The Best Kitchen Knives – Recommendations From an Actual Chef
What's inside this article...
- The Best Kitchen Knives – Recommendations From an Actual Chef
- General Knife Terminology
- Chef’s Knife
- Paring Knife
- Serrated Knife
- Boning and Fillet Knives
- Carving Knife
- Kitchen Shears
- Shellfish Knives, and Gloves: My Top Picks
- Serrated Sandwich Spreader
Surprisingly, that fact doesn’t amaze me anymore! After all, you’ll get around 2,000,000 results for searching, “pink elephants” and almost a half a million for, “left handed monkey wrenches”!
What did amaze me, was that even after I refined my search three or four times, I wasn’t able to find one article on the subject Kitchen Knives, that included both research AND common sense recommendations that were independent of brand affiliation.
Since I am a professional chef, I thought it might be helpful to write an unbiased article, and fill in this inexplicable void.
The chef who taught my sanitation course in culinary school, dogmatically referred to a ‘training need’ as, “the gap between what the kitchen staff needs to know to perform their duties safely and effectively… and what they actually know”.
I’d like to use that term, in context, to describe what I see as a ‘training need’ in the home kitchen– particularly on the cutting board!
So, let’s get started with the some of the basics here, like general knife terminology (Knife Points), and work our way through knife descriptions and uses, (Around the Block). We’ll take a look at task specific knives, and finally, my personal recommendations (My Top Picks) for each category. Bon Appétit!
The Best Butcher Knives: Want to be using the same butcher knife that’s being used in the top restaurants in the world, here’s your guide.
The Best Shun Knives: In our review we look at the top of the line Shun knives and explain how and why these are some of the best knives available today.
General Knife Terminology
Stamped knives often begin life as a cold-rolled sheet of metal and are then cut using a press, similar to using a cookie-cutter to make cookies. They are heat treated to harden the blade. This hardening, allows the knife to be sharpened to a very fine, long lasting angle, however, it also makes the blade more difficult to re-sharpen.
Since their blades are thinner, stamped knives are usually better for precision tasks. This is why they are popular among Asian chefs, who use them to create sushi and elaborate garnishes.
Forged knives start out as bars of metal, which have been folded onto themselves many times to align the molecules within the steel, and make it stronger. It is then heated and hammered into shape either by hand, or using a hydraulic hammer.
Once fashioned into a knife blank, a forged knife often undergoes as many as 40 additional processes to ensure that it is well balanced, sturdy, and more durable.
This is why they can stand up to high impact tasks, like cutting through bones, and are generally higher quality and more expensive than stamped knives. Since they are not treated with super high heat, they are softer than stamped knives.
This allows them to be more easily re-sharpened and have greater durability, because they possess a higher degree of flexibility than stamped knives and are therefore more forgiving.
The tang of the knife, is the part that extends into the handle from the blade and connects them together. Knives can be either full tang, half tang, push tang, or rat-tail tang.
Full-Tang Knives are one solid piece. They have better balance since the tang extends all the way into your hand, giving it more weight and a better feel. Full tang knives are riveted to join two separate handle pieces, and because of this, the two are less likely to separate. The tang is also visible all the way through the handle.
Half-Tang Knives can be either half the width or half the length. This means, the tang may still be visible along the top edge of the handle, but not along the bottom. Half tangs can also be full width but only extend half way through the handle.
Push-Tang Knives are what they sound like. A partial tang is pushed into the handle and secured with glue. A partial tang is much thinner than a full tang. They can be either half-push: with the partial tang only pushed halfway into the handle, or full-push: with the partial tang pushed through the full length of the handle.
Rat-Tail Tang Knives are also what they sound like. A tang that diminishes in size, from the bolster, to the back of the handle, like that of a rat’s tail. The tang is usually threaded on the end and secured with a bolt or screw.
This is an ongoing argument, not so much a metallurgic one, but rather a personal preference of what material, or combination of materials, makes the best blade. Kitchen knife blades, like all bladed instruments, are typically made of carbon steel, stainless steel, high-carbon stainless steel, or ceramic.
For the purposes of this comparison, let’s define the characteristics of these blades, as they pertain to you the consumer, in three simple terms; price, maintenance and durability.
Carbon Steel blades are usually inexpensive, and lose their edge quickly, but are the easiest to sharpen. They can react badly with acidic foods, and leave a metallic flavor.
This is however, somewhat alleviated over time as they will develop a protective patina.
These blades require more maintenance than others, as they need to be oiled, in addition to being washed and dried thoroughly. This blade material is quite durable as it can rust, and/or oxidize, and still be readily re-sharpened quickly and easily.
Stainless Steel blades can be either expensive or inexpensive. In summary, there are low-quality and high-quality blades, and more-so in this case than others, you get what you pay for. Stainless steel is not truly stainless, it is more stain-resistant, so maintenance, has more to do with its ability to be re-sharpened, rather than care.
In general, because of the hardness of the steel, this blade material is very hard to sharpen, and therefore its sharp edge is difficult to maintain. Even so, stainless steel blades hold their edge longer. They though, are also more brittle which makes the knife less forgiving and therefore less durable.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel blades are usually expensive. They give you the best of both worlds, so to speak, by mixing the positive characteristics of both carbon and stainless steel knives. You get a knife that won’t discolor or rust, and maintains its edge without being extremely hard to sharpen. This makes them one of the most easy to maintain knife blade materials.
High-carbon stainless steel knives are also the most durable because they are able to bend without breaking and will not react with acidic foods like carbon steel knives.
Ceramic blades are generally very expensive. Sometimes as much as two or three times the price of even a high quality steel knife. The advantage of a ceramic blade is its ability to hold its edge, without being honed or sharpened, for even months on end. However, ceramic knives are not as stable as their metal counterparts because they do not flex and are more fragile and brittle.
Also, they can never be used for high impact tasks, like cutting bones or even chopping frozen vegetables.
Ceramic knives although very sharp are extremely hard to sharpen, and often must be sent back to the manufacturer for this process. In addition, they have to be treated with care, because they are not resilient and can chip and break easily.
The handle should be made of a sanitary material, and if you are looking for something easy to maintain I would suggest plastic, rubber or stainless steel. Most handles that are made of these materials are dishwasher safe. Impregnated wood handles, on the other hand, can be quite beautiful, but require more maintenance, such as hand washing and oiling from time to time, and are more prone to splits and breaks. Personally, I don’t think wood is as sanitary a choice as the other options. Professional chefs in New York (and elsewhere) would receive a violation and fine from the board of health for using a knife with a handle, or cutting board, made of wood.
5 Highly-Rated Manufacturers
These knives are forged, made from high carbon stainless steel, triple riveted full tang, with a molded synthetic handle and are NSF certified.It is possible that the handle may be too thin for some, but for me it is just right.
A high quality 8″ chef knife can cost approximately $120. Of course buying a set of knives is typically more economical. Places like Chef’s Catalog offer a wide variety of knife sets, and you can usually find one that suits your needs and budget.
Global is another brand that comes out far ahead of the competition. They are more modern in design and are fully stainless steel, in which the handle is either welded or forged (depending on model). This forms a seamless design which gives the knife an appearance of being one piece. It also makes them very sanitary, because there aren’t places for bacteria to hide and grow.
The series of knives most comparable to Wusthof Classic would be the Global GF series. Some feel the handle is extremely uncomfortable. This may be due to its more modern nontraditional shape.
Reviewers seem to have mixed feelings about the series as a whole. For the most part they praise the chef knife for its light weight, sharp edge and balance, but add that the bread knife, as well as other pieces are merely of acceptable quality. They are at the top end of prices for chef knives (not including those which are custom made). A 8.25 inch chef knife GF-33 runs about $160 (again usually cheaper as part of a set).
Mercer knives are certified by NSF international. NSF is an organization that certifies products for the safety and health concerns around food, water and consumer goods. I first purchased Mercer knives in culinary school, and with them, I learned how to cook professionally.
Their 8″ forged chef knife is noticeably heavier, which really helps with the cutting process. It is also well balanced, with a thick blade. This blade helps with stability, when learning the basics, but is somewhat less precise than the others I have reviewed here. I would rate it’s utilitarian non-slip handle, as good to excellent.
I think this is a great knife for beginners, chosen by 90% of culinary schools, because it is pretty much bullet-proof. They hold up extremely well, and are affordable at about $40 for and 8″ chef knife, and yet still forged. They also can take some abuse from chopping hard bones, or using a steel to hone it for the first time. For me the first scratch wasn’t that tragic, because I knew it wasn’t expensive, and I would be using it to learn.
I don’t feel this way about my set of Wusthof Classics. These are my favorite knives, and I am, to say the least, obsessive about keeping them perfect and protecting my investment. They are well balanced, with an extremely sharp, fine edge, have a timeless classic design, and ooze elegance.
I find myself reluctant to put them in the dishwasher and risk dulling the edge, even though they are dishwasher safe. If you know how to handle knives, and care for them properly, a set of Wusthof Classics or Global GF Series seem the best choice. Since they are more precise, and more durable, they are well suited for experienced cooks.
RH Forschner by Victorinox Fibrox knives are stamped not forged, and perform well when compared against other inexpensive knives. In fact, they perform almost as well as high-priced knives. They too, have great non-slip handle, which comes in either black or white. The price-point of these knives is by far the greatest thing about them for the budget-conscious. An 8″ chef knife runs about $25.
AKA: French Knife or Cook’s Knife
Wusthof Classic 8-Inch Cook’s Knife
A chef’s knife is the most essential knife in your kitchen. It will perform a variety of tasks, and is the most frequently used knife in a commercial kitchen (thus the name). This is the “super-knife” of knives! It can tackle just about every job on the cutting board.
It can dice, chop, mince, julienne, brunoise, allumette and more. You can use it for vegetables, meat, and, when oiled, for dough. It can be used to paste garlic, chop herbs, and cut through soft bones. The more I use my chef’s knife, the more exciting uses I find for it.
For example, I discovered the heel of the blade “grated” whole nutmeg just as well as a Microplane. Although it is true that you can use this knife for many general-purpose tasks, this is not to say that it should be used for every purpose! I wouldn’t use it for specialty tasks, such as filleting a fish or opening a clam.
I would use it for carving a chicken sometimes, but I admit that a carving knife is the better choice. Still, this is the knife, with which I am most comfortable in my kitchen, and one I could never do without. This is the knife I would recommend buying first. Due to its extreme versatility, quality, is of utmost importance!
High quality chef’s knives last longer, can generally take more abuse, and are safer to use.
Construction: For a chef’s knife, I strongly recommend forged over stamped blades. Forged, because of the constant usage and frequent impact it will receive over its lifetime. Also, full tang, because of better durability, increased strength, and balance.
Materials: High carbon stainless steel. Synthetic handle.
Length: The typical range is from 6-12 inches. the 8″ seems to be the favorite size of most chefs and at- home cooks, and what I use as well!
Price: Prices of chef’s knives vary greatly, from approximately $20-200. Being the most important knife in your kitchen, this is where I would want to splurge and go for the highest quality knife within your budget. When properly cared for, it can last a lifetime!
Before moving on to paring knives, the last thing I should mention is that a Japanese santoku knife is much like a chef’s knife in its use, however different in shape and function. Instead of a pointy tip it has more of a ‘snubbed” tip and the blade is flat.
The santoku, isn’t really able to ‘chop by rocking’, like the chef knife. The blade of a santoku is usually much thinner and precise, however this means that foods are more likely to stick, which can be quite inconvenient.
To alleviate this problem some santokus are hollow-ground meaning grooves have been ground into the sides, to help ‘release’ the food. Most agree that the chef’s knife is more versatile and that its tip provides more precision.
A santoku knife would be a good knife to add later on, but I wouldn’t suggest buying it instead of a chef’s knife. This is just a matter of personal preference.
AKA: Standard Parer or Searpoint Parer
Wusthof Classic 3-1/2-Inch Paring Knife
This is the second most important knife in the kitchen. It is intended to be used in-hand, which makes sharpness of utmost importance! A dull knife is more likely to slip, and because you are using this knife in such close proximity to your hand, it should be kept very sharp to avoid getting cut.
This knife is like a miniature version of a chef’s knife, but with important differences. It is designed to peel, is great for segmenting fruit, quickly chopping herbs, creating garnishes or shaping fruits and vegetables.
It is also used for light-duty chopping or mincing. I use mine to peel apples, segment oranges, chiffonade basil, and slice fruit for cocktails–pretty much when I want to do a task too small for the chef’s knife.
Construction: Forged- you might think this wouldn’t make much of a difference in a little knife like this one…but that could be a mistake. Stamped blades are lighter and most often not as well balanced, thus needing more forward pressure to be applied in order for it to cut. Stamped blades are more brittle and, in my opinion, not well suited for the tasks performed by these knives.
Materials: High Carbon Stainless Steel: because you want this knife to get sharp and stay sharp! Synthetic handle.
Length: 2.75 inches to 4 inches typically. The most common size is 4 inches. This size is large enough to perform tasks well. Anything shorter seems to be for more specialized tasks and specifically well suited for creating garnishes.
I should also mention that if you are interested in creating garnishes with a knife designed for peeling and cutting round vegetables like Brussels sprouts, small potatoes or beets, a birds beak paring knife may be a good addition to your kitchen. It has a curved blade like that of a beak or talon. (See photo below).
Price: approx. $15-$100
AKA: Bread Knife, or Wavy Slicing Knife
Wusthof Classic 8-Inch Bread Knife
This is the third most important knife to own because it is used for tasks like slicing bread or other foods which have a tough skin or outer crust and a soft interior. Where a chef knife would crush these foods, the serrated knife will be able to slice through more easily without wrecking the texture of a juicy tomato or an airy baguette.
There is really no substitution for a good serrated knife. Use it to cut peaches, tomatoes, angel food cake, or any kind of bread.
I have also used it in place of a carving knife because the serrations, when carving a chicken or turkey, keep the meat from shredding. They are also useful for fibrous foods like cabbage or celery. It should be able to cut through bread in one swift stroke.
Construction: the blade should resemble a saw blade. It should be thin and wavy, which reduces friction. Usually only one side of the blade is ground and the other is left flat. This is also to reduce friction and create a very fine edge. This is one place where a stamped blade would be acceptable but a forged blade is more desirable and higher in quality. A full tang also is not really important as it will not be used for impact cutting.
Materials: High Carbon Stainless Steel. Synthetic handle. Handles are also straight or offset. Offset handles allow for a more natural grip and saves you from banging your knuckles on the counter-top.
Length: for bread or cake 8-10 inches. For fruit and vegetables 5-6 inches. I use the 8″ for both purposes.
Price: approx. $20-$100
Boning and Fillet Knives
Wusthof Classic 6-Inch Flexible Boning Knife
Wusthof Classic 7-Inch Fillet Knife With Sheath
These two types of knives make a great addition to your knife set. They both do basically the same thing, with varying shapes and degree of flexibility.
A boning knife tends to be stiffer than a fillet knife, and is used for removing the bones of chicken, and other meats, as well as some fish.
The shape of the knife allows you to easily trim around, and remove bones–without having to exert a great amount of force, leaving the meat intact. I have found that a boning knife works well for filleting round fish such as Porgy.
Fillet knives are most often used solely for fish and are much thinner and pointier than boning knives, to provide more precision and less sticking.
When choosing a boning or fillet knife consider what tasks you do most often and choose accordingly.
Construction: it is important that boning and fillet knives are forged and full tang for durability, as they must have the ability to flex, either a lot or a little.
Materials: High carbon steel blade. Synthetic, and non-slip handle if possible. Since these are messy tasks, choose a knife that can stand up to heavy washing.
Length: Boning knives are usually 4-8 inches with 6 inches being the most commonly used size. Fillet knifes are usually 7-9 inches. The size of fillet knife you choose should depend on what size fish you fillet most often. 7 inches is the most commonly used size.
Wusthof Classic 9-Inch Hollow-Edge Carving Knife
This knife is used for carving prepared meats. They are long and designed to cut across roasts and other large pieces of meat in one stroke to produce an attractive slice for serving. Great for roasted chicken, turkeys, loin of pork etc.
They vary in length and width according to purpose. Skinny and flexible carving knives are intended for salmon or ham while wider knives are more appropriately used for less delicate meats like beef.
Construction: Forged with full tang for proper balance. Note that some carving knives that have a rounded tip as opposed to pointed. These knives are usually thinner, and allow you to cut a thinner, more precise slice. Also consider a granton edge, or duo edge, which has small impressions ground into the blade to release meat more easily.
Materials: High-carbon stainless steel. Here you may wish to consider a knife with a more attractive handle or customized design. If you plan to use this to carve meat in front of your guests. you might also consider a matching carving fork.
Length: 8-14 inches Choose a length best suited for the size of roast you typically prepare. 10″ is a nice in-between size.
Wusthof Classic 7-1/2-Inch Heavy Cleaver
The cleaver possesses unique characteristics unlike any other knife in your kitchen; its method used to cut, its weight and thickness, and its edge. Unlike an ordinary knife, it is swung like an axe, and uses its weight, in combination with momentum to cut, rather than a sawing or slicing motion.
Also, unlike a knife, it’s blade is blunt. If given a fine edge, it would quickly become dull, and possibly buckle or fracture, due to the high impact it regularly receives.
There is often a hole, cut into the blade, in the forward top corner just below the spine, which serves no practical purpose other than being used to hang the knife on a rack, or traditionally a meat hook.
Chefs use the cleaver to break down large cuts of meat called primal cuts. An example would be reducing (fabricating), a beef hindquarter into a short tenderloin, and then into individual steaks such as porterhouse, t-bone, and strip steaks.
Used correctly in the home kitchen, the cleaver makes chopping though tough bones, or even large dense vegetables like squash or sweet potatoes, an almost effortless task. It can be used to fricassee or section a chicken, and trim pork chops and steaks. You can also chop bones into more manageable pieces for making stocks.
Other great uses for it include, using the broad side of the knife to crush garlic, ginger, or nuts. It makes a terrific bench scrape to scoop up meat and vegetables and transfer them to the pot. You can even use the back of the blade, also called the spine, to effectively tenderize meat. With practice, this can become one of your most beloved knives, and you may end up using it more than you think!
One last note: A cleaver is commonly confused with a Chinese cook’s knife because of their rectangular shape, however this is the only similarity between the two. A Chinese cooks knife is a general-purpose knife and is better associated with a chef’s knife, because it is used to chop vegetables, and boneless meats. See “Chef Knife” above or Butcher’s Knife here.
Construction: Your cleaver should always be forged, and full tang, because this is the knife that takes the most shock-abuse of all kitchen knives.
Materials: Carbon steel, or high carbon stainless steel. Carbon steel is a fine choice for a cleaver, if you don’t mind that it may rust and/or discolor. For those at-home cooks, and chefs that mind, high-carbon stainless steel is the way to go. The handle can be metal, synthetic or wood and should be long enough to counter balance the weight of the blade. I prefer a non-slip synthetic handle.
Length: Common wisdom is to buy a medium size cleaver, maximum 8 inches, and I agree. I would suggest, between a 6 inch cleaver, for light duty tasks like vegetables and trimming, or a 7.5 to 8 inch cleaver (7.5 is my favorite size) for vegetables, meats, and bones.
Price: This depends largely on size and brand. A 6 inch cleaver is approximately $30-$200 and a 7.5 to 8 inch is $50-$250.
Tip: Don’t get a cleaver and a Butchers knife mixed up, they are NOT the same thing. For an indepth review of the best Butcher’s knife, click here.
Kitchen shears are not just your ordinary pair of scissors. A great pair of shears make fast work of cutting the backbone out of a chicken to butterfly it, sectioning ribs, or cubing stew meat. Cut up chicken breasts for stir-fry or breaded chicken fingers! Use them to cut easily through crab legs and lobster tails, instead of struggling with a cracker.
They are also great for cutting herbs, twine, parchment paper, and pie dough. You can snip things right into the pot without a cutting board! Don’t overlook this great, versatile, and easy to clean tool!
When looking for a good pair of shears, choose one that comes apart for easy cleaning. Look for big non-slip over-sized handles to give you the best leverage and grip.
Most shears are made of aluminum, stainless steel, high-carbon stainless steel and even titanium.
Like kitchen knives, I would suggest high-carbon stainless steel, because they will be a lot stronger and easier to sharpen. They are serrated on one side and beveled on the other, and if they are detachable, the beveled side can be honed with your steel or along with the serrated side sharpened with a knife sharpener designed for both serrated and non-serrated blades!
Steels are included in most knife sets, yet it seems they are the most underutilized tool in the home kitchen. Often misunderstood as a sharpener, the steel is actually a honing device. With its proper use, it re-aligns the molecules at the very edge of the blade and the more often you use it the easier it is to maintain that fine edge. I would recommend, practicing your honing skill on a knife you’re not as concerned about ruining. Improper use could damage the blade and even scratch it.
Shellfish Knives, and Gloves: My Top Picks
If you’re new to shucking shellfish, you may want to consider buying the cut-resistant Kevlar glove that I use, and have included in this category. It is just as useful when using your mandoline or microplane!
Serrated Sandwich Spreader
Wusthof Gourmet 5-Inch Spreader
Another task specific knife, is the sandwich spreader. As the name implies, it has a wide surface for spreading condiments like mayo, mustard, relish, and jam, and has a rounded back-great for scrapping the jar.
Beyond these general requirements, is a more specialized one; serration. To this end, very few spreaders offer a factory sharp and durable serrated edge. With it, you have one tool which can not only spread, but also slice tomatoes paper thin and make quick work of cutting breads.
I own and recommend the Wusthof Gourmet, 5 inch serrated sandwich spreader, which after hundreds of uses, is as razor sharp today, as the day I bought it!
Do You have Arthritis? Check Out These Knives!
Dexter-Russel makes a set of knives for people with Arthritis or limited range of motion. Called Duoglide, these knives are ergonomically shaped. They have great features even if you don’t have arthritis. They are high carbon stainless steel.
They also have a textured handle for better grip, and the blade is sealed to the handle for sanitation. They are NSF International (“The Public Health and Safety Company”) certified and get an “ease of use commendation” by the arthritis foundation.