When it comes to chef's knives, you can pay basically anything you want, from $10 to $1,000 (or more) — and there are cases to be made for both ends of the spectrum. Budget knives can get the job done and they're basically worry-free. On the other hand, spending more will get you one that will last forever and is probably a work of art, too.
Still, our cutting board experts agree that the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, around $50 to $100.
Why Knives Cost What They Cost
Does $50 to $100 sound like a lot of money? We'd actually argue that knives are a relative bargain. Consider the fact that you probably use your knife a lot, possibly more than any other single tool in your kitchen. Now consider the fact that you can pay $50 for a coffee mug or that your Dutch oven probably set you back at least $200. That mid-range knife is suddenly looking like a pretty good deal.
That caveat aside, it's nonetheless important to understand what you're paying for.
The Type of Steel
"The main thing [that impacts price] is the type of steel that's being used in the knife," says Bryan Mayer, director of butchery education at Fleishers Craft Butchery. And you can get really (and we mean really) geeky about steel, especially if you start to get into alloys like tungsten, but there are really three types to be aware of: stainless steel, carbon steel, and high-carbon stainless steel.
As a general rule, stainless steel is softer, which makes it more durable (i.e., less likely to break), but also means it's harder to maintain a sharp edge. It's also resistant to stains and corrosion, making it easier to care for.
The main benefit of carbon steel is its hardness, which allows for a razor-sharp edge, and it's also more affordable than stainless steel. On the flip side, carbon steel is more prone to rust and chipping.
Your best bet is probably somewhere in between. "The most accessible, best-quality knives are made of high-carbon stainless steel," says Cara Mangini, author of The Vegetable Butcher. "They combine the best of carbon steel knives and of stainless steel knives."
There are other materials that go into a knife's cost, too — namely the handle, which can be made of almost anything, from plastic to fiberglass. Some chefs, like Mayer, like the feel of a wood handle — "It's just this visceral connection I have" — but it isn't as durable or easy to clean as plastic, composite, and even stainless steel. And of course, there's the price: "The rubber grip knives are obviously going to be less expensive than ones with Rosewood," says Mayer.
The Branding & Retail Costs
With almost anything you're buying, knives included, branding comes into play. When you buy from a well-known brand, you're paying for the expectation of quality. And if you go to a store, like Sur La Table or Williams-Sonoma, you're probably paying a retail markup. These may be costs you're willing to incur — after all, a kitchen store often offers the opportunity to try a bunch of different knives out and there is a degree of quality that you can expect from, say, Wusthof.
But Josh Moses is trying to bypass branding and retail markups with the Misen Chef's Knife, a high-quality, direct-to-customers knife that retails for $65. Serious Eats' Kenji describes it as the holy grail of inexpensive knives.
Of course, craftsmanship comes into play as well. A major distinction is between stamped knives, which are machine-made using as cookie-cutter model, and forged knives, which involve more time and labor, have better balance, and command a higher price.
And it goes on from there. "There's all sorts of other stuff, like multiple quenching, that can add to the price of the knife," notes Mayer. And then there are custom knives, which are a whole other story — though, for some, the cost is worth it.
"I like handmade knives," says Eivin Kilcher, co-star of Discovery's Alaska: The Last Frontier. "If I'm going to get a new knife, I want it to be unlike any other knife in the world."
The Bottom Line
Like with most things, you get what you pay for, but if you're looking for a solid, functional knife, stay away from the extras (fancy Damascus steel, for example) and you can snag one at a reasonable price, in that $50 to $100 range.
A Few Budget-Friendly Knives We Love
If you're looking for a chefs knife in that sweet spot, here are a few that we love, or that we've featured in this month's series, 20 Cooks, 20 Knives. Each of these is a knife someone has found to be useful and practical.
- Tojiro DP Gyutou, $60 - Review site Sweethome names this as one of their best knife picks.
- Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef's Knife, $44.95 at Amazon - A classic budget pick
- Wusthof Pro Cook's Knife, 8-Inch, $30 at Amazon - Another good budget pick.
- IKEA 365+ Vegetable Knife, $16.95 at IKEA - A favorite from one of the people in our 20 Cooks, 20 Knives series.
How to Shop for a Knife That's Right for You
But remember — what makes a good knife for someone else may not make it a good knife for you. It's so important to go and try a knife yourself before buying.
Here's more advice on how to shop for knives and what to look for:
- What Defines the Right Knife for You? 6 Questions to Ask Before Investing
- The Most Important Step in Buying a New Knife
Do you have a budget-friendly chefs knife that you love and want to add to this list?