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Chef Knives Explained: Description, Uses, Sharpening & More

While I do own a chef’s knife, I wondered why certain chefs pick certain knives and what a chef knife is good for beyond how I use mine. So, I wanted to research and create the ultimate guide for chef knives and explain everything there is to know about them, from how to use a chef’s knife, how to sharpen them and how to choose one.

A chef knife is an all-purpose knife, between 8-12″ long, used for slicing, mincing & dicing large quantities of vegetables, breaking down a whole chicken and carving and slicing perfectly sliced cuts of meat. They only need to be sharpened a few times a year, but the blade should be honed weekly.

But there’s so much more to know about chef’s knives, how to care for them, how to sharpen them, whether to wash them in the dishwasher and how to select one that will last a lifetime.

I love to cook and while I don’t have any formal training like culinary school, I did work for Whole Foods Market for almost 25 years, so I know a thing or 2 about food and kitchens.

So let’s dive into the world of chef’s knives and learn everything we need to know!

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

What is a chef knife?

A chef’s knife is the knife most chefs use most often.

The may have many other knives in their kit, but the chef’s knife is the all-purpose knife most often used for:

  • Slicing, dicing, and mincing vegetables
  • For slicing meat
  • Breaking down a whole chicken, cow, lamb, etc (separating the different cuts from one another)
  • Using the flat of the blade to smash garlic

But that’s just to name a few select things that chefs do with a chef’s knife.

A chef’s knife is a long knife, typically at least 8″ long and maybe up to 14″ long. It usually has a pointed tip and the blade itself is wide from the top of the sharp side, typically about 1.5″.

Chef knives most likely were invented by the French, but today you’ll also see outstanding knives made in Germany and Japan as well such as their renowned Damascus knives, and could also be called a cook’s knife.

Most often they are made of stainless steel, but ceramic knives exist too as well as carbon steel.

Some chef’s knives have a wooden handle, whereas others are simply one piece of stainless steel, handle and blade. Since chefs (even home enthusiasts) will be using this knife a lot, the comfort of how it fits in your hand is very important.

A chef’s knife has a unique name for each part of the knife:

  • Tip – the top part of the blade nearest the point
  • Point – the very end of the blade where it comes to a point
  • Cutting edge – the sharp side of the blade
  • Heel – the wider and slightly duller end of the cutting edge nearest the handle
  • Blade – refers to the entire blade from end to end and sharp side to dull side
  • Spine – the dull side of the blade (the top side)
  • Bolster – the thicker metal part that connects the blade to the handle
  • Handle – the long protruding piece where you grip the knife (may be one piece, have wood sides riveted on, or could be a separate piece attached to the blade)

How thick should a chef knife be?

Ultimately you want the blade to be as thin as possible without being weak.

Too thin and you risk breaking the blade on cutting thicker or tougher meats or vegetables. Too thick, and it simply won’t cut things smoothly. A tomato, for instance, will just get smashed by too thick of a blade (or too dull of a blade).

Unfortunately, not all chef’s knives list the thickness, and of course, the blade gets thinner towards the tip. You also sometimes see it listed in decimals and other times as a fraction or even metric.

So knife blade thickness is a bit confusing.

That being said, most chef’s seem to agree that a thickness of about 3/16 to 3/32 is about perfect for a chef knife.

In decimals, those translate to a thickness of .1875 to .09375.

After all, if your chef knife is super thick, that might be great for breaking down a chicken, but it won’t be great for slicing something more delicate like freshly smoked brisket.

Of course, a professional chef will have many knives and each will be custom tailored to a specific task and thus each knife will be the best thickness for that particular job.

A cleaver, for instance, great for cutting through bones, can be thicker than a carving knife which is designed to perform much more delicate jobs requiring a higher level of precision.

For the home chef who may only use a chef’s knife, we need to find a good balance between strength and precision.

If you tend to be a little rough with your knife and if you do a lot of rocking back and forth dicing veggies, you may want a thicker blade.

What knives do chefs need?

Bear in mind, the home cook can be just fine with a chef’s knife and a bread knife. But if you’re ready to take your kitchen knife set to the next level, consider these 5 knives most professional chefs would consider essential:

  • Paring knife – Essential for mincing and dicing small items such as garlic, peeling fruit or soft vegetables. Most are under 4″ long, so they are for smaller, more detailed work
  • Serrated/bread knife – These are essential for slicing baguettes or other hard, crusty bread. A smooth blade, like a chef’s knife, simply won’t cut bread well. But they are also great for things like melons, peppers, and cake. The jagged edge essentially saws through the food in ways a chef’s knife would simply end up smooshing.
  • Boning knife – Designed to remove meat from bones on any meat, poultry, or fish. The blade is smaller and thinner than a chef’s knife, which is perfect for bending a little around tough areas that aren’t perfectly straight. Do not use to cut through bone.
  • Cleaver – The cleaver is under-rated as nothing cuts through the bones of a whole chicken better than a good cleaver. The cleaver blade looks like a rectangle with a handle on one end. It’s not as long as a chef’s knife (often between 6″-8″) and the blade is much thicker, which is perfect for swinging down on a chicken bone with some force.
  • Chef’s knife – The multi-purpose knife that, by far, sees the most use in both home and professional kitchens

What is a chef’s knife used for?

I use my chef’s knife for just about everything.

I do have a serrated knife, a paring knife, and a cleaver, but 99% of the time, when I’m cooking, I’ve got my chef’s knife in my hand. I literally use it to slice and dice things like onion, garlic, peppers, potatoes, and carrots.

But I also use the flat side of the blade to smash garlic cloves and (with a nice sharp blade), it’s also great for slicing tomatoes.

Making coleslaw? Skip the bags of pre-shredded cabbage and buy the (much cheaper) whole head of cabbage.

Once you’ve removed the usually dirty and ugly outer leaves, cut the cabbage in half, and working with one half at a time, with your chef’s knife, begin to thinly slice the cabbage from one end to the other.

It only takes about a minute to have freshly shredded coleslaw mix. But that’s just the beginning.

The other uses for a chef’s knife include:

  • Cutting raw meat into cubes or strips
  • Slicing cooked meat (always wash it after it’s cut raw meat)
  • Chopping fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, rosemary, etc)
  • Cutting through smaller bones
  • Chopping nuts
  • Slicing or cubing most fruits and vegetables

But then I also use my chef’s knife to slice brisket, chicken or sausage that comes off my grill.

And it’s great for taking the kernels of corn off the cobb.

To do that, I hold the ear of corn pointing up, with the tip in a large bowl. With my left hand holding the ear in place on the very top, I just slice down along the corn, getting the blade of the knife as close to the cob as possible.

But really, the uses for a good chef’s knife are endless.

How long should a chef’s knife be?

Ultimately the answer to how long should a chef’s knife come down to:

  • Personal preference
  • Experience in cooking
  • How long and strong your arms are
  • The size of your cutting boards and counters

Many professional chefs choose chef knives that are 12″ long.

The reason professional chefs love a longer blade is that the longer the blade, the greater amount of food can be sliced, diced, or chopping with every stroke.

Ultimately, the more food you can prep with every movement, the more efficient your kitchen will be. So if you’re Gordon Ramsey and you’re cooking in his self-titled London restaurant with 3 Michelin stars, you can bet every movement counts!

But the longer blade is going to be heavier. That means greater arm strength. If you’re working in Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen, it’s a safe bet you have diced thousands of pounds of veggies in your career and built up some great arm strength and endurance.

But the home chef likely hasn’t done that. Also true is the average home kitchen counter is going to not be nearly as deep as a professional kitchen prep table. The same is true for home cutting boards.

Thus, for most home chefs, a 12″ chef knife simply isn’t going to be the right way to go.

So for most of us who love to cook at home, an 8″ chef’s knife is the right choice. It has a great balance of being long enough for most jobs, and light enough for most people’s arm strength and endurance.

It also fits perfectly on the average home cutting board and kitchen counter.

Can chef knives go in the dishwasher?

Ultimately, the answer to this question is yes, but you shouldn’t wash them in the dishwasher.

Many knives, especially cheaper ones you buy at places like Target or that come in a set with a wooden holder likely will say they are dishwasher safe.

So, you’re probably tempted to just wash them in the dishwasher and be done with it.

Washing a good quality chef’s knife in the dishwasher hurts them in 2 ways:

  • If it has a wooden handle, it will slowly fade, damage, and maybe rot the wood
  • The abrasive detergent and possible banging of the blade will cause the blade to become dull much more quickly

While blades will always become dull over time, every time you sharpen a blade, you’re essentially grinding a little bit of it off. Eventually, it will be so ground down you’ll need a new knife.

So while you DO want a very sharp knife, you don’t want to sharpen it more often than necessary.

So the best way to wash a chef’s knife is to do exactly what I do every time I use mine. I use a long handled scrub brush and squeeze a small amount of dish liquid on the scrub pad.

Then with some hot water, holding the knife by the handle, I scrub the knife up and down and along both the sharp side of the blade and the dull top side of the blade. Then I rinse and allow to air dry.

I use the long-handles scrub brush purely for safety so I can thoroughly clean the sharp side of the blade without any danger of cutting myself.

So no matter what your chef knife said when you bought it if you want it to last (mine are almost 20 years old and just as good as the day I bought them), wash them by hand every time you use them.

How to hold a chef’s knife

How you hold your chef’s knife is vitally important both for how well your cuts are and how safe your hands and fingers are.

Held incorrectly, you can easily make imprecise cuts.

If you’re dicing potatoes, for instance, and your cuts are all over the place, you might end up with some chunks that are significantly bigger than others. Then in the cooking process, the pieces won’t cook evenly.

Ultimately, that will affect the quality of the food you’re making.

At my former career at Whole Foods Market, I also saw a number of injuries in the kitchen over the years just from people making a few simple mistakes.

So let’s review exactly how to hold a chef’s knife to ensure you can cut quickly, efficiently, and safely.

For the hand holding the knife:

  • Keep the hand firmly on the handle and not too close to the blade. Your fingers will curl around the handle while the thumb presses on the opposite side of your fingers giving you stability and control
  • Cut round or even veggies in half first to avoid them rolling or slipping as you do additional cuts
  • When smashing garlic, lay the blade flat on the garlic and with the holding hand, simply keep the handle in place but your fingers will not wrap around the handle.
  • When rocking back and forth for mincing, keep the tip of the knife in contact with the cutting board as you rock.

For your other hand:

  • As you hold the food item being cut, curl your fingers in towards your palm so your fingertips are not near the blade.
  • Your thumb will be inside the fingers (like a loosely closed fist)
  • You rest your knuckles against the flat side of the blade (not too close to the sharp side). This gives you control over how close the food is to the blade.

How do chefs sharpen knives?

There is so much confusion among people, and especially home cooks, about sharpening knives.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to friend’s houses, seen decent chef knives in their collection that were deadly dull.

Now a number of professional kitchens will use a knife sharpening service where someone comes to their kitchen regularly and sharpens everything on site.

Ultimately most professional chefs, at least at home, use some sort of sharpening stone. You can see fancy diamond sharpeners other gadgets, and some of them work great.

But for pro chefs, there’s really no substitute for slowly and consistently pulling the blade at a 15-30° angle across a slightly wet sharpening stone, alternating between one side an the other every 3-4 strokes.

Just make sure that each pull is using the same pressure, the same angle, and goes consistently from the heel of the blade to the point. Some sharpening stones are combination stones which have a rougher side and a smoother side.

If your stone has 2 different sides, start with the rougher side first, swiping the knife several times before switching to the fine side of the stone. About 10 times on each side of the stone should be about right. Carefully check the sharpness and if it’s good, go right to using your sharpening steel (more on that below).

The angle of the blade is usually referred to as the bevel.

The smaller the angle/bevel, the sharper the knife. However, the wider the bevel, the longer the knife is likely to last.

Don’t want to worry about angles, pressure, and consistency? Then something like the Work Sharp Knife & Tool Sharpener (click to see current price on Amazon) works great. It uses replaceable grit belts (essentially rough sandpaper) and can sharpen chef knife blades to a perfect 40° angle.

But it also works on all your tools and even lawnmower blades too!  Free Prime shipping and outstanding reviews make this one a no-brainer for most home chefs.

Check it out, along with all my other chef knife recommendations on my Recommended Products Page.

Is a sharp knife more dangerous than a dull knife?

Despite what you might think, a dull knife is far more dangerous than a sharp knife.

The reason for that is that a dull knife requires significantly more effort and arm muscle to cut through whatever you’re cutting.

When you push or shove your knife much harder than you should be, if it slips, it’s much more apt to seriously cut or poke you. A razor-sharp knife, by comparison, will slice effortlessly through almost everything.

Confused about how often you should hone and sharpen your chef’s knives?

You’re not alone there! Ultimately, it comes down to what you are cutting, how often you use it and how hard the steel is that was used to make your knife.

But I go a lot further into that in a newer article on my site. So just click the link to read it here. What surprised me the most was how infrequently most of us really need to be sharpening our knives.

Is a sharpening steel the same as a sharpener?

I’m not sure there’s anything about kitchen knife sharpening that confuses people more than the so-called sharpening steel.

That’s because, despite its name, a sharpening steel will never, ever, sharpen a dull knife.

That being said, you absolutely need a sharpening steel, in addition to sharpening stone or sharpener. You use the sharpening steel after you’ve sharpened the blade.

Let’s review how both work in combination with each other.

A sharpening steel is a long, round, smooth piece of steel with a handle.  It tapers at the end but doesn’t come to a sharp point. We’ve all seen cooking shows with chef contestants feverishly swiping their knives up and down the steel quickly.

But as I said, a steel (let’s quit calling it a sharpening steel) will never sharpen a dull knife. No, what a steel does is hone the blade after it’s been sharpened.

So let’s review the differences between honing and sharpening:

  • Sharpening (Not performed every time you use your knife; just as you notice the knife is dull) – Grinding the blade at an angle shaving off tiny bits of the blade. Sharpen a few times a year or anytime you feel the blade getting dull
  • Honing (performed 1-2 times a week depending on how often you cook) – Essentially you are taking the tiny pieces of metal at the sharp side of the knife blade and pushing them back to the center of the blade. While it doesn’t actually sharpen the blade, a sharpened knife will seem sharper after honing because the blade is perfectly centered.

To hone properly, don’t overdo it.

If you see a chef honing back and forth 10-20 times, run. They don’t know how to care for their knives, and thus, may not be trained on how to cook well either. Just a few wipes are all you need.

Place the steel in front of you pressing the tip of it into a cutting board.

Then with a firm hold on the steel, you will swipe down with the knife with the sharp side of the blade against the steel at about a 15° angle. You’ll start with the knife heel towards the top of the steel, sliding down as you pull the knife back towards the point.

The do the same thing on the other side. Never repeat the same side more than once before switching to the other side as we want the blade to be even and centered. Use firm pressure at first, gradually lightening up.

How is a Santoku knife different from a chef’s knife?

A Santoku knife is essentially a Japanese chef knife.

It is, however, typically much shorter than traditional chef’s knives, often 5′-7″ long compared to 8″-14″.

One of the most striking differences between the Santoku knife and a chef’s knife is the indents that line the entire blade near the sharp edge.

This is referred to as a Granton edge and is useful because these scalloped indents create little air pockets between the food and the blade allowing the food to stick less to the knife.

Ultimately these scalloped indents allow for more precise cuts with less of a ragged edge; very useful in slicing things like raw fish for sashimi where the presentation is of ultimate importance.

The other major difference is the tip.

A chef’s knife typically has a tip the sticks out from the center of the blade, whereas a Santoku knife curves down and the point is almost completely aligned with the bottom sharp edge of the blade.

What is a Damascus Steel chef knife?

If you are around the chef knife world long enough, you’ll also hear the term Damascus steel.

Is Damascus steel better than carbon steel? Let’s explore. Carbon steel chef knives are very common. If you already own one, chances are it’ made of carbon steel. Carbon steel is naturally hard. That means it keeps it’s sharp edge longer and it can also cut more precisely.

Another plus is that carbon steel chef knives tend to be fairly affordable.

The biggest downside to carbon steel knives is that not being stainless steel, it can rust over time. That makes washing, drying, and caring for it a bit more time consuming and important than other types of chef knife materials.

Damascus steel is simply a name given to a steel and iron hybrid metal.

The roots of Damascus steel go back hundreds of years, so this is not new technology, but it is sought after, making Damascus steel knives a bit pricier.

The other cool thing about Damascus steel is that no 2 knives ever look alike, so in a way, they become collector’s items and almost works of art. You can see the unique pattern in the picture above.

I would overall say that most chefs probably use a carbon steel chef knife, but they might have a treasured Damascus steel knife on display at home, but as with anything in the food world, you can always find someone doing something outside the norm.

For most of us on a budget, though, since they are virtually always over $100 and many top ones are upwards of $500, a carbon steel chef knife is still the best choice.

But check my recommended page to see all my chef knife recommendations including my pick for best Damascus steel chef knife. Just click to see that now on my site.

What is the best chef’s knife?

As with anything in life, “best” is a very subjective term.

“Best” to Gordon Ramsey is certainly going to be different than what is “best” to me. For one, he knows infinitely more than I do about cooking and chef’s knives. For another, he’s not worried about the budget!

Thus, in determining the best chef knives, I think we need to narrow it down to 3 categories; Good, Better, and Best.

That way, we’ve got a great knife for any budget.

Then we’ve also got the size of the knife. As we talked about above, most professional chefs will use a 12″ chef knife, but that’s just not a great knife for the average home cook.

I can tell you without hesitation that the chef knife I love and have 2 of at home is by the company Global. In looking at their knives on Amazon, you can easily see that all range from 4-5 star and range in price based on size between $100-$200.

Luckily for me, the late, great, Anthony Bourdain agrees with me and the same Global knife I use was his favorite as well. Bourdain called it a “great option for both beginners and experts”.

Thus, I would put that knife in the Best category, as while I’m sure there are some even more expensive knives out there, for the average home cook, that could be a bit pricey.

In looking at all the chef knives on Amazon between 8″-10″ that have at least 100 reviews, eliminating anything under 4 stars and then also eliminating any 4-star knives where more than 1% of the reviews were 1 star, I think some clear winners emerge:

  • GOOD – Zelite Infinity 8″ High Carbon Stainless Steel Chef Knife
  • BETTER – Zelite Infinity 8″ Japanese Super Steel Chef Knife
  • BEST – Wusthof Classic Ikon 9″ Chef Knife

But check out all the options for the Best Chef’s Knife, Sharpening Tools, and Steels and what’s perfect for your kitchen and budget. That link takes you to my page on this site for all my top picks in a variety of price levels.

Final Thoughts

In this post, we took an in-depth look into the world of chef knives.

We explored how to select one that will last a lifetime, how to care for it, how to sharpen it, and how professional chef’s use them.

Ultimately my goal was to answer every possible question you might have about chef knives and to be the ultimate guide for you.

Do you have a favorite brand of kitchen knife?

Like a good chef’s knife, no chef’s kitchen is complete without salt.

But for something so simple, there’s an awful lot of confusion about salt.

In a recent article, however, my wife, who does the majority of the cooking in our house these days, gives us the ultimate resource on salt.

She breaks down the kinds of salt, what the health benefits are, the differences between them, and more.

So if you’ve ever wondered if pink Himilayan sea salt was nature’s wonder product or just a scam, you’ll want to check out this article.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Images which require attribution:

IMGP0997.jpg (main pic) by Kathy Maister is licensed under CC2.0

P3170047 (Damascus pic) by Anton Kudris is licensed under CC2.0

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Jeff Campbell