What the best kitchen knife has
- A sharp edge. A sharp knife is a safe knife, experts say, less prone to slipping and accidents. It also requires less time and effort to use. Look for a knife that's very sharp right out of the box and that holds its edge well over time. You should be able to sharpen it when it does dull, either at home with a knife sharpener, or by sending it to a professional.
- Solid construction. There are two types of blades, forged steel and stamped. Forged steel is heated and shaped from one piece of metal. Stamped knives are "stamped" from one larger piece of metal. Most agree that there is no difference in long-term quality, but some prefer the lighter feel of stamped steel, while others like the heft of forged steel.
- A comfortable handle. Experts say that, counterintuitively, "ergonomic" handles may not be the most comfortable because they don't fit as large a range of hand sizes. Look for a grippy plastic or textured steel handle that doesn't have too many bells and whistles. It should fit your hand well without slipping or twisting, especially when you're working with greasy ingredients.
- Good balance. The best knives balance evenly in your hands; in other words, they do not seem to lean either toward the blade or the handle. This makes it easier to control the knife with a minimum of effort.
- A long warranty. Most of our recommended knives come with a lifetime warranty.
Know before you go
How long and how often will you use the knife? Professional chefs and home cooks who tend to have long food prep sessions (such as home canners) say they prefer lighter, stamped or ceramic knives because they don't get as fatigued. Those who do heavier jobs or use one knife -- for example a chef's knife -- for a wide range of tasks prefer the heftier feel of a forged knife. If you don't use your knives very often, a decent set of stamped steel knives will start sharp and stay sharp at a very reasonable cost.
Do you mind hand washing? Putting your knife in the dishwasher is a no-no, professionals say --- even if the knife bills itself as dishwasher safe. The heat and harsh chemicals can change the composition of the metal, shortening its life, and banging around in the flatware basket may cause dings. However, many people buy highly rated, less expensive knives, toss them in the dishwasher for convenience sake, and then just buy new ones when they dull.
Can you keep up with maintenance? In addition to hand washing, a high-quality knife will need regular honing with a sharpening steel to maintain its edge. It will occasionally need to be sharpened as well, either with a home knife sharpener or by sending it to a professional. Some manufacturers provide lifetime sharpening services for a small fee -- although some customers say your knives will be gone for several weeks.
Where will you store them? Once you get a good set of knives, you don't want to just toss them loose in a drawer, say experts. It's not a safe choice, because you're sticking your hands in there, and it's also not good for knives to be knocking against each other or other flatware. There are plenty of storage options -- wooden blocks, stands, drawer organizers and magnetic wall strips, to name just a few. Each have their pros and cons, you just need to be sure your storage solution will fit whatever knives you may have as well as your available space.
Buying tactics and strategies
Many experts and professionals agree: you only need three knives. They are an 8-inch chef's knife, a 3-1/2-inch paring knife, and a 10-inch bread knife. Buy the absolute best model of each of these that you can afford, they say, and you'll be set with knives for life.
However, plenty of people like knife sets. They like matching knives, they like a greater variety of knives, and they like having a dedicated storage unit. It also tends to be less expensive to buy a knife set than each individual knife, but it's only worth it if you think you'll use all (or most) of them. Also, our advice on individual knives still apply, buy the best you can afford and they should last for years.