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Despite large, alluring knife block sets on the market, truly upgrading your cooking game is less about quantity and more about quality. Ask any culinary pro and they will likely have the same advice: A few quality knives are all any chef needs to more than cover their bases in the kitchen. "Knives are a chef’s best friend and the most essential tool in every kitchen. You’ll pick one up literally every time you cook,” says chef Dennis Prescott, co-host of Restaurants on the Edge and author of “Eat Delicious: 125 Recipes for Your Daily Dose of Awesome.” “For most households,” Prescott said, the three knives that will “do the trick” are a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated knife. “Do I have more shapes and sizes of knives in my kit? Yes. Do I need more than these three? Not really.”
But just as essential as narrowing down the right type of knives for you in the sea of gadgets and accessories, is how you care for them once you start cooking. “The most important thing about knives, no matter the kind, is to keep them sharp,” says celebrity chef David Burke. “To keep them sharp, hand wash and dry them – don’t put them in the dishwasher, which can dull blades and destroy handles – and then store properly in a knife drawer, block or on a magnetic wall strip.”
Another thing to keep in mind before knife shopping is that it all comes down to personal preference and how that option feels in your hand. “Whether you prefer the Japanese-style santoku or German and French-style chef’s knife, you want to love your knife. Like, actually love,” says Prescott. “It’ll make cooking so much more enjoyable.”
I always suggest going with individual knife purchases rather than buying the ‘block-style’ bulk sets. That way you can customize your knife collection to suit your individual needs.
Dennis Prescott, Co-Host, Restaurants on the Edge
How to shop for essential knives
There are countless knife options in every price point to consider, as well as oversized sets with flashy components, so how do you determine the best investment for your needs? We consulted chefs on this very point — they advised paying particular attention to the knives’ material and weight, as well as how you plan to use and what you hope to spend on it.
The right knife material
Quality knives typically come in one of three different materials:
- High carbon steel
- Stainless steel
- A composite of both
“High carbon steel holds a sharp edge but will rust and pit if not taken care of, stainless steel doesn’t hold an edge as well but is easier to care for, and a composite has the best of both worlds in durability and ease of care,” says Frank Proto, director of culinary operations at the Institute of Culinary Education.
However, if you’re on a tight budget, Burke says shoppers shouldn’t underestimate (the often more affordable) ceramic knives. ”The sharpest knives I have right now are ceramic and you can put those in the dishwasher,” he says. “They keep their edge — and they’re pretty in bright colors!”
The weight of knives
Knives aren’t a “one size fits all” situation — how it feels in your hand matters more than many realize. “You always want knives whose weight and size are somewhat comparable to that of the person using them,” says Burke. “A small person is not going to be comfortable with, or accurately handle, a large, heavy knife, and it’s important that you feel comfortable with the knives you use.”
Prescott emphasizes that finding the right knife is extremely personal. Plus, you’ll be less likely to pick it up each day if you don’t find one that’s great for you. “It should fit like a glove,” he says. “Are they too heavy? Too light? Coming from someone who’s used a ‘bad’ knife to chop onions for four hours and dealt with the blister battle wounds, you want a knife that is comfortable and fun for you to use.”
How knives are built
Depending on the type of knife you buy, the blade can be constructed in one of two ways: either as one piece of steel, extending from the blade’s edge and through the handle, or it can be stamped.
- A forged knife is formed from a single bar of steel, which is heated and then pounded into shape — it’s typically heavier, Prescott notes.
- A stamped knife is comprised of a blade and a handle, the former cut out of a large piece of steel, honed, heat-treated for durability and attached to the latter. These knives tend to be less expensive and not as strong as those that are forged.
”At the end of the day, both options are great — It’s really about how the knife feels in your hand, and all comes down to personal preference,” he says.
How strong knives can get
How strong a knife is depends on both the blade’s material and construction. “Hand forged knives tend to be stronger because of the way they are heat-treated. Less expensive knives rarely go through this process,” says Proto. “These knives are not as common and are more expensive because they tend to be made from better quality metal, as well as made by hand.” There are two types of steel typically used in knives:
- Carbon steel is usually a much harder steel. “It also has the ability to maintain a sharper edge longer,” says McFarland. “But it is prone to rust if not cared for properly.”
- Stainless steel’s edge is easier to sharpen because it isn’t as hard. That also means that the edge dulls faster. It’s also easier to care for and less likely to rust, according to McFarland.
“I always use knives made with high carbon steel. There's usually a marking on the blade that indicates this,” he says. “High carbon steel may be a little bit more expensive but it will be a much sharper and safer knife. It will last much longer and you can get brands that don’t cost you an arm and a leg.”
McFarland also recommends checking out the knife’s Rockwell scale rating, which is a way of measuring the hardness of steel. “You often see it indicated on the edge of a blade with the initials (HRC),” he says. “ Look for something in the 40-50 range. This will ensure you have a good steel that will maintain a sharp edge.”
What knives cost
Knives are an investment, and long-lasting knives aren’t necessarily cheap. A higher quality knife that costs more will typically hold an edge better and last longer because it is made from a higher quality steel, adds Proto, while their less expensive counterparts are made from cheaper steel that dulls faster.
Which is why Prescott advises sticking to those essential few and investing in the best quality you can afford. “As long as you care for them properly, they will last a lifetime. It’s well worth the investment,” he says.
How you use knives
Beyond a chef’s knife, paring knife and serrated knife, there are myriad options in the knife world that can become overwhelming when you’re trying to buy the perfect knife. Before making any purchases, stop and consider what you actually need in the kitchen. “If you’re a vegetarian, for example, steer clear of boning knives,” says Prescott. “I always suggest going with individual knife purchases rather than buying the ‘block-style’ bulk sets. That way you can customize your knife collection to suit your individual needs.”
The best knife for every home cook
From a beloved budget-friendly chef knife to a santoku knife worth splurging on, these are the essential home knives across price points that our experts recommend investing in. And remember, you don't have to build up your knife collection overnight — a few key pieces is more worthwhile than a massive set with a wide variety of mediocre knives.
How to buy a chef’s knife
This all-purpose knife is what you’ll use for almost every task in the kitchen, says Prescott. Originating in Germany and France, a chef’s knife can vary in length from six to 12 inches and has a broad blade that curves upwards to form a tip. From chopping meat to dicing vegetables, a versatile chef’s knife is a must-have but it’s key that you find one that’s comfortable to use for extended periods of time. “They’re great for ‘rocker-style’ chopping and are typically heavier than their Japanese-style counterparts,” says Prescott, alluding to the Santoku knife, which we cover below.
Best all-around chef’s knife: Wüsthof
Wüsthof’s versatile high-carbon steel chef’s knife is a kitchen workhorse that will be indispensable for years to come with a sturdy, eight-inch blade. “This is the first knife you need to purchase. A good chef’s knife is the basic knife and will last a lifetime,” says Jakob Esko, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. “The heel of the blade is thick and will not get damaged by heavy duty usage. This was my first knife and I still use it today.”
Best affordable chef’s knife: Victorinox
From the non-slip handle for easy maneuvering to the comfortable weight, this eight-inch chef’s knife is both practical and dependable. Plus, the stainless steel blade has the convenience of being dishwasher safe for a low-maintenance option that still offers sharp precision. “I have an affinity for the Victorinox brand,” says Jereme McFarland of Bourbons Bistro. “My pastry chef currently uses an eight-inch Victorinox chef knife which is amazingly affordable. They are known for their durability and how long they maintain their sharp edge.”
Best high-end chef’s knife: Mac
This lightweight Japanese chef’s knife is a favorite across kitchens with a two millimeters thick, eight- inch blade. Made from steel, the stain-resistant, razor sharp blade features dimples for added ease when slicing through potentially sticky foods. “I have mostly Mac knives, the blade is excellent and sharp and the handle is a nice fit,” says Esko. “Mac also uses rust-resistant Chrome Molybdenum Vanadium High-Carbon cutlery steel, with tungsten and I have never had issues of corrosion.”
How to buy a santoku knife
The santoku knife is Japan’s version of an all-purpose knife, and it is similar to a chef’s knife. Used for a variety of tasks in the kitchen, from cutting meats to chopping nuts, a santoku blade typically ranges from five to eight inches long. “This style has a wide blade with no tip, a dull back spine that curves down to meet the straight-edged front blade,” says Prescott. “It’s thinner and lighter to hold than a chef’s knife and allows for more refined slicing (and my personal preference in the kitchen).”
Best all around santoku knife: Shun
With an ebony pakkawood handle and Damascus steel-clad, hand-sharpened blade, this Japanese knife is equally beautiful and durable. With a shorter blade at seven inches, this option is Esko’s clear favorite. “This is a well-priced knife and the thickness of the blade is thin so it can be maintained extremely sharp,” he says.
Best affordable santoku knife: Victorinox
Victorinox’s Fibrox Pro santoku knife delivers an agile stainless steel blade at a pleasing price point. This seven-inch knife nails the essential slicing, dicing, mincing and offers the added ease of being dish-washer safe.
Best high-end santoku knife: Shosui Takeda
Prescott’s favorite Takeda knife is steel clad with stainless steel and has traveled with him all over the world as an impressive workhorse perfect for almost any kitchen task he’s come up against. “I’ve absolutely fallen in love with knives from Japanese rockstar blacksmith Shosui Takeda,” he says. “They’re works of art, incredibly beautiful, and sharp as all hell.”
How to buy a bread knife
This serrated knife has small teeth along the blade to help cut through hard crusts without crushing the bread, explains Proto. But your use for this knife will go way past bread — the sharp serrated edge cuts through other foods with hard surfaces but soft insides, like tomatoes. “The bread knife that’s much more than a bread knife,” says Prescott. “From carving roasts to slicing melon or eggplant — and yes, slicing bread — a serrated knife can often be a lifesaver in the kitchen.”
Best all around bread knife: Wüsthof
Wüsthof’s Grand Prix II eight-inch bread knife is Proto’s top pick because it’s fairly compact, slim and sharp. The high-carbon-steel serrated blade resists stains and corrosion while maintaining its pristine edge. “It feels good in my hand, it’s durable and it’s aesthetically pleasing,” he says.
Best affordable bread knife: Victorinox
For Esko, there’s only one bread knife that matters: The Victorinox ten-inch serrated bread knife. “It is without doubt the best serrated knife on the market,” he says. For a slightly higher price, he prefers the version with a wooden handle for a more comfortable grip. Either way, it’s the blade that delivers results Esko raves over. “Generally, bread knives teeth are too sharp, making them suitable only for slicing bread,” he says. “This Victorinox one is so smooth, it’s the best knife for slicing food with different layers of resistance. I would not necessarily call this a bread knife as it is perfect for so many different tasks.”
Best high-end bread knife: Misono
With a high-carbon stainless steel blade that comes in two sizes, Misono’s Molybdenum Steel Series bread knife is a top option for Jonathan McDowell, the culinary director of Slater Hospitality. From the water-resistant composite wood handle to the sophisticated serration, this knife is for more than just cutting bread and will slice through tomatoes, melons and other delicate foods without crushing them. McDowell considers this an essential part of his kit due to this versatility. “I love how this is a longer bread knife, but very light,” he says.
How to buy a paring knife
The paring knife is a small, short-bladed knife, used for intricate cutting, peeling, mincing and dicing, says McDowel. The straight blades typically range from two to four inches and are ideal for more delicate slicing, deveining shrimp, trimming and cutting fruit into different shapes. “It’s a small knife tailor-made for the finer, more finesse-required jobs in the kitchen that require a more delicate touch like hulling strawberries,” adds Prescott.
Best all around and affordable paring knife: Victorinox
It’s clear from many of our experts, Victornox’s paring knives aren’t just budget-friendly, they’re also reliable. With options in length and straight or serrated blade, these multi-purpose knives are ideal for intricate cutting and peeling. “For paring knives, the least expensive one is one of the best options and I would never stray away from the basic Victorinox paring knife,” says Esko. “It has a great design, sharp blade and it's inexpensive. In kitchens, the paring knives tend to disappear so that is yet another reason to select this one.”
Best high-end paring knife: JCK Natures
At 3.5 inches, JCK Natures’ Raiun Series paring knife is an upscale Japanese option. From the deep red wood handle to the Damascus steel hand-sharpened blade, this beautiful knife makes an elegant first impression. For the price and overall quality, McDowell recommends this knife to both culinary pros and those new in the kitchen who are willing to splurge on an investment tool for assisting with intricate cuts and deveining shrimp.
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