instead, gently apply pressure to your knife as you run the edge against the honing tool at a 20-degree angle (you can watch a demo of the technique here). Go slowly and repeat on both sides of the knife until you've honed the length of the blade. You should do this at least once a week, but you can do it as often as you like.
Never, ever, ever put a quality chef's knife in the dishwasher.
"Regardless of the type of steel you use, don't put your Chef's knife in a dishwasher," says Feder. The high water pressure and detergent will dull the edge, loosen the handle, and effectively ruin your knife, especially if you do it over and over again. Instead, hand wash only and don't let it stay wet for long, or else the blade may rust.
These options meet all the qualifications of a great chef's knife, and they're all affordable!
Feder swears by Victorinox knives for beginners. You can use it for pretty much any of your chopping needs, but it's especially popular to use for cutting meat. Buy one here.
For a knife that will last you a long time, Feder says that affordable options don't get better than this. He's still using the same one he's had for 18 years! The heavy blade and handle make this one ideal for cutting tough ingredients like raw vegetables or squash. Buy it here.
If you want a lightweight, Japanese knife that isn't as expensive as a hidden tang, this is the knife you need. Its slender, carbon blade makes it the perfect tool to delicately filet fish with or thinly slice cucumbers. Buy it here.
This German knife is one that I personally swear by. It's just the right amount of heavy and it chops everything like butter. I use it for everything but I find it especially useful when I'm carving a chicken or a turkey. Buy it here.