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Finding a great chef's knife is the most important blade-related decision any home cook or budding chef can make. The chef's knife reigns supreme above all others in terms of versatility and overall use. Finding the best chef's knife in 2021 will mean examining how you cook, what you cook and how much you want to spend. There are countless knife brands and many of them produce excellent, sharp and balanced chef's knives starting at $20 and soaring into the thousands.

While you don't need to spend even hundreds of dollars on one, finding a high-performance chef's knife that feels good in your hand is critical, no matter how long you've been cooking. You'd also be surprised at how often this key piece of kitchen equipment is overlooked even by folks who are serious about cooking. A good chef's knife will also last you a good while if you care for it properly and sharpen it regularly, so think of this as an investment in your culinary future and not an impulse buy.

Upgrading to a quality chef's knife will do wonders for your execution in the kitchen, but it's a safety issue too. You might think an ultrasharp chef's knife would be more dangerous, but it's actually old, dull knives that slide off of a vegetable skin instead of through it, leaving you more susceptible to injury. 

So which is the best chef's knife for you? Spoiler alert: It's not necessarily the priciest. Chef's knives come in different styles -- the two most prevalent being Japanese and Western (or German) -- as well as varying weights, lengths and handle materials. Since you're going to be using it more than any other blade in the arsenal, your chef's knife should be comfortable, easy to handle, sturdy and sharp.

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What's the best size for a chef's knife?

Most chef's knives have an 8-inch blade, and that's a pretty safe bet if you're not sure what size to get. Depending on your skill level and the size of your hand, you might want a slightly longer or shorter blade for a good knife. There are chef's knives as short as 6 inches but you likely don't want to go shorter than 7 inches. You can also find blades as long as 9 or 10 inches, but those will be a bit more difficult to control and are not generally recommended for a beginner home cook.

What's the best material for a chef's knife?

You can find chef's knife blades in alternative materials, including ceramic, but some composition of steel is the preferred material of 99.9% of knife makers the world over. For the purposes of this list, we're only testing steel blades, of which there are lots of different grades. In general, a softer steel blade will be easier to sharpen but may not last quite as long. For an amateur home cook, the difference in durability is negligible and the ability to sharpen it should take priority for a quality knife.

The makeup of your knife handle is perhaps the more critical decision at hand. Chef's knife handles are made from a wide range of materials, including wood, bone, carbon fiber and steel. Wood and certain poly blends may be a little softer to the touch. There are also handles with contoured and ergonomic shapes, while some -- namely Japanese knives -- feature a more linear design. Hence, an ergonomic handle will depend on your personal choice.

The difference between forged and stamped chef's knives

A forged knife is made from one block of steel while a stamped knife is punched out of a sheet of metal. Forged knives are traditionally sturdier and more expensive. I've read some hot takes that modern knife-stamping technology has caught up to forged models and that there's not as big a difference as there once was. I'll be honest, I can feel when I'm wielding a stamped knife versus a forged one. In general, forged knives seem better balanced and they're often (but not always) stronger, meaning they'll last longer and keep their edge better. 

The difference between Western (or German) knives and Japanese-style

German-style knives are generally heavier, with thicker blades and more pronounced bellies (the curve of the blade). This shape and weight are conducive to a rocking style of chopping. Japanese knives are generally lighter with thinner blades, making them a bit better for intricate slices, trims and push-chops. While it's certainly not necessary, I like having one of each at my disposal to use for certain tasks. To help decide between these two styles or whether you might want both at your disposal, here's more on the difference between a Western and Japanese chef's knife.

How heavy should a chef's knife be?

This really depends on personal preference, experience level and what you intend to do with the knife. In general, Japanese-style knives are lighter and thus better suited for very precise chopping, mincing, dicing and the occasional chiffonade. German-style chef's knives are often thicker and heavier and may be a better choice if you're doing more basic chopping and dicing or breaking down bone-in chickens and such. 

Which is the best chef's knife for you?

This is the million-dollar question. Because of the many variables, you'll want to take into account some of the factors addressed above before you decide on a new blade. We're not here to anoint one single chef's knife the best, but because we've tested a few dozen knives, at this point, we can make some informed recommendations for high-quality chef's knives at different prices, sizes, weights and styles. 

One thing is for sure: If you're still using the dinged and dull knife that came in your discount knife block set nine years ago, any one of the knives on our list will make you a better chef. 

Here are a few of the best chef's knives available in 2021. 

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Global's popular 8-inch chef's knife is a Japanese-style blade, which means it boasts a scary-sharp edge and a nimble-feeling lightweight body. Global's design is also unique: The handle and sharp blade are made of a single piece of high-carbon steel, and the handle is filled with sand to weight it. Global's 8-inch chef's knife is well-balanced and will meet all your usual mise en place needs. Slicing, mincing, chopping and even breaking down a chicken are all easy with the Global.

This chef's knife took the top spot in our original round of chef's knife testing and it has held up as one of the best all-around chef's knives you can buy, and at an approachable price. The blade on this knife is more durable than the easy-to-chip Mac described below, and it just feels very comfortable in hand.

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For me, this chef's knife from direct-to-consumer kitchen brand Made In ticks a whole lot of boxes and comes in at a reasonable $89.

The French-made blade is fully forged with a full tang through the handle, so it's solid as a rock. With an 8.5-inch blade, it's on the long side and it weighs exactly half a pound. For whatever reason, those proportions work exceptionally well for me and this chef's knife feels like an extension of my hand when I'm using it. It has a fairly linear handle but one I find quite comfortable, and it keeps its edge well for a knife at this price. 

The knife also has excellent balance and feels somewhere between the German and Japanese style in that it's hefty but not heavy. The blade is forged from a composition of steel known as X50CrMoV15, which is high in chromium, making it both strong and highly resistant to corrosion. I really loved using this quality knife and think it offers some serious value for the money.

David Priest/CNET

This Japanese 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. In fact, this Japanese knife was our top pick for a few months before being unseated by Global's knife.

Similar to a santoku knife, not only is the Mac supersharp (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.

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 one disappointing feature from this knife maker is how easy it is to chip the superthin blade. Within a couple of months of regular use, a piece chipped off the tip of the Mac I was using when the knife nicked an open cupboard.

Read moreThe difference between Western and Japanese knives

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Hands-down, the biggest surprise of my testing was the performance of Mercer's $17 Culinary Millennia 8-inch chef's knife. It's not as well made as the Zwilling or Wusthof blades -- both of which feature a long-lasting full-tang design (meaning 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 we prepped various veggies, fruits and meats in our 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 on for six months while you save for a bigger investment, the Mercer really is a great cook's knife.

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German knife brand 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 much exertion. The heavier knife weight helps guide the blade in uniform movements as you use it, but this Wusthof knife isn't so heavy that you ever feel controlled by the blade.

The Wusthof was our original favorite knife until we got our hands on the Mac and Global Japanese-style knives, 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. Using this blade for that task was as enjoyable and natural-feeling as any other on the list.

This knife is top-to-bottom one of the best available at a price that won't put you into debt. 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.

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If you've got smaller hands or just prefer a shorter blade for whatever reason, there are options. One very good option is Shun's classic chef's knife, which comes in both 8-inch and 6-inch sizes. This Japanese-style knife is light and dexterous -- especially the 6-incher -- but it's forged from Damascus clad stainless steel for strength. It also has excellent balance. 

This stainless-steel knife's ebony pakkawood handle is linear with no ergonomic shaping, but because of the knife's modest weight and razor-sharp edge, I didn't find myself tiring in the least when using it for an extended session.

It's also really beautiful in a simple sort of way. I tested the knife with a blonde handle but it also comes in jet black. The Damascus steel has a wavy pattern like wind-blown dunes, which is aesthetically pleasing and also helps to keep food from sticking to the blade.

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As we've outlined, there are really two main styles of knives. German or Western blades tend to be heavier with a more pronounced belly and are ideal for a rocking style of use. Japanese knives, with their lighter weights and straighter bellies, are more suited to fine slices or push cuts. If you don't want to buy two expensive chef's knives but do want a knife that can serve for both styles, this Korin Nickel Damascus would be a solid choice. 

This 8-inch blade is thicker than your average Japanese knife but thinner than a standard Western knife such as a Heckels or Wüsthof. If you're used to that type of heavy chef's knife but want to transition to a more delicate Japanese-style tool, try this blade. It has some heft but still feels very dexterous. I found it was one of the most versatile knives I tried and I could really feel myself easily toggling between finer, precise cuts and more thunderous chops. 

It's not a bargain blade at $198, but with 33-layers of V10 stain-resistant steel, it's likely to last you a very long time if you care for it properly.

David Priest/CNET

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 $60, I'd be more than happy to add this knife to my kitchen.

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I'll admit that even I was intimidated by this knife when I first held it. It's over 9 inches long and extremely sharp but it's also very light, which makes it more difficult to control. That all spelled disaster for my sometimes clumsy, sometimes careless self. Miraculously, I didn't lose any fingers during my testing, and I actually started to really fall for this knife, which, at times, feels more like a weapon of combat than a kitchen tool. 

The extra-long Japanese-style blade makes it extremely versatile and a great knife for trimming bigger pieces of meat and large vegetables like squash or even carving and slicing cooked meats. It took me a little longer to get comfortable chopping and dicing vegetables, mostly because of the length, but within a few sessions I got the hang of it and then some. Breaking down a chicken with this knife was an absolute dream and I felt like I could do almost anything I wanted with it with almost no resistance.

I also really loved the contoured handle made from maple wood. It doesn't hurt that these knives, which are all handmade in California, look like true works of art. The price is a bit of an eye-popper at $675 for the cheaper of the brand's two models. That said, if you've got above-average knife skills and are looking to treat yourself, this is a fun and beautifully made chef's knife to have at your disposal.

How we tested the knives

Our procedures involved 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. We wanted to approach the tasks as the average home cook would, focusing on general use and experience. We also avoided overemphasizing 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. We've also written about how to correctly sharpen a knife. Taking sharpening seriously is key to a knife blade's edge retention.

We 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, we approached each knife as a package, experiencing how its weight and balance came together to create an experience that felt either intuitive or awkward.

The rest of the field

Overall, we tested a dozen of the most popular chef's knives for home cooks, from Mac, Global, Artisan Revere, Victorinox, Kitchenaid, Cuisinart, Homefavor, Farberware, Zwilling, J.A. Henckels, Wusthof, Material Kitchen, Misen and Mercer. Of these knives, three were the clear leaders, most others were solidly designed and only one stood out as really bad.

The Mac, Wusthof and Global knives were standout 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 Global feels best to me, but if I ate more meat and denser veggies, I would probably lean toward the Wusthof as the more robust blade. And if perfectly minced herbs and delicately sliced fish were more common cuts in my kitchen, the Mac might take the crown.

Mercer, Zwilling and to a lesser degree Victorinox offered solid performance and well-balanced products for beginners looking for a bargain (Victorinox's chef knife gets a lot of love online for its price and balance, but it's more expensive than the $16 Mercer and not quite as well balanced).

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J.A. Henckels' Classic Chef's Knife looks similar to the Wusthof Classic, but its slight differences in balance and design make it a much less enjoyable knife to use regularly.

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Cuisinart's, Material's and Homefavor's knives were sturdier than the cheaper competitors, but they didn't stand out in any single category. The $50 J.A. Henckels classic, 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.

Farberware's knife was the worst of the bunch: It's so poorly balanced, in fact, that I stopped the chicken test midway 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 and if you're looking for a budget blade, be careful and do some research first. 

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.

Best chef's knives FAQs

What is a chef's knife used for?

A chef's knife is the most versatile knife in your set. A chef's knife is used for the most common and laborious culinary tasks, including mincing, dicing and chopping vegetables and trimming meat and fish. While some tasks like slicing soft tomatoes and bread or making small intricate cuts are best done with a serrated knife or utility blade, as much as 90% of knife work to complete most recipes can be done with a chef's knife. A sharp chef's knife can also be used for slicing cooked meats.

How do I sharpen a chef's knife?

Sharpening your chef's knife is the most important duty you'll have to keep your blade in good form and lasting a long time. How often you should sharpen your knife depends on how much you use it and for what purposes. 

There are several ways to sharpen a chef's knife, such as with a sharpening steel or whetstone. Many knife sets include a sharpening steel, but if not you can buy one for cheap. These methods both take a little training and practice but can be done by most anyone. You can also use an automatic knife sharpener. You can find these in both electric and manual models and they vary in price. 

A third option is to have your knives professionally sharpened. A mail-in service called KnifeAid will do it for about $15 per knife with a minimum of four knives per order. We've used the service before and they do a great job. Read our guide to keeping your knives razor-sharp for more.

Which chef's knives and brands do top chefs use?

There are countless knife brands and many have earned the respect and endorsement of big-name chefs worldwide. German bladesmiths Wüsthof and J.A. Henckels are two of the most famous Western-style knife makers. Ina Garten is known to use a classic 8-inch Wüsthof chef's knife. Bob Kramer is a U.S. knife maker who has had many famous chefs use his wares, including the late Anthony Bourdain. 

Japanese-style knives are another category of chef's knives. These are typically lighter with a finer edge and are engineered for more more meticulous knife work including slicing sushi. Some of the most famous and respected producers of Japanese knives include Korin, Shun, Global and Miyabi. Bobby Flay is a reported fan of Shun chef's knives.

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