As kitchen tools go, your knives are your closest friends—the ones you count on to be at your side through thick and thin. No matter what kind of knife you need, purchasing the right one for the job comes down to construction, design and feel. Pronto’s Kitchen Knife Buying Guide helps you focus on the qualities that will make the difference between knives that simply look nice, and knives that serve you well for a lifetime. With some care and consideration, it’s easy to choose a few knives that will do the work of many, and ideally, hold up well enough to be the last kitchen knives you ever need to buy.
Experts say all you really need is a chef’s knife, paring knife and utility knife. Invest in these three essentials versus spending your dollars on full-blown knife sets, unless you plan to invest in a high-end set. Sankotu knives are rivaling chef’s knives in the US based on their versatility and smaller size, but those made in countries other than Japan use softer steel than the originals. If you want a sankotu, invest in Japanese-made.
Forged steel knives are more costly, but stronger and more durable than most stamped steel knives and are full tang which offers the cook better leverage and more balanced weight. Stamped steel quality is improving, however, and soon these less expensive blades may be as good as forged.
High-carbon stainless steel blades offer the best of all worlds: they’re strong, durable, won’t discolor or corrode, retain a sharp edge and are easy to care for.
Fine-edge blades extend the life of your knives by allowing you to sharpen them again and again. When evaluating edge profiles or cutting angles, the smaller the profile, the more precise the knife will cut, however, they will be more prone to damage if used regularly on hard surfaces.
Read user reviews to hear how handle grips respond to wet or messy cooking conditions. If you have smaller hands, Wusthof and sankotu knives are known for being easier to grip, manage and maneuver.
Japanese version of the traditional Western chef’s knife that’s said to handle meat, fish, poultry and vegetables equally well. Sometimes favored by cooks with smaller hands, this fine-edged, forged steel blade is gaining popularity in the culinary world.
Forged knives are individually cast from molten metal which results in a stronger, more durable blade than those stamped from cold-rolled steel. Forged knives are more expensive to produce
Knife blades that are smooth, not serrated.
Flat ground blades are sharpened evenly from the spine to edge. In order to be considered a true flat ground blade, the knife must have no bevels.
The thick piece of metal where blade meets handle, usually found only on forged steel knives. Some cooks prefer the leverage and protection a bolster gives their cutting hand, as well as the heft of the added weight. Some bolsters stop short of the blade edge to allow for easier sharpening.
The continuation of the blade through the handle. Full tang means the blade extends all the way to the butt of the handle and this gives a knife balance and stability, given that it’s the actual blade your hand is wrapped around, not just something attached to it.
What knives do you need? A basic outfit includes three classics and the first and by far the most important knife in any kitchen is a chef’s knife. This 8-10 inch, wide-bladed workhorse performs the bulk of chopping dicing, carving, slicing, mincing and crushing. It’s no surprise then, that a chef’s knife is the most hyped, most varied and most expensive knife on the market. Its large blade provides the heft to cut with leverage, while its curvature allows the cook to “rock” the blade for easy chopping.
Smaller in size are paring knives. These 3-4 inch blades are designed for fine precision work (e.g., peeling, coring, etc.) where a chef’s knife blade is too large for the job. To round the essential trio, you’ll need a bread knife. Most bread knives have a serrated (scalloped) that makes quick work of hard crusts and soft breads, but they’re good for more than just bread. Pineapples, tomatoes and other fruits slice best with this long-bladed tool.
The latest trend in kitchen knives comes out of Japan. The santoku knife is a modified variation of the indispensable chef’s knife. Santoku blades range from five to eight inches in length and differ from traditional chef’s knives in a few ways. First, santoku blades have an edge profile angle of 15-18 degrees which allows for finer precision cutting than a traditional chef’s knife with an edge profile angle of 20-22 degrees (this finer edge, however, means working in sinks or on other hard surfaces may damage the blade). Second, the santoku’s blade width and weight usually matches that of the handle which makes the knife feel more balanced in the hand. Lastly, sankotu knives are made from harder tempered steel, but if you’re thinking of investing in a sankotu, you’d do best to purchase one made in Japan as those made in other countries use softer steel.
Beyond these must-haves, there are a range of specialty knives designed for specific and/or occasional jobs. Which specialty knife or knives you choose will depend on the kind of cooking you do. Whether you’re carving a turkey, de-boning a chicken or need to cut through a steak hot off the grill, you’ll find a knife that’s perfectly suited to the task. If you butcher at home, consider the heavy, rectangular cleaver to chop through thick bone as well as meat. Prepare a lot of seafood? Fillet knives are indispensable as are oyster and clam knives if your seafood preference is shellfish.
Professional chefs recommend purchasing your knives separately and to invest your dollars in the three must-haves: a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a utility knife. With few exceptions, these blades can perform almost any task you’ll need to do. Spending more for these individual pieces now, along with regular sharpening and care, means you’ll likely have them for a lifetime. If you’re not sure you’ll use your knives often enough to warrant that kind of investment, purchasing a knife set is an option, but be sure the set you’re buying includes the three must-haves and any specialty knives you might need and not a lot of extras that will go unused.
Forged steel knives are made by heating steel first, then beating the steel into shape before grinding and sharpening the blade. The process is complex and adds to the cost of forged-steel knives, but the result is long-lasting durable blade that will provide years of service. Forged steel knives are also full tang, which means the steel runs from the tip of the blade all the way to butt end of the handle. What does this mean to you? Greater leverage and stability. When you hold a full-tang knife in your hand, your hand is wrapped around the metal versus a handle attached to a blade.
Stamped steel knives are less expensive to produce and thus, less expensive than forged steel knives. Stamped blades are cut, rather than beaten into shape, from sheets of cold-rolled metal. The blades are strengthened via a heat-treated tempering process after they’re formed, then ground and sharpened. More affordable in this case, means less durable. However, advances in stamped steel are making them better competitors against forged steel than they used to be. In fact, Cooks Illustrated recently named the Forschner Victorinox as its best value in chef’s knives.
Blade composition defines the quality of knives and what makes some knives last a lifetime. Knife blades may be made from high-carbon steel, stainless steel or ceramic. What you choose will mostly come down to budget, though there are some pros and cons to consider.
High-carbon steel blades are the strongest, most durable and retain a sharp edge for long time, but they can rust or discolor if not cared for properly. If maintenance is going to be an issue for you, you may want to consider high-carbon stainless steel or plain stainless steel blades instead. You’ll sacrifice a bit of sharpness, but they won’t rust and you’ll likely save a few dollars although there are some luxury stainless steels on the market, mostly coming out of Japan, that rival high-carbon steel’s performance if you’re willing to pay for the added benefit of easy care.
Ceramic blades hold an edge longer than other knives and won’t corrode, but they chip easily and will break when dropped. Like high-carbon steel blades, they require special maintenance and are probably not best suited for home use.
Serious cooks almost always favor fine-edge knives over those with serrated edges or flaunt “never-needs-sharpening” claims. Fine-edge knives can be sharpened at home or by professionals, whereas the less-expensive serrated knives can’t be sharpened at all. Once they’re dull, you may be done for. Like many items we buy for daily use, spending more upfront means spending less over the long term. Stick to fine-edge knives and sharpen regularly.
You also want to consider blade or edge profile when choosing knives. The edge profile refers to the shape of the sides of the knife’s blade. In part, this determines the angle at which you cut (smaller profiles offer more precision and thinner slices). For all-purpose use, look for knives that feature flat-ground sides which taper straight from the spine or dull back of the knife to the edge. Flat-ground profiles are stronger and more durable than hollow ground and true-flat ground blades won’t have any bevels. Think about the knife and what you’ll be using it for—it may be that if you do more fine work than coarse, you’ll benefit from a thinner, hollow-ground blade.
Most knives today feature synthetic handles that vary widely in texture, consistency, and shape. Regardless which material you choose, read user reviews to see how the knife’s grip hold up in wet or messy condition. Some knives, like the Kershaw Shun Ken Onion and the upward-tilted Alton’s Angle are designed to balance the weight of the knife from end to end. Other user review comments to look for are how solidly a knife’s joins are—from handle to blade and, if you’re considering a forged steel knife, from bolster to blade.
Another reason Western-produced sankotu knives are getting lots of press is their overall size and weight which make them a favorite among female chefs who tend to have smaller hands than men. If you’re a woman with small hands you may consider a sankotu knife or focus your research on Wusthof brand knives which are also smaller and better suited for smaller hand than other brands.