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Best Chef Knife — Don’t Overrate the Factory Edge

Global santoku knife edge close-up

I had to laugh the other day while reading a blog by a guy who, on a quest for what might be the best chef knife, meticulously tested the sharpitude of a bunch of brand-name knives right out of the box. He took nine blades through their paces—slicing up a carrot, potato, tomato, etc.—notated their performance and then rated them on a chart. There were clear winners and clear losers, but no real surprises (at least not to those of us familiar with quality chef knives).

While I totally empathized with his desire to slash through the marketing hype and discover for himself what might be the sharpest and, thus, the best chef knife, I found it important to remind myself that his fervor was slightly misplaced. Because all he was really testing was what is commonly called the “factory edge”—the level of sharpness each manufacturer grinds and polishes their knives to before they exit the factory floor.

“. . .under average use and even if maintained to perfection, the factory edge will only last a year or two.”

What’s wrong with that you might ask? Isn’t that the only fair way to compare just how sharp a knife from each knifemaker actually is? Well, yes, sort of. But it’s not realistic. And it’s not very accurate—in the long-term. Why? Because the edge that’s being tested, no matter what, will not last. As a matter of fact, under average use and even if maintained to perfection, this factory edge will only last a year or two max. Then, it will be time for resharpening. And then the performance of each one of these knives, will even out considerably. And the best chef knife will depend more upon the expertise of who last sharpened it than the edge it left the factory with.

honing regularly
• using only a soft plastic or medium-hard wooden cutting board
• never washing in the dishwasher or left banging around in the sink
• never used for hacking through things like chicken bones or frozen cookie dough

Let me be more specific: If I were to send all nine of these chef knives to one of my favorite professional sharpening services, say Seattle Knife Sharpening, and on their return run them through the very same series of tests—I’m betting the difference between the winners and losers would narrow down quite a bit. As a matter of fact, in many cases, it would probably be hard to detect much difference at all. How do I know this? I’ve done it.

That’s NOT to say that all quality chef knives, once you get past the factory edge, are pretty much equal. Of course not. Some, because of the steel they’re made of and the way they’ve been heat processed, will definitely hold a finer edge and keep it longer. And some will be more versatile or require less maintenance or withstand more abuse. And, of course, some will simply feel more comfortable in the palm of your hand. That’s to be expected.

MAC MTH-80 – Professional Series 8 Chef’s Knife with Dimples

MAC MTH-80 – Professional Series 8-inch Chef Knife with Dimples

BUY NOW @ Amazon: $145

If you’re looking for the ultimate cutting machine, this is it. Few other knives have consistently garnered as much praise from reviewers and chefs alike for its razor sharpitude. Chefs—such as Charlie Trotter—love MAC knives!

The fit and finish of this model is nothing fancy because MAC has put all its energy into the perfecting of the blade. It’s made from hard Japanese steel that’s been machined thin (unlike you’re typical Wusthof) to minimize its resistance when slicing through harder foods like carrots and rutabagas. It comes from the factory with a blistering sharp edge and, if you treat it right (which would include honing regularly), it will keep its edge for a long long time between sharpenings.

Sooo, what’s the moral of the story? There are two really:

1) Finding the best chef knife, or more accurately put, the one best for you, shouldn’t depend solely on how sharp it is out of the box.

2) Your long-term satisfaction with whatever chef knife you choose to call your own will depend more upon how well you maintain it—by using the right cutting boards, honing regularly, properly sharpening—than upon the exact brand or model. Because a quality chef knife could last thirty years or more and require quite a few sharpenings. And proper maintenance is crucial to your enjoyment!

For a crash course on how to keep your kitchen knives sharp and happy, read Kitchen Knife Sharpening Action Plan. And for more tips on how to find the best chef knife (for you), check out my articles on best chef knives and buying a great chef knife.

6 Responses

  1. I agree that long term satisfaction depends upon how well you maintain your knife rather than which brand it belongs to. Interesting thing is I had bought a similar MAC MTH-80 last month. I always see that I use proper cutting boards and also store it in a good knife block so that I get a good performance for a longer period of time.

  2. I agree, that it is very important to find a knife that fits you and your needs.
    You can’t have a knife that doesn’t fit well in your hand… I mean a knife is useless if you won’t use it, ya know?

    Informative post and a nice read, thanks :)

  3. I find a lot of knives factory edges are not nearly the best edge that can be put on the knife. Testing the factory edge hardly constitutes a full test of the knife.

    Also the knife with the best edge for going through carrots and tomatoes might not be the best knife for everyone. A ultra-hard Japanese knife with a very acute edge is probably going perform really well in those tests but is definitely not always the right knife, especially for a home chef.

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