The Anatomy of a Chef's Knife

Chefs knife cutting vegetables
Cultura RM Exclusive/Leon Harris/Getty Images
  • 01 of 07

    Chef's Knife Overview

    7 Basic Parts of a Chef's Knife
    Photo © Danilo Alfaro

    The chef's knife is probably a cook's most important tool. And given the amount of time it spends in your hand, it's definitely worth making sure you have a good one.

    A lot of people suggest purchasing "the best knife you can afford." But that's not much help unless you know what makes one knife better than another. Otherwise, you're just buying the most expensive knife you can afford.

    The best knives are forged from a single piece of steel that runs the entire length of the knife. Read on for a quick tutorial on the various parts of a chef's knife, what they do and why they're important.

    Continue to 2 of 7 below.
  • 02 of 07

    Chef's Knife: The Blade

    Chef's knife blade
    Photo © Danilo Alfaro

    The best chef's knives are made of high-carbon stainless steel, which is a very hard metal that keeps its edge for a long time and won't discolor or rust like ordinary carbon steel.

    To be sure, knives made from ordinary carbon steel aren't necessarily inferior. Some chefs love them because the relatively softer metal makes them easier to sharpen. Of course, they go dull more easily, too.

    Chef's knives are measured in inches, and lengths of 8" to 12" are common. A longer blade lets you make longer single-stroke cuts when slicing. The so-called "German" style of chef's knife tends to have a more curved section at the front of the blade, good for chopping in an up-and-down "rocking" motion.

    The "French" style is straighter, and more triangular, which is good for a "slicing" type of motion where the knife is drawn straight back toward you.

    In this picture, we see the edge of a Japanese-style santoku knife. The hollow, beveled indentations ground into the blade are designed to create tiny pockets of air between the knife and the product being sliced, reducing friction and minimizing sticking.

    Continue to 3 of 7 below.
  • 03 of 07

    Chef's Knife: The Handle

    Chef's knife handle
    Photo © Danilo Alfaro

    Unless you're very unlucky, the part of a chef's knife you'll have the most contact with is the handle. So you'll want to make sure it's comfortable and fits your hand. It shouldn't feel slippery or cause you to have to grip excessively hard.

    Chef's knife handles have traditionally been made of wood, but wooden handles present certain problems. For one, because wood is porous, knife handles made of wood can harbor bacteria that cause food-related illness. Many local health departments prohibit the use of wooden-handled knives in commercial foodservice.

    Bacteria can also grow in the tiny cracks where the wood joins the steel or around the rivets. Wooden handles don't fare well in the dishwasher, either, though to be fair, you shouldn't be running your knife through the dishwasher in the first place. Still, even soaking a knife can cause its wooden handle to warp or crack.

    For these reasons, knives with plastic or rubber handles (as pictured above) are increasingly popular. Additionally, some handles are made from a composite material consisting of wood that has been treated with plastic resin. That gives them the traditional appearance of wood, which many people find appealing while avoiding the sanitation concerns associated with wooden handles.

    Continue to 4 of 7 below.
  • 04 of 07

    Chef's Knife: The Heel

    Chef's knife heel
    Photo © Danilo Alfaro

    The heel is the widest part of the knife, located at the rear of the blade where it meets the handle. This section of the cutting edge is used for chopping hard items like carrots, nuts or even chicken bones.

    Knives with longer blades produce greater leverage, thus generating greater cutting force at the heel of the blade. A heavier knife also increases cutting force, but it's more tiring to use, too.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Chef's Knife: The Tang

    Chef's knife tang
    Photo © Danilo Alfaro

    As mentioned earlier, the best knives are forged from a single piece of steel that runs the entire length of the knife. That means the steel extends all the way into the handle. The section of steel inside the handle is called the tang, and if it goes all the way to the end of the handle, it's called a "full tang."

    In addition to providing strength, full-tang construction offers better balance, making a knife easier to use. "Partial-tang" or "half-tang" knives are barely worth talking about, let alone buying. 

    This picture shows the tang sandwiched between the two halves of the wooden handle. In knives with synthetic handles, the tang may not be visible.

    Continue to 6 of 7 below.
  • 06 of 07

    Chef's Knife: The Rivets

    Chef's knife rivets
    Photo © Danilo Alfaro

    Rivets are the raised, cylindrical studs that keep the handle securely attached to the tang portion of the knife. This type of construction is typical of knives with wooden handles. If rivets are present, make sure that their tops are smooth and that they don't protrude from the handle at all.

    In addition to showing the rivets, the photo above also shows the tang sandwiched between the two halves of the handle.

    Continue to 7 of 7 below.
  • 07 of 07

    Chef's Knife: The Bolster

    Chef's Knife bolster
    Photo © Danilo Alfaro

    The bolster is the thick shoulder of heavy steel located at the front of the handle where it meets the spine or the top (non-cutting) edge of the blade. In addition to balancing the knife, the bolster also helps keeps your fingers from slipping while you work, thus preventing hand fatigue and blisters.

    Not every chef's knife will have a bolster. A bolster indicates that a knife has been forged from a single chunk of steel, as opposed to being stamped out of a roll of sheet metal. These stamped knives are generally inferior to forged knives. The thickness of a bolster shows how thick the original chunk of steel was—and the thicker, the better.