S E P T E M B E R & O C T O B E R 2 0 1 3
uring the past 20 years, we’ve con-
ducted five chef’s knife evaluations.
seemed underdesigned—feel like a “natural exten-
sion” of so many different hands?
We showed the knives to Jack Dennerlein...
Six test kitchen staffers subjected ten 8-inch chef’s knives, priced at $50 or less, to ...
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What Makes a Great Cheap Knife?


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One chef’s knife has been a champ in our kitchen for nearly two decades.
Can any other blade come close to offering what it does—and at a bargain price?

by Hannah Crowley

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What Makes a Great Cheap Knife?

  1. 1. S E P T E M B E R & O C T O B E R 2 0 1 3 25 D uring the past 20 years, we’ve con- ducted five chef’s knife evaluations. Those tests have covered dozens of blades in styles ranging from tradi- tional, to innovative, to hybrid knives combining Western and Asian features. And at the end of every test, we’ve told the same story: One bargain knife, the $27 Victorinox Fibrox, has typically trounced the competition—including knives cost- ing 10 times its price tag. While it’s hard to imagine a factory-made knife that could surpass this one—either in price or quality—every so often we revisit the category to be sure. This time we sought out 8-inch chef’s knives (the most all-purpose size) and capped our budget at $50. Ten models met our criteria—including a new Victorinox knife called the Swiss Classic that the company considers to be the “consumer” version of the Fibrox, a model that will eventually be available only commercially. We enlisted six testers, male and female and with varying hand sizes and kitchen abili- ties, and got each of them to spend weeks hacking, dicing, and chopping their way through 10 whole chickens, 10 butternut squashes, 10 onions, and 10 bunches of parsley. What we’re always looking for: a strong yet agile blade that feels comfortable and secure in our hands. By the time we wrapped up testing, we’d found one standout favorite and a couple of other knives that passed muster, but the rest of the models lagged behind, many of them by a considerable margin. While the top performers capably broke down whole birds and slid through dense squash, the bulk of the lot struggled—and at the end of testing, we had piles of ragged onion pieces and bruised parsley leaves to prove it. The obvious question: What was it about our lone winner that made it a stellar performer? Its design wasn’t radically different from that of other knives, and it was one of the least expensive knives in an already low-cost lineup. We decided to get to the bottom of what made this one knife so much better than all the others. Degrees of Separation The top priority for a good knife is razor sharpness. Right out of the box, some knives were sharper than others. Still others started out fairly sharp and quickly lost their edge. Either way, a dull knife turns a small pile of potatoes into a mountain and makes for sloppy food. (“I can hear the cells bursting,” said one tester as a dull blade sprayed onion juice across the cutting board. “Chicken, I feel sorry for you,” said a second frustrated tester, vainly hacking away with another comparatively blunt edge.) Sharpness is partly determined by the thinness of the blade’s cutting edge. Any material can be sharp if its edge is thin enough—this is why an otherwise harmless piece of paper can deliver a paper cut. Traditionally, Western knives have been sharpened to 20 to 22 degrees on each side of the blade, while Asian knives are thinner—just 15 degrees on each side. However, those style markers appear to be blur- ring in favor of Asian knives: All the knives we tested are considered Western-style, yet when we asked the manufacturers, it turned out that half of the models sported 15-degree (or narrower) blades, including our top three favorites. But a razor-thin cutting edge isn’t everything: If the metal is too soft, it will easily develop micro- scopic chips, dings, and dents, and the edge will wear down quickly. So what makes one type of blade harder than another? It begins with the composition of the steel. Steel is an alloy that always includes iron and car- bon, but it may also contain other elements chosen to add particular characteristics to the metal. We were able to find out that the products in our lineup used one of three basic steel alloys: x50CrMoV15, x55CrMoV15, and 420. (To make the first two alloys easier to reference in this story, we’ll refer to them simply as “x50” and “x55” steel, respec- tively.) When we checked the steel type of each blade against our ratings, we saw that knives made from the 420 steel were clearly inferior to blades made from the other two alloys, as they landed at the bottom of our rankings. These included the “dull,” “flimsy” model from Dexter-Russell, which produced crushed, not diced, onions. Another blade made from 420 was the last-place OXO, which struggled to cleanly slice through sheets of copier paper (our standard sharpness test) and dulled rap- idly as testing progressed. Meanwhile, the blades that started out sharp and stayed that way were crafted from x50 and x55 steel—and our top three models all used the x50 alloy. These results suggested that the 420 alloy pro- duced blades that weren’t as hard as those made from the other two metals. When we consulted Bob Kramer, a master bladesmith, and Merrilea Mayo, a materials scientist and former president of the Materials Research Society, both experts confirmed our hunch: 420 steel is indeed a softer metal than the other two alloys. This is because it usually contains less carbon and no vanadium, elements that act as hardening agents. So why would a manufacturer select for this quality? A softer steel is easier to cut into blades, lowering production costs. As for differences between x50 and x55 steel, their steel makeups are very similar, so we could only assume that something else was giving the x50 a literal edge over the others. That something turned out to be how the metal is heated and cooled. Just as baking time and temperature affect the crumb of a cake, the “cook- ing” process determines the grain of a metal. For a harder product, small, close-knit grains are the goal. “Large grains,” Mayo explained, “are functionally useless for knife blades because they are so soft.” All manufacturers start the knife-making process the same way: by slowly cooling the molten metal. Next comes the proprietary part: a multistep tempering process of reheating and cooling the metal to help shrink the grains and/or encourage new, smaller ones to form. According to Mayo, tempering can have infinite variations, which in turn can lead to differences in grain size and pattern. We’re betting that the specific way it was tempered helped give our front-runner superior hardness. (Heat treatment might also explain why some blades made from the same x50 steel didn’t perform as well.) Get a (Good) Grip As for the other half of the knife—the handle—we figured that preferences would be a dividing point among testers. After all, the comfort of a grip is largely subjective and depends on variables from the size of your hand, to how you hold the blade, to your knife skills, to whether you prefer a brawnier or more svelte handle or one that’s crafted from metal rather than nylon or wood. Surprisingly, though, all six testers unanimously preferred one handle: that of the Victorinox Fibrox. This handle boasted no ergonomic grooves or bumps; compared with other models that we tested, it actually lacked design features. How could one grip—particularly one so basic-looking that it almost What Makes a Great Cheap Knife? One chef’s knife has been a champ in our kitchen for nearly two decades. Can any other blade come close to offering what it does—and at a bargain price? j B Y H A N N A H C R O W L E Y k See How They Slice (and Chop) Video available FREE for 4 months at CooksIllustrated.com/oct13
  2. 2. seemed underdesigned—feel like a “natural exten- sion” of so many different hands? We showed the knives to Jack Dennerlein, pro- fessor of ergonomics and safety at Northeastern and Harvard Universities, who offered a one-word explanation: “affordance.” This term, he explained, is what ergonomists use to describe the versatil- ity that we ask of our chef’s knives. Cutting is a complex task, and a well-designed handle affords multiple grips for the range of angles and forces required, allowing us to confidently drive the knife downward through a chicken bone just as easily as we make precise cuts in an onion. Dennerlein said that when knife makers add grooves and curves to a handle, like those on some of the less comfort- able handles in our lineup, they are telling us how to hold the knife instead of allowing us to choose what’s most comfortable. Sharp square angles on many of the knife handles and blade spines were a prime example of this (the Henckels International knife was a chief offender). They limited where our hands felt comfortable, as did pronounced bolsters, both of which dug into our palms when we used the so-called pinch grip, for which you choke up on the knife and grasp the back of the blade between your thumb and forefinger for control. Other handles (like Wüsthof’s) were either too thin—“like holding a tube of lipstick with a sharp blade at the end”—or, like the Victorinox Swiss Classic’s handle, too wide. We also knocked points off the Swiss Classic for a “bellylike” curve to its grip and an indented ridge along the top. Victorinox claims that these features are tailored specifically for the home cook, but we’re not sure why any cook would like them; we found that they made our fingers splay out as we grasped for a better hold, causing fatigue and decreasing control. Furthermore, the handle is made from a hard, slick plastic that didn’t offer a lot of friction between our hands and the handle. As a result, it felt slippery, especially during messy tasks like butcher- ing a chicken. But even when a handle was specifically designed to provide friction, it sometimes had other flaws. The plastic grip made of open ridges on the Dexter- Russell knife, for example, stayed put in our hands, but the deep grooves also dug into our palms. To some testers the wooden grips on the Schmidt and Cat Cora knives felt much better in hand, as the natural grain offered some traction, but to other testers these grips felt “rough.” Any Way You Slice It After nearly two months of testing, we tallied our results—and we can’t say that we were shocked to learn the winner. Once again, it was the Victorinox Fibrox that effortlessly ascended to the top spot for its exceptional cutting ability and a grip that all test- ers found particularly comfortable. Don’t be misled by its unprepossessing design: The Fibrox embodies a number of subtle features that have helped propel it to the top of our rankings for the past two decades. For one, there’s its plain-Jane handle. Made from a bumpy, grippy nylon material called polyamide, it has enough traction to stay put in your hand, and its basic design boasts the so-called affordance that makes it well suited for any kind of grip. Second, its blade is made of hard x50 steel—an alloy that Kramer agreed is likely put through a very fine-tuned heating and cooling process to develop the optimal hardness. Third, the blade is sharpened to a thin 15 degrees. Given how easily the knife cuts through food, that discovery made sense, but it also raised another question: What’s the best way to maintain that nar- row edge? Victorinox originally designed the knife for chefs and food industry professionals with the assumption that such users would be maintaining the edge on a sharpening stone. However, now that Asian-style sharpeners have become more widely available to consumers in Western countries, Victorinox also recommends these for keeping the Fibrox’s edge at a factory-sharp 15 degrees. Going forward, we’ll sharpen this knife on our win- ning product, the Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone Asian Knife Sharpener, Model 463 ($39.99; for more information on Asian knife sharpeners, go to CooksIllustrated.com/asianknifesharpeners). Also worth keeping in mind is Victorinox’s plan to move the Fibrox out of retail stores in 3 years and make it available only to commercial outlets and restaurant supply shops, while its Swiss Classic product line will be available for retail sale. We hope that the company reevaluates that decision. Though the Swiss Classic shares the Fibrox’s outstanding blade, we’re not as enthusiastic about the former due to its less than perfect handle—and its $10-higher price tag. We will continue to monitor and report on the Fibrox’s availability. C O O K ’ S I L L U S T R A T E D 26 The Blade: What Makes It Sharp and Keeps It That Way Creating the sharpest, most durable knives is a bit like baking a cake: Manufacturers have to start with the right ingredients and then treat the metal just so. THE RIGHT MIX OF METALS Because steel is an alloy, it can come in countless forms, depending on what metals it contains and in what proportion. Certain elements, such as carbon and vanadium, increase a steel’s hardness so that it can hold its edge and resist chipping, denting, and folding over. The alloy used in our top-performing knives, x50CrMoV15, contained both elements in favorable proportions. PRECISE TEMPERING How the steel is heated and cooled helps deter- mine the grain of the metal. Harder blades have a finer, tighter, more dense structure, softer blades a looser one. To achieve the target grain size, manufacturers put their steel through a pro- prietary multistep tempering process. The more exacting the process the smaller the grain and the harder the metal. THIN CUTTING EDGE The narrower the angle of the cutting edge the sharper the blade will be. Each of our top three knives was factory-sharpened to a slim 15-degree edge, an angle that once mainly defined Asian knives and is increasingly found on Western knives. (Our winner, the Victorinox Fibrox, has actually had this edge for decades.) Maintaining it requires an Asian sharpener; a Western sharpener will keep the knife sharp but not as thin. The Handle: One Style Fits All The knife with the most basic handle—no grooves or bumps—was also the most comfortable for all our testers. In fact, experts confirmed that the Victorinox Fibrox’s lack of pronounced ergonomic features was precisely the reason that we favored it. Its neutral rectangular body, smooth edges, and rounded base made a variety of gripping positions comfortable, whereas other more contoured models with sharper angles forced our hands into unnatural positions or were too long and pointed and dug into our forearms when we choked up on the knife. COMFORT GRIP Without pronounced curves or angles, the handle on the Victorinox Fibrox is comfortable for a variety of grips—the so-called “pinch” and “power” grips, for example—and hand sizes, as seen below. ILLUSTRATION:JAYLAYMAN
  3. 3. TESTING INEXPENSIVE CHEF’S KNIVES Six test kitchen staffers subjected ten 8-inch chef’s knives, priced at $50 or less, to a range of kitchen tasks and also assessed comfort and edge retention. Scores were averaged and knives are listed below in order of preference. Prices were paid online. A source for the winner appears on page 32. BLADE DESIGN We preferred slightly curved blades that rocked nicely and spines that didn’t dig into our hands. KEY GOOD: FAIR: POOR: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED CRITERIA TESTERS’ COMMENTS VICTORINOX 8" Swiss Army Fibrox Chef’s Knife Model: 47520 Price: $27.21 Blade Angle: 15 degrees Steel Type: x50CrMoV15 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention Still the best—and a bargain—after 20 years, this knife’s “super-sharp” blade was “silent” and “smooth,” even as it cut through tough squash, and it retained its edge after weeks of testing. Its textured grip felt secure for a wide range of hand sizes, and thanks to its gently rounded edges and the soft, hand-polished top spine, we could comfortably choke up on the knife for “precise,” “effortless” cuts. RECOMMENDED VICTORINOX Swiss Army Swiss Classic 8" Chef’s Knife Model: 6.8063.20US1 Price: $37.62 Blade Angle: 15 degrees Steel Type: x50CrMoV15 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention Marketed as the consumer version of the Fibrox with an identical blade (and a higher price tag), this sibling made equally sharp, agile cuts. The downside was the handle, which exchanges the textured grip for a “hard,” “slippery” one with a “bigger belly” curve and an indented ridge. Testers complained that their hands were “pulled open wider” and that they were forced to grip “too far back,” resulting in less comfort and control. MERCER Renaissance Forged Riveted 8" Chef’s Knife Model: M23510 Price: $31.99 Blade Angle: 15 degrees Steel Type: x50CrMoV15 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention ½ ½ This knife’s blade was “sturdy” and “plenty sharp”—splitting bone is “no problem,” one tester said—and its curve “rocked well.” However, we deducted minor points for a semisharp spine that dug into a few testers’ hands. Some testers liked that the “heavier handle” felt “solid” and “nicely balanced”; others did not prefer the “heft.” RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS MESSERMEISTER Four Seasons 8-Inch Chef’s Knife Model: 5025-8 Price: $42 Blade Angle: 20 degrees Steel Type: x55CrMoV14 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention ½ “Chunky” and “fat” is how testers described this blade—the thickest and broadest that we tested. As a result, it “wedged” through squash instead of slicing it, but it made for a “solid butchering knife.” Its “sharp” spine drew some complaints from testers using the pinch grip to choke up, but the handle was “comfortable.” NOT RECOMMENDED SCHMIDT BROTHERS Cutlery Bonded Teak Series 8" Chef Knife Model: SBOCH08 Price: $49.95 Blade Angle: 19 degrees Steel Type: x50CrMoV15 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention ½ ½ ½ The “maneuverable” blade made “quick work” of a whole chicken, but its “dull” edge sprayed onion juice and got stuck, marooned halfway down a butternut squash. Testers wanted to choke up on the knife, but its sharp spine forced them to hold it farther back on the “rough wood” handle, decreasing leverage. Larger-handed testers struck their knuckles on the cutting board due to the lack of clearance underneath the handle. HENCKELS INTERNATIONAL Classic 8-Inch Chef’s Knife Model: 31161-201 Price: $49.95 Blade Angle: 17.5 degrees Steel Type: x55CrMoV15 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention ½ ½ ½ This knife’s squared-off, “uncomfortable” handle dug into testers’ palms, the blade’s spine into their fingers. Though the blade was “reasonably sharp,” the last bit of edge near the handle was left unsharpened (the bolster blocks sharpening); as a result, we lost a centimeter of cutting real estate. WÜSTHOF Silverpoint II 8-Inch Cook’s Knife Model: 4561/20 Price: $38.72 Blade Angle: 14 degrees Steel Type: modified 420 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention ½ ½ This knife features a “thin,” “lightweight” blade attached to a “skinny,” “super-cheap” handle. Most testers found the knife “sharp” and “agile” but lamented that the blade felt “flimsy” and “wobbly” when cutting dense squash. Gripping the “pencil”-thin plastic han- dle was like holding a tube of lipstick—in other words, we “couldn’t get a good purchase on it.” Also, there wasn’t enough clearance underneath the blade for our knuckles. CAT CORA by Starfrit 8" Chef Knife Model: 070301-006-0000 Price: $31.65 Blade Angle: 17.5 degrees Steel Type: x50CrMoV15 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention ½ ½ ½ Some testers appreciated this blade’s upturned tip and pronounced curve for chicken butchering and rocking over herbs, respectively, but many found the angle uncom- fortable, as it forced them to lift their elbows to direct the tip. The wooden handle was “secure” but “too narrow” and long—the end “hit my forearm,” multiple testers complained, and it lacked sufficient clearance underneath for larger knuckles. DEXTER-RUSSELL V-Lo 8-Inch Cook’s Knife Model: 29243 Price: $40.25 Blade Angle: 16 degrees Steel Type: modified 420 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention ½ “I can hear the cells bursting,” one tester said as the knife crushed the onion she was chopping. This “dull,” “flat” blade made from lower-quality steel “smushed” parsley rather than making precise cuts, while its spine dug into our hands as we choked up. The handle’s rubber ridges were designed to be grippy, but they cut into our palms. There wasn’t enough clearance underneath for our knuckles. OXO Professional 8" Chef’s Knife Model: 1064648 Price: $19.99 Blade Angle: 15 degrees Steel Type: 420 Blade Design Handle Kitchen Tasks Edge Retention Brand-new copies of this blade struggled to slice paper. It was “flimsy”; cutting chicken and squash felt “unsafe.” It shared the same design issues as other models: a sharp spine and not enough knuckle clearance for larger hands. OXO’s usual grippy handle was “comfortable” when dry but became super slick when held by wet hands. S E P T E M B E R & O C T O B E R 2 0 1 3 27 HANDLE Handles that felt comfortable and secure for a range of tasks and a variety of grips rated highest. KITCHEN TASKS We butchered whole chickens; chopped unwieldy butternut squash; diced onions; and minced pars- ley, carrying out each task 60 times. We averaged scores from each test to get the overall rating. EDGE RETENTION We evaluated each blade fresh out of the box, during testing, and at the end of testing by slicing through sheets of copier paper— our standard sharpness test.