A sharp, well-balanced knife is an essential kitchen tool
Experts agree: a sharp, good quality knife is essential for your kitchen. A dull knife can be dangerous because it requires more force to use, so is more prone to slipping and cutting where it's not supposed to -- like on your hand. The ideal kitchen knife will have a sharp blade that holds its edge well, good balance, a comfortable handle and durable construction.
Knives are constructed either from forged or stamped steel Forged knives are made from one piece of steel that is heated and shaped using a hammer or press. Stamped knives are literally "stamped" from one larger piece of metal. It used to be a given that forged knives were better quality, but that's no longer true. These days, stamped knives are also manufactured to a very high quality standard that is virtually indistinguishable from forged knives. In fact, many cooks prefer stamped knives because they're lighter and more versatile, and they tend to hold their edge longer than softer, forged knives. Stamped knives are also much more affordable than forged ones.
Many professionals say you need only three knives -- a chef's knife, paring knife and serrated bread knife. However, many home cooks love a greater variety. Here are a few specialty knives that are commonly found in the home or professional kitchen:
An 8-inch chef's knife, also referred to as a cooks' knife, is the one to choose if you can only have one kitchen knife. Experts say a chef's knife can handle most kitchen tasks all by itself. Since this knife is the kitchen workhorse, it's crucial to find one that feels good in your hand, with the right weight and balance and a comfortable handle. It should be sharp enough to disjoint a chicken or thinly slice a tomato without crushing it. While 8-inches is the most common size, if you have smaller or larger hands, you may be more comfortable with a 6- or -10-in chef's knife instead.
A santoku knife is similar to a chef's knife but with a shorter, thinner blade and a straighter edge. It also has indentations in the blade that help keep starchy foods, like potatoes, from sticking as they're sliced. Santuko knives are particularly well-suited to dealing with vegetables, and we read many reviews from vegetarians who say santuko-style is their go-to knife.
Paring knives are used for more intricate work that requires greater control, such as peeling or coring fruit, cutting up small items like fruit or herbs, and removing eyes from potatoes. Typical blade lengths range from 2.5 to 4 inches, but most experts say the perfect size for most people is 3.5 inches. People with larger hands often like the 4-inch option, however.
Serrated bread knives are not just for slicing bread. The best bread knife, experts say, is 10 inches long so that it can handle even the largest loves of crusty, artisan bread with one swipe. However, these knives can also be used for slicing tomatoes, watermelon and cakes. Some serrated knives are made in smaller sizes that aren't as useful for cutting larger loaves of bread, but many reviewers say they still cut smaller loaves well and are more versatile for other tasks.
Knife sets are very popular with people who are stocking their kitchen for the first time, or those who want a variety of knives and prefer that they match. Some experts say these are not a good value because you don't use every knife in the set, but we found plenty of owners who disagree. They say that they do use all the knives and love having a dedicated place to store them as most sets come with a knife block or other storage option. In addition, there are some very high-quality knife sets that would cost far more if you purchased the same knives individually.
Steak knives are perhaps the one knife you will always need, even if you don't cook and don't own a single food prep knife. These are used at meals to cut up meat and larger pieces of food that a butter knife simply can't handle. A matched set of good steak knives also adds some class to your table layout when you have guests.
Although the best knives will stay sharp for a long time, most will eventually need to be sharpened. If that's something you'd like to take on at home, see our separate report on knife sharpeners. However, if you think that may be above your level of expertise, you can find a local or mail order professional to do the sharpening for you. Most of the manufacturers in this report will sharpen knives for the life of the knife for a nominal fee.
Finding the best knives
Kitchen knives get a decent amount of feedback and, in recent years, several less expensive brands of knives have risen to the top in many expert reviews and professional tests. To find our top choices, we analyzed the results of professional tests from ConsumerReports.org, Cook's Illustrated, and Cooking for Engineers. Roundups at sites like TheSweetHome.com and TheKitchn.com that also includes testing were also very informative. Last, we examined thousands of owner reviews posted at sites such as Amazon.com and ChefsCatalog.com to see how all of these knives perform and persevere in the real world.