If you want a sharp and affordable knife to prep food with, you should get the Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch chef's knife.
The Swiss aren't renowned for their kitchen knives, but judging from this $30 knife, they should be. In a head-to-head test, the Victorinox beat out a comparable knife from notable German knife maker Henckels that cost three times as much.
Buying a chef's knife is a lot like buying a musical instrument. There's going to be a lot of variation, even among instruments of the same kind. As an amateur chef, you want an instrument that is not only appropriate to your current skill level and budget, but also one that won't hold you back as your skills improve with practice. Like an instrument, a chef's knife is something that you hope to be using on an almost daily basis. Accordingly, you're going to want to pick something that feels good to you. This is something that is better investigated in person. That being said, like musical instruments, there are certain designs (like the Victorinox) that work well for most people. In this sense, the 8-inch Victorinox is like a low-end Yamaha acoustic guitar. It's affordable on almost any budget, comfortable to most people, and has performance that even professionals can appreciate.
Why are we recommending one knife as opposed to a whole set? The answer is simple: You need only one. Mark Bittman, renowned cooking advice columnist for the New York Times and the author of "How to Cook Everything," wrote an column back in 2007 about what you really need to have a complete kitchen — a must-read for cooks of all skill levels. In it, he lists only three types of knives: an 8-inch chef's knife, a $3 paring knife, and a bread knife. A good paring knife is essential for smaller tasks like peeling, but they're also almost literally a dime a dozen at this point; so there's really no point in stressing over which is the best. Bread knives are necessary for cutting, well, bread, what else? But with these knives, it's really the jagged serration that does most of the work so it's not essential to get the sharpest tool possible. The chef's knife however, is a totally different animal. It needs to be a good one.
The Victorinox may only cost $30, but it packs some serious features for its price. First and foremost, it has stamped X50CrMoV15 steel: the same high-carbon, stain-resistant steel you'd find in much more expensive knives, like the Wusthof Classic, but for a much lower price. You also get a textured Fibrox handle, which is easy to grip, even when wet. It's also dishwasher safe, although I wouldn't recommend running it, or any other knife, through a dishwasher. The extreme heat and harsh detergent can negatively affect the heat treatment on the blade. Worst-case scenario, if you do manage to totally screw it up, the Victorinox comes with a lifetime warranty.
In most categories it's difficult to find reviews of budget-oriented gear, but apparently knives are the exception. The Victorinox stood out as the knife to beat.
America's Test Kitchen loved it and gave it top marks in every category (handle, blade, slicing, chopping, mincing, and butchering). It was also the only "Highly Recommended" knife in its "Inexpensive Chef's Knives" category, where it won out over eight other knives including offerings from premium brands like Wusthof and Henckels.
Lest you think it's only good when compared to other cheap knives, the Victorinox was also "Highly Recommended" in the "Hybrid Chef's Knife" category. But this time it shared that title with 2 other Japanese knives, each costing four-to-five times as much as the Victorinox. It also placed first in the general "Chef's Knife" category, which included eight knives ranging in price from $25 to $112.
Michael Chu from Cooking for Engineers also liked it, naming it "Best Value" in a extensive and comparative test between 11 different knives from some of the best German and Japanese brands around (read about his methods here). Overall, the Japanese knives handily defeated the German offerings thanks to their thinner blades and harder steel, but that's to be expected. What surprised me was that the Victorinox (listed under its old Forschner moniker) beat out its German rivals from Wusthof and Henckels in every test performed. It's worth noting that since this test was conducted in November 2005, Wusthof has redesigned their knives with a steeper 14-degree bevel similar to what you'd find on a Japanese knife. Thus, it's entirely likely that a new Wusthof Classic would outperform the Victorinox in these same tests. That doesn't detract from this knife's prowess and value, though.
Good Housekeeping's Research Institute was impressed by a similar version as well, they gave it a solid B overall, citing an uncomfortable handle as its main detractor. But that's probably due to the weird concave handle in the model they tested. The current iteration has a plump handle that is not only comfortable, but also super grippy thanks to its textured surface.
Users love the Victorinox as well. For a while, it was the top-rated product on all of Amazon, and it's still up there with a 4.7 star rating averaged over 772 reviews. It also boasts a 4.9 star average on Cooking.com averaged over 60 ratings with 100% of reviewers saying they would recommend it to a friend.
Of course, it's not perfect. One of the major complaints against it is that it is stamped instead of forged. This means that the blade is stamped or laser-cut out of a larger sheet of steel, which is then heat treated, sharpened and attached to a handle. Typically in cheaper knives, the metal part does not extend fully through the handle (full tang), which can lead to poor handling performance in some cases. On the other hand, forged knives start out as a solid chunk of steel which is then heated until it's red hot, then hammered (forged) into a knife shape, handle and all. It's then heat-treated, sharpened, and finally finished with handle scales. Stamped knives tend to be thinner, lighter and cheaper to produce whereas forged knives have a thicker blade, healthy heft, and a more involved, costlier construction process. What this means to you as a home cook is a whole lot of nothing. It really doesn't matter how a knife was made as long as it performs well, feels good, and doesn't bust your budget. In fact, many chefs prefer stamped knives for their lightness and thinness, which lets them slice more easily through many types of food. The only reviewer who had anything bad to say about the Victorinox's handling characteristics was Good Housekeeping, which tested a model with a different handle.
Most other knives in this price range are not worth looking at. They're cheaply made out of unspecified stainless, or "high carbon" stainless steel that doesn't stay sharp over extended use (see description for "Surgical Stainless Steel"). This includes offerings from budget-oriented brands like OXO and Chicago Cutlery as well as more premium and expensive makes such as Henckels. The Dexter-Russell Sani-Safe chef's knife recommended in the aforementioned Mark Bittman column is the exception. In fact, it's basically the same knife as the Victorinox, but with a softer grip. The problem is that they're really more geared toward professionals, which sounds impressive, but isn't necessarily a good thing for you as a normal person. When a restaurant breaks a knife, they buy a new one. If you break a knife, you're going to want to get it replaced under warranty if possible. The Victorinox has a lifetime warranty, the Dexter-Russell does not. Furthermore, they can be somewhat difficult to find if you don't live near a restaurant supply store. Both cost about the same on Amazon depending on who you buy it from but really, you should just stick with the Victorinox.
Although the Victorinox is plenty enough knife for most people, I can totally understand wanting to spend more on something nicer. Be forewarned though, shopping for a premium knife is not nearly as simple as picking a knife that works really well for all intents and purposes. There's really no way for someone else to determine what the best knife for you is. That being said, if you want a more high end knife, you could do a whole lot worse than the $130 MAC MTH-80. The Victorinox is a great deal and a capable knife, but it will really only get you about 80-90% of the performance of a high performance knife, the MAC will bump that figure up to about 95%. Getting that last 5% however, would mean spending several hundred dollars more on a custom blade, not worth it for the vast majority of cooks.
The MTH-80 is a Western-styled, Japanese-made stamped knife made of a tungsten-alloyed "Superior Steel" that features an exceptionally sharp edge that is gradually tapered to a point as opposed to the bezeled blades you find on most knives (click here to read about the differences between Eastern and Western knives). It's also got dimples on the blade, which keeps food from sticking to it, a useful feature common to santoku knives but rare on chef's knives. It's not as pretty as other Damascus-clad Japanese knives such as Shun's offerings, but it's a good deal sharper. In the Cooking for Engineers comparison test, the MTH-80 consistently placed first or second in every testing category. This puts it head and shoulders above even the Nenox S1, a forged Japanese knife that sells for well over $300. The Victorinox may be better than its German brethren, but the MAC is better than just about everything out there — except maybe the Global G-2 (another taper-edged knife). It's true that the G-2 was slightly better at pure cutting in a number of tests, but reviewer Michael Chu still picked the MTH-80 as the overall winner thanks to its more comfortable, pakka-wood handle (the Global uses a tapered and dimpled stainless steel handle shaped like a baby carrot which many users find uncomfortable or difficult to hold; especially those with larger hands). Chu isn't alone in his thinking either, the MAC also carries the endorsement of Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert who own and run three three-Michelin-star restaurants between the two of them. That being said, I can't stress enough how important it is that you try out expensive knives before you buy them. The best way to do this is to borrow some from a friend and cook a few meals, but if that's not possible, Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma are more than happy to let you try theirs.
It's also worth mentioning that even the best knife can be useless, even dangerous, if you don't know how to use and take care of it. For cutting technique, I refer you to this excellent instructional video by Food Network celebrity chef, Alton Brown. As for maintenance, the two most important things you need to know are how to store them—use a knife block, magnetic strip, or a special knife drawer organizer in order to keep them from being chipped—and how to hone them in order to keep the edge straight and aligned between sharpening. For this, I refer you to this how-to video by master knife-maker, Bob Kramer. Sharpening is an art form best left to the professionals. If you don't have access to a good cutlery store, check out this Wall Street Journal comparison of online services. All the services provided good sharpening but the Knife Guy set himself apart by offering the most convenient ordering and shipping system. Oh and don't forget, do not put knives in the dishwasher.
There's more than one way to skin a cat, but methods aside, the Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch chef's knife is a great tool for this, or any cutting job really. Its exceptional price to performance ratio, quality steel, and universally comfortable styling make it a good fit for any cook in any kitchen. You could spend a lot more to get a more personalized cutting experience, but for most people, it's simply not worth the added cost both in cash, and time spent researching.