Updated September 2014
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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 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 flexible, and they tend to hold their edge longer than softer, forged knives. Stamped knives are also much more affordable than forged.

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 it 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.

A santoku knife is similar to a chef's knife but with a shorter, thinner blade and a straighter edge. They also have indentations in the blade that help keep starchy foods, like potatoes, from sticking as they're sliced. They're particularly suited to dealing with vegetables, and we read many reviews from vegetarians who say this 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 3-1/2 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. However, these knives can also be used for slicing tomatoes, watermelon and cakes. Some serrated knives are made in smaller sizes, so 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.

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. TheSweetHome.com also consults ConsumerReports.org and other experts and reviewers, but in some cases experienced cooks then conduct testing to find the best choice. Polls from sites such as TheKItchn.com and Gizmodo are instructive for the diverse input offered by readers and editors. Last, we examined hundreds of owner reviews from places like Amazon.com, Cooking.com and other relevant retail sites to see how all of these knives perform and persevere in the real world.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Chef's Knife: Your chef's knife will be your kitchen workhorse, so be sure to get the best. We review steel and ceramic chef's knives as well as santoku chef's knives.

Best Paring Knife: A sharp, well-balanced paring knife is a must for intricate kitchen tasks. These knives will do the jobs that a chef's knife are too big to handle.

Best Serrated Bread Knife: If you're a lover of artisan bread, you'll need a great 10-inch serrated knife; we also discuss shorter, more versatile serrated knives.

Best Knife Set: Knife sets are very convenient and a good value for those who like to own a wide variety of knives. They also come with their own storage. We also take a look at the top steak knife sets.

Buying Guide: Want to avoid buyer's remorse tomorrow morning? Our Buying Guide explains what to look for in the best kitchen knives.

Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we use to select the top kitchen knives, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.

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