Choosing kitchen knives can be a daunting task, especially if you're new to cooking or on a budget. But there is probably no other task as important when outfitting your kitchen (except choosing cookware). Choose wrong, and basic food prep will be grueling and possibly even painful. Choose right, and you'll have steadfast kitchen companions that will be with you for a lifetime.
This guide has the information to select the best knives for YOU. Remember: what works for someone else may not be right for you, so you need more than just recommendations--you need to choose a knife based on your own cutting styles and preferences.
We'll help you figure out which knives fit your style.
Parts of a Knife
Let's start with terminology. Here are the basic parts of a knife:
Tip: The sharp point at the end of a blade. Can also be called a point.
Blade: The steel (or ceramic) that makes up the cutting part of a knife and includes the tip, spine, blade, bolster and tang.
Spine: The top, flat edge of a blade.
Edge: The sharp cutting side of the blade.
Bolster: The handle end of the blade that thickens to provide stiffness, protect fingers from the blade, and help balance the two main parts of the knife. Only forged knives have bolsters; stamped knives do not.
Rivets: The fasteners that secure the blade to the handle.
Butt: The end of the handle.
Heel: The part of the blade furthest away from the tip, used for coarse cuts or when more pressure is needed.
Handle: The part of the knife you hold while cutting. Includes the rivets, tang, and butt.
Tang: The part of the blade that extends into and is riveted to the handle.
Types of Kitchen Knives
There are a lot of different kitchen knives. Some are multi-purpose, such as chef's knives and paring knives, while some are specialized for specific tasks or foods, such as cheese knives and sandwich knives.
We broke this section into four parts: basic knives, meat knives, Japanese knives, and specialty knives.
This is not the only way to classify knives, and there may be some overlap, but you'll get the general idea, and learn what each knife is for.
We probably missed a few, and we certainly didn't show every design of every knife. There can be dozens of iterations of just about any kind of knife. Here, we list the most common styles of the most common knives.
Which knives do you need? We talk about that in the next section.
These are the most common knives, ones that you will find in most Western kitchens.
The chef's knife is the most common, all-purpose knife used in food preparation. It can be anywhere from 6-12 inches long, with a blade that curves up to a sharp tip. It is designed for the "rocking" kind of cutting motion developed in French cuisine.
Chef's knives are used for general food preparation, including meats, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and more. They're used for all the classic knife cuts (dice, mince, julienne, etc.).
The utility knife is in-between a chef's knife (see above) and a paring knife (see below). It has a slightly narrower, shorter blade than a chef's knife, usually about 6 inches, and is longer and slightly wider than a paring knife. It is an excellent all purpose knife to grab when a chef's knife is too big and a paring knife is too small.
If you have small hands, you may prefer a utility knife to the larger chef's knife--or vice versa if you have large hands--but many cooks like to have both.
The paring knife is a small knife, usually with a blade no longer than 3.5 inches, used for precision cutting. It's great for peeling skin from apples and potatoes, mincing garlic, cutting strawberries, coring tomatoes and apples, and much more.
When you're working with small pieces of food, the paring knife is a necessity.
A bread knife has a serrated edge that allows you to cut through soft loaves without pulling or tearing the bread. Serrated knives can also be great for soft fruits like tomatoes, especially if your other knives are on the dull side (there are serrated utility knives, too, for example).
If you keep your knives sharp, you may not need a bread knife. But most people prefer the serrated edge for breads and other soft, delicate foods.
Steak knives are typically sold in sets of 6-8 and can have a serrated or a smooth edge. They are used by diners to cut their steaks or other meats.
Steak knives come in a huge range of price and quality. They could also be classified as a meat knife or a specialty knife, but they're a common knife, so we put them with the basic knives.
A table knife is the basic knife used for meals, to cut food and spread butter. It is sometimes called a butter knife, although a butter knife is actually a specific knife used just for spreading butter.
Table knives typically come in flatware sets along with forks and spoons.
If you are a hunter, fisherman, or buy your meat in bulk, you are probably familiar with these knives. None of these are essential kitchen knives, but you may benefit from having a few of them: in particular, a carving or slicing knife is a great addition to your collection if you serve roasts, host Thanksgiving, or are just an enthusiastic carnivore.
As with all knife categories, there may be several different styles of each knife listed, and we may have missed a few. But these are the most common styles of the most common knives used in meat processing.
Cleavers have wide, heavy blades and are used to cut through bones and hard vegetables. A cleaver can be handy for piecing whole chickens or cutting a side of beef into steaks. You can use a rubber mallet to pound the cleaver through hard vegetables and bones (this is the safest way to do it).
If you search Amazon or Google for a butcher knife, you'll get a variety of knives in your results. A butcher knife can be considered a cleaver, a chef's knife, or something in-between. But "butcher knife" is an actual type of knife, used primarily by butchers to process carcasses. Butcher knives have long blades, up to 14 inches.
Unless you are dressing a lot of animal carcasses, you probably don't need a special butcher knife. A chef's knife, carving or slicing knife, and possibly a cleaver, are all you'll need for the cuts of meat you'll see in your kitchen.
Carving knives are used to slice meats into thin slices. The term "carving knife" is often used interchangeably with slicing knife, but they are different knives, though used for basically the same purpose. A carving knife makes less precise cuts than a slicing knife, so if you like your meat sliced very thinly or are slicing up sandwich meats, the slicing knife is a better choice.
Carving knives are often sold in sets along with a carving fork.
A slicing knife is used for the same purpose as a carving knife--to slice meat into thin serving slices--but is capable of making thinner slices. People often refer to these two knives as the same thing, but they are technically different knives.
A boning knife is used to slice meat away from bones. It has a thin, flexible blade that you can easily maneuver. At first glance it might look a lot like a carving knife (above), but a boning knife is smaller, usually about 5-6 inches, and the blade is thinner.
If you like to dress your own poultry, a boning knife is a handy tool to have.
NOTE: Do not use a boning knife to cut through bones, but to remove meat from them.
A fillet knife is a specialty boning knife. The blade is even thinner and even more flexible than on a boning knife, and is used for skinning and boning fish. Fillet knives are usually longer than boning knives and can be anywhere from 6-12 inches.
Specialty knives are designed for specific uses: cheese, tomatoes, oysters, etc. You won't find these in every kitchen, but if people are really into a certain kind of food, a specialty knife can be a useful thing to have.
Even with specialty knives you can find a lot of styles and variation. There are also many different specialty knives, so this list is by no means exhaustive, but we show the most common types of the most common specialty knives.
There are actually several types of cheese knives, but most of them look something like this one. The holes help the cheese not stick to the knife; the double tip allows you to spear a piece of cheese easily.
You may also have seen the "knives" that are simply a thin steel wire, which are great for slicing blocks of soft cheeses.
You can buy individual cheese knives or find them in sets with two to four different types of cheese knives for slicing, spearing, and spreading (soft) cheeses.
Of course, any knife will work to slice cheese, so a cheese knife is not a must-have item. But they're great for entertaining.
A tomato knife is a small knife with a serrated blade that you can use for any soft-skinned fruit or vegetable. They often have a double tip for spearing tomatoes.
If you prefer the serrated blade, you can tomato knives as a general utility knife.
See an oyster knife on Amazon
Oyster knives have a dull, round-tipped blade that's used to pry open oyster shells. The dullness is imperative because it would be dangerous to use a sharp blade to pry open hard objects.
A sandwich knife has a serrated blade and a handle above the blade that makes it easy to slice through a sandwich without knocking your knuckles against the cutting board.
You can use it to cut any bread, but the high handle may make it awkward for general cutting.
Japanese knives have become popular in the US, so we are including the most common Japanese knives used in American kitchens (there are several more than we list here).
If you are interested in Japanese cooking or want to learn more about the knives, we recommend checking out the Wikipedia page on Japanese kitchen knives, or googling for Japanese cooking or knife sites--they will have more detailed information.
The santoku is probably the most common Japanese knife found in American kitchens. It's similar to a chef's knife and used for the same general cutting purposes, but rather than being curved up to the tip, the blade is almost flat. This is a good design for people who like to cut in a flat motion rather than a rocking motion, as you would use with a chef's knife.
Santoku blades are also typically shorter than on most chef's knives, with a maximum blade length of 7 inches (chef's knife blades can be up to 12 inches long).
There are several different styles of Santoku knives on the market today, including brands made by Western companies like Wusthof. Thus, you can find a santoku style in a German knife, so it will have a heavier blade and a wider cutting angle than a Japanese santoku. This is great because the santoku is an excellent all-purpose knife style that many people prefer to a chef's knife. If you're in the market for a santoku, be sure you're getting one with the type of blade you prefer.
The nakiri is a Japanese vegetable knife. It has a flat tip, which makes it look like a small, narrow cleaver. It is very sharp, with a double bevel as seen on German knives, and designed for prepping all types of vegetables.
The rectangular shape of the nakiri knife makes it useful for vertical chopping. That is, this knife is designed for an up-and-down motion. There is no pulling or pushing with this knife.
There is also a Japanese usuba knife, which looks similar to the nakiri but has a thinner, single-bevel blade and is used for more precision cuts.
Unless you are preparing Japanese vegetables that demand precise cuts, the nakiri is the better all-purpose vegetable knife. (In fact, we had a hard time finding a usuba knife for sale in the US.)
A gyuto is probably closest in design to a chef's knife, with a long, curved blade meant to be used in a rocking motion. It is usually longer than a Santoku and is an excellent all-purpose kitchen knife.
If you like the rocking cutting motion of a chef's knife but prefer the lightness of a Japanese blade, a gyuto might be a good choice.
A petty knife is a smaller gyuto and is similar to a utility knife made in the West. In fact, if you search for "petty knife" you will probably get a lot of utility knives in your search results.
A petty knife is used like a chef's knife/gyuto, but for smaller foods or more precise tasks. Again, if you want a utility knife but prefer a lighter blade, a petty knife is a good choice.
Japanese Vs. German Knives: How Do They Compare?
These are the main differences between Japanese and German (and other Western style) knives:
Which knives are better? It really depends on your preferences, cutting style, and what you're trying to achieve. Japanese knives are nimble and excel at precision cutting; German knives are heavier and more durable. You can accomplish most basic cutting tasks with either type of knife, so the main issue is preference.
Which Knives Do You Really Need?
Which knives you need depends a lot on your cooking style, the types of food you eat, and how much specialization you want to get into. But having said that, most cooks need just two or three basic knives: a chef's knife or santoku, a paring knife, and a bread knife (one with a serrated edge).
This doesn't take into account table knives, which are of course an essential part of any flatware collection. You may also put steak knives in this category if you are a carnivore.
With these knives, you can perform any food prep or cutting tasks you need to do.
How do you decide if you should use a chef's knife or a santoku? You should practice cutting with each type, and see if you prefer the rocking motion of a chef's knife or the flatter cutting of the santoku.
Other Useful Knives
Most cooks have more than three food prepping knives in their kitchen. (In fact, many have a set of several knives, which we'll talk more about later.)
We think the most useful knives to have in addition to the three major types are a utility knife, a carving knife, and a boning knife.
Everybody has different preferences, though, depending on how and what you cook. To figure out which knives you need, look at your cooking style, the foods you like, and how you like to prep them.
You can't really go wrong buying an extra knife or two here and there. A lot of chef's have multiple chef's knives and paring knives in different sizes and styles. Having extra knives is rarely a bad choice, as long as they're all knives you use.
About Knife Blades
The type and quality of a knife blade is largely what determines its quality, value, durability, ease of use, and sharpening needs.
To buy a good knife, you need to have a basic understanding of what goes into making knife blades. In particular, you need to understand:
Of these, the blade material is the most complex, and probably most important, to understand, so we'll start there.
Most knives are made from either stainless steel or carbon steel. Less popular but with a growing following is ceramic.
Stainless steel is tough and stain resistant, while carbon steel is strong and holds an edge longer (less sharpening), but it rusts.
There's more to it than this, of course. As with cookware--only more so--there are many different types of stainless steel, as well as carbon steel, to choose from. You can take a deep dive into knife steel if you want to.
But if you're new to knives, you really only need to answer the basic question: stainless or carbon steel?
If you want to know more about steel used in kitchen knives, we recommend this article on kitchen knives. If you're interested in high-end knives, it's useful to know more about the steel options.
Here are the most common options you'll find when shopping for knives.
Stainless steel is made up of iron, carbon, chromium and nickel, and can contain other elements, including molybdenum, titanium, vanadium, tungsten, and more. Each element adds different features to the steel, which are preferable or non-preferable for knives, depending on what you're looking for. (There are hundreds or perhaps thousands of different types of stainless steel.)
For a steel to be stainless, it has to contain at least 11% chromium. Nickel also adds to stain and rust resistance, but is not a required element in stainless steel.
Stainless steel can also contain many other elements, including molybdenum, titanium, vanadium, tungsten, and more.
Stainless steel is the most common blade material in the home cook market. Nearly all knives made for home chefs are stainless steel.
Pros: Durable, resists rusting, staining, and chipping, easy to sharpen.
Cons: Softer steel, so it requires more frequent sharpening than carbon steel.
Most kitchen knives made for the home market are stainless steel, including popular brands like Wusthof, Henckels, and Victorinox.
Carbon steel is more commonly used by professional chefs because they want knives that hold their edge for a long time. Carbon steel contains much less chromium than stainless steel (if any), so it is not as resistant to rusting and staining. In fact, it rusts easily, so requires very different care than a stainless steel knife. But it is harder than stainless steel, so it holds an edge better and longer.
Pros: Very strong, holds an edge for a long time.
Cons: Brittle, so it can chip; rusts more easily than stainless steel (so frequent wiping and drying of the knife is required during use to prevent rusting), difficult to sharpen.
From Google search:
Damascus steel is made with a wavy surface pattern produced by hammer-welding strips of steel and iron followed by repeated heating and forging, used chiefly for knife and sword blades.
This blade-making technique originated in Damascus in medieval times, so the produce is called Damascus steel, regardless of where it's made.
Today, you can see this technique in higher end knife brands. For example, Shun knives are known for their Damascus steel lines. Their Damascus knives are forged from blanks of Damascus steel that contains several layers of folded steels. When the knife edge is ground, the layers of steel become visible and form a beautiful pattern.
Read more about Shun's Damascus steel on their website.
Is Damascus steel better? At one time the layers of hammered steel made stronger blades, but today Damascus steel is mostly made by machine, and the wavy designs in the blade are more for decoration than for added strength.
Damascus steel is beautiful, and usually expensive, but it doesn't necessarily result in better quality knives.
Today, there are "super steels" that are stainless steels that perform like carbon steels. That is, they're stain resistant, yet hold a sharp blade. You will only find knives made of "super steels" at the high end of the market, and are beyond the scope of what most people reading this article want to know.
You can read more about super steels at knifesteelnerds.com.
As great as super steel sounds, it has drawbacks, as well. It's expensive, and it's a lot harder to sharpen than other types of stainless steel.
Most popular brands of kitchen knives do not use super steels, as far as we know. We searched the Internet and couldn't find a lot of info about super steel kitchen knives.
Pros: Hold a blade well, resistant to rusting.
Cons: Hard to sharpen, expensive.
Ceramic knives are less popular than steel knives, but they are gaining ground in the home knife market. Many people like them because they're lightweight and can hold a sharp edge for a long time--and they'll never rust. However, they are brittle, and you shouldn't use them on hard foods or bones (e.g., winter squash, or to take apart a chicken). In fact, they chip quite easily, so you have to handle them very carefully. Even what seems like a gentle twist on the cutting board could put a chip in the blade.
Today you see a lot of inexpensive ceramic paring knives. Paring is probably the best use for ceramic knives as it will rarely put the knife at risk of chipping. A ceramic paring knife can stay sharp for a long time, which makes it a useful tool.
You can also find ceramic vegetable peelers.
Pros: Stay sharp for a long time, many inexpensive brands, won't rust, come in several colors.
Cons: Can't be used on hard foods, chip easily, need a special grindstone with micro diamonds to sharpen.
Hardness (The Rockwell Hardness Scale)
Hardness goes hand in hand with the type of steel a blade is, but you can actually quantify how hard a knife is, which is a great way to compare it to other knives. You do this with the Rockwell Hardness Scale.
For knives, the Rockwell Hardness Scale is abbreviated "HRC." It is a measure of how much pressure is required to indent the blade. The higher the number, the harder the material.
Kitchen knives range from 52-66. Anything lower than 52 is considered too soft to be good knife material (it won't stay sharp), while anything above 60 is considered too brittle to be good knife material (it will chip easily and be hard to sharpen).
Typically, Japanese knives are made with harder steel, often with a hardness rating in the low 60s. German/Western knives typically have a hardness rating in the high 50s.
A higher number isn't necessarily better, because the harder a knife is, the harder it is to sharpen. Most home cooks prefer knives with a hardness of HRC58-HRC60.
When you're knife shopping, you'll probably see an HRC rating only on the high-end knives. If you are looking for high-end knives, do not neglect to learn the HRC number. It is an objective measure of how well a knife will perform as you want it to--important if you're spending all that money.
Forged Vs. Stamped
Forging and stamping are the two ways of making a knife. There is a substantial difference between forged and stamped knives.
A forged knife:
- Is forged from one piece of heated metal under pressure
- Has a blade that is thicker at the top and tapers down to the edge
- Has a full bolster, which gives weight and balance to the knife and protects fingers from sliding forward into blade
- Has a full tang all the way through the handle
- Is stronger than a stamped knife because heating toughens the steel (less chance of chipping or cracking).
A stamped knife:
- Is cut out of a sheet of steel
- Has a uniform thickness
- May have no tang or bolster, or just a partial tang or bolster
- Is lighter than a forged knife
- Is more affordable than a forged knife.
At one time, forged knives were considered high quality, and stamped knives were considered low quality. That is no longer the case today. You can buy high quality stamped knives that can hold a blade and perform just as well as forged knives.
Some people prefer stamped knives because they're lighter. But weight can be an advantage, too, because it helps the knife sink into the food, requiring less strength to get the desired cut.
The best way to know if you prefer a forged or a stamped knife is to try them both. Or, you can simply go with the style and design you like, and not worry about how the knife was made: as long as the knife is good quality, it doesn't matter all that much whether it's forged or stamped.
Straight Vs. Serrated
Straight or serrated is a fairly straightforward decision, but you can buy most knives with either type of blade.
Though straight blades are the norm for all knives except brea, tomato, and sandwich knives, some people prefer serrated knives for utility and paring because they easily cut through tomato skins and other soft foods. They also don't need to be sharpened as often as straight blades.
On the other hand, serrated blades are tricky to sharpen, so when they do need sharpening, many people send them out. (You can theoretically sharpen them with a honing steel, but it's a bit tedious, and the outcome may be sketchy if you're not experienced.)
Most people prefer straight blades for most of their knives and use a serrated blade only when needed. But if you prefer serrated blades, the option is there.
Type of Grind
You probably don't need to know this to buy kitchen knives, but if you see the terminology, you'll know what it means.
Knife blades are ground to create a sharp edge, but there are different types of grind. Grinding creates a different cross-section, with the most common ones being flat, hollow, and convex.
Most kitchen knives are flat ground, but you may occasionally see other types of grind.
There are other types of grind, but these three are the most common.
Flat ground means the knife is ground flat on both sides. A flat-ground blade tapers in a straight line from the spine to the edge. Most kitchen knives are flat ground.
Hollow ground means the blade is ground so the sides are slightly concave as they taper to the blade. This makes the blade very sharp, but more prone to chipping because the knife is so thin, especially the edge.
Convex ground means the blade is rounded slightly outward (rather than inward, as with a hollow grind), curving from the spine to the edge. This outward arch makes the knife thicker and adds strength, but is tricky to sharpen and most often seen on hunting and bushcraft knives.
Granton Edge (Scalloped)
A granton edge has small divots just above and along the length of the blade. These small indentations help food release from a knife more easily. It also adds kind of a cool look to a knife.
Granton is actually a knife company, so if a knife is not a Granton knife, then these divots are technically called scallops--however, you see the use of "Granton" frequently on other brands of knives.
Do kitchen knives need to have indentations? Probably not. For most people, it's a minor concern when shopping for knives (or a nice extra of a knife they like for other reasons).
A great blade means little if a knife doesn't feel good in your hand. You want a handle that fits your grip, that's easy to use, doesn't strain your wrist, and is easy to care for.
In other words, a knife handle is a very personal choice.
Handles can be made from wood, plastic, wood-plastic composites, or steel. Let's look at the pros and cons of each material.
Pros: Soft and comfortable in your hand, many varieties available, including high-end woods.
Cons: Hard to sanitize (hold onto bacteria), not as durable as other types of handles, require special care (e.g., hand washing and oiling to keep the wood from drying out).
Example: Chicago Cutlery paring knife (walnut)
Pros: Look like wood but require no special care, soft and comfortable, no sanitation issues.
Cons: Really none, unless you are a traditionalist and prefer wooden handles.
Example: Shun Nakiri (all Shun knives have composite handles)
Pros: Sanitary and easy to maintain, look sleek and modern.
Cons: Heavy: the weight may shift balance to the back of the knife, causing strain on your hand. Steel can also be slippery when wet, which can be a safety issue. Some steel handles have bumps or grips to prevent this.
Example: Global chef's knife
There are many different types of synthetic handles, with a wide range of quality and heft.
Pros: Sanitary, can be very durable, easy to care for.
Cons: Can be very light, which can cause a knife to feel unbalanced. Some can crack in cold and melt in heat.
How to Choose a Handle
The best way to choose a handle is for its comfort, beauty, and price. It's true that some handle materials are more durable and easier to care for than others, but they are all fine for kitchen use.
One note here is that Shun Classic knives have an irregularly, D-shaped handle designed to fit a right hand--so if you're left handed, Shun is probably not a great choice. You can find Shun Classic knives made for left-handed people, but it has to be specified.
Other than that, the handle should fit your hand well and feel comfortable. Expensive brands will almost certainly have more comfortable, more beautiful, and more durable handles, and the knife will feel better balanced in your hand overall. But you can find great handles at any price point.
How Much Should You Spend on a Knife?
Knives range from less than $10 up to several hundred; if you're interested in specialty or hand-forged knives, you can spend even more.
Like cookware, you should buy the best knives you can afford, because the quality goes up along with the price. The more you spend, the more likely a knife will be a pleasure to use: more expensive knives are likely to use higher quality steels, more durable handle materials, and feel more balanced in your hand. (Of course, there's a limit to this; at some point, you're paying for luxuries that you probably won't notice in everyday use.)
However, there's no right amount to spend on a knife. If you're on a budget, you can find affordable knives that will perform well and last for many years. Victorinox knives are inexpensive, stamped knives with light plastic handles, but they get high praise from several cooking sites, including America's Test Kitchen. If you're in the market for a budget knife, Victorinox is a good place to start.
Mercer is also a respectable lower end brand that makes quality forged and stamped knives using German high carbon steel. Ergo is a budget brand of Japanese knives known for comfort (the name comes from "ergonomics") and good quality.
If you want higher quality for not a lot more money, Misen knives are impressive. Their 8-inch chef's knife goes for just $75, and is forged, full tang, made of Japanese steel in China; the paring knife goes for just $35. Misen is a newer brand, so they don't offer as many options as more established makers, but you can get every type of knife you need from them, and they're available in three color choices (black, blue, and gray).
Chicago Cutlery is a US-made knife brand of affordable, good quality knives wooden handles and stainless blades. They are nothing fancy, but many people love them.
Other good brands include Wusthof, Shun, Mac, Yoshihiri, and Henckels. Wusthof, Shun, and Yoshihiri are some of the higher priced knives, while MAC and Henckels are more affordable (but still far from cheap). These brands make several lines of knives at different price points, but all are excellent quality.
These are just a few brands out of hundreds (or perhaps thousands), but they show you the wide price range of kitchen knives, and they also have just about every option you could want.
How Do You Choose a Knife?
Other than budget, it's very hard to recommend knives to people. Everyone has their own cutting style and preferences. Some people want a lightweight knife that handles easily, other want a heavy knife that slices easily through foods because of its weight. Some people want a 10-inch chef's knife, while others prefer a shorter blade.
There are so many variations among knives and among individuals that it's impossible to tell people "buy this" or "buy that."
Instead, you should set a budget, and try different knives within that budget.
We listed some of the top quality brands at every budget in the previous section to get you started.
Some knife sites also recommend choosing knives based on their looks--that is, if you think a knife is beautiful, you will probably enjoy using it. This is actually good advice, up to a point. Finding beauty in daily use, utilitarian objects can make using them a lot more pleasurable.
So here are our basic recommendations for choosing knives:
About Knife Sets
A lot of people buy knives in sets. They often come in a big block and include 12-20 different knives, including steak knives, kitchen shears, and a honing steel.
Do you need this many knives? It really depends on your cooking style and setup (e.g., are a lot of people working in the kitchen at the same time?).
Here are the pros and cons of knife sets to help you decide:
Pros: Get several knives at once, so no research is required for each knife; you have a matching set; you have many knives to choose from; knife sets often include a shears, honing steel, and storage block so you don't have to buy these separately.
Cons: You may not need this many knives; quality may be lower in a set than in individual knives; you can't specifically choose each type of knife you want; a knife block may present a storage issue (if you have limited counter space); expensive to buy all at once (especially if you won't use all the knives).
A knife set can certainly make an impressive gift, but more knives aren't always better. Remember, most cooks really only need a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife.
Other set options: You can find smaller sets of just two or three essential knives such as this 3 piece set from Henckels or this 3 piece set from Wusthof, which is a great way to get the essentials (chef's, paring, bread, or chef's, paring, utility).
You have to buy a steel and kitchen shears separately if you go this route, but you'll probably spend less and get exactly what you want (a win-win).
Steak knives (the exception): One set of knives that is a great purchase is a set of steak knives, like this boxed set from Henckels. Steak knives come in a huge price range, and you don't need to spend a lot to get decent quality--just decide if you want straight or serrated edges.
Steak knives also make an excellent gift (whereas a huge block of knives may not).
There are three basic ways to store knives: in a block (see above section on knife sets), in a drawer with blade protectors, or on a magnetic knife rack.
A block is the best known method, popular because buying a big set of knives with a block is an easy way to accumulate a lot of knives at once, not to mention a shears and a honing steel. But blocks can take up precious counter space, so they're not ideal for every kitchen.
A lot of knives sold today come with blade guards, but if they don't, and you want to store your kitchen knives in a drawer, then blade guards are a necessity. Otherwise, the blades will knock against each other, causing chips and nicks that dull the knives much faster. It's also not safe to reach into a drawer full of sharp blades.
In lieu of blade guards, you can buy knife drawer organizers that are sort of a horizontal knife block. These are safe and useful, but they limit the number of knives you can fit in a drawer.
Probably the most elegant solution for knife storage is a magnetic knife rack. Most are designed to be put on a wall, so they solve the counter space problem, and the knives are easily and safely grabbed without possibility of injury. They also look great in almost any kitchen, and are available in a variety of colors, designs, shapes, and sizes. Some even have hooks for hanging spoons and spatulas.
However you decide to store your knives, the one thing to not do is leave them loose in a drawer. This will ruin your knives faster than anything, and you can cut yourself when you reach in for a knife.
You often hear people say that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife because you have to use more pressure to cut with it, increasing your chance of injury. This is true, but it's more accurate to say that a dull knife is dangerous in a different way than a sharp knife, because--of course--sharp knives are dangerous.
Even so, you are much better off with sharp kitchen knives than dull ones. Sharp knives are more pleasurable and efficient, while dull knives are just plain awful.
So you should have a plan to keep your knives sharp.
Most knife sets come with a honing steel, which you should use about every other time you use a knife. (And if you didn't get a steel with your knives, buy one immediately!) A honing steel smooths and de-burrs the blade, extending the time you can go between "real" sharpening.
You can get honing steel in steel, ceramic, and even diamond. You don't need to spend a fortune to get a good honing steel, but you should avoid super economy-priced ones. A good price range is about $40-$100. We like ceramic steels, but any type will do the job.
Most stainless steel kitchen knives need to be sharpened two or three times a year if used and honed regularly. To sharpen them, you need a whetstone, electric knife sharpener, or other system, such as these guided rod systems.
Proper knife sharpening is a skill, and it takes a lot of practice to do it well. Probably the easiest option is the electric knife sharpener, but even these can be hard on a knife if not used correctly. Whichever route you take, be sure to take your time and learn how to use the tool properly.
Another option is to find an expert who can sharpen your knives for you. Some full service grocery stores and butcher shops offer this service to their customers free or for a small fee. Some knife manufacturers will sharpen your knives free for a lifetime. Or, you can find a local artisan who will do it for you.
However you decide to sharpen your knives, be sure to have a system. Otherwise, you'll have dull knives that are a pain to use (true no matter how much you spent on them).
Kitchen Knife FAQs
Here are some commonly asked questions about kitchen knives (with answers).
What Is "High Carbon Steel"?
High carbon steel can mean a couple of things: it can refer to carbon steel, or it can refer to stainless steel with a higher than normal carbon content. Stainless steel knives with a high carbon content are desirable because they are rust resistant yet hold a sharp edge longer than non-high carbon stainless steel.
Here is an example of high carbon stainless steel knives.
Are Kitchen Knives Dangerous?
Yes, of course they are. Any sharp instrument can cause injury if used incorrectly. In fact, even dull knives are dangerous; some say they're more dangerous because you have to use more pressure to cut with them.
The point is that both sharp kitchen knives and dull ones can be dangerous, and should always be treated with respect and care.
For more information, see our article on knife safety.
Are Kitchen Knives Dishwasher Safe?
If a kitchen knife has a plastic or synthetic handle (not wood), then it is technically dishwasher safe. However, you should never put a good quality knife in the dishwasher, you should wash them by hand. Dishwasher detergents have abrasive particles that can erode knife steel and dull the blades.
If you're in a hurry, it's probably okay to wash a knife with a synthetic handle in the dishwasher once in awhile. But always wash wooden-handled knives by hand, as a dishwasher will ruin the wood.
Which Kitchen Knives Are Best?
There is a huge price range and quality range of kitchen knives, so it really depends on what you're looking for. You can less than $100 on a knife that can last for decades, or you can spend upwards of $300 on a knife that will also last and is probably quite beautiful, as well.
At a budget level, some of the best knife brands are Victorinox, Mercer, and Chicago Cutlery. Higher-end brands include Henckels and Mac knives, and still higher end brands are Wusthof and Shun.
You can go even higher and spend even more, but these are some of the most popular brands.
Are Kitchen Knives Hard to Sharpen?
It's hard to sharpen knives well, and it takes a fair amount of patience and practice. For inexperienced people, an electric knife sharpener is probably the easiest choice, but you can also use a whetstone or other system, or send your knives out for sharpening.
You'll probably need to sharpen your knives two-three times a year, depending on use. And if you use a honing steel regularly (about every other time you use a knife), you can often put off sharpening for a longer time.
Even if you don't want to sharpen your knives yourself, you should invest in a decent quality honing steel. It's easy to use, and essential if you want to get the most use out of your knives between sharpening.
Do All Kitchen Knives Need Sharpening?
Yes, all knives eventually need sharpening, including carbon steel knives and ceramic knives.
Do Kitchen Knives Rust?
All types of steel knives will rust. Stainless steel is rust resistant, but it is not rust proof. So be sure to dry your knives after washing to prevent rusting.
Ceramic blades, of course, will not rust.
Are Japanese Knives Better than German Knives?
Both German and Japanese knives are good quality, but they differ in design. Japanese knives are typically lighter because they don't have a full tang, and they steel is usually harder, around HRC 60 versus HRC 56-58 for German knives. This means that Japanese knives may hold a blade longer, but will be more difficult to sharpen.
Japanese knives also have different blade angles and are in general able to make more precise cuts than German knives. However, many Japanese knives sold in the American market have blade angles similar to German knives, and Japanese styled German knives usually have a German blade angle, as well.
Japanese knives are not better, they are just different--but they may be better for you depending on your preferences.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Kitchen Knives
Kitchen knives--and knives in general--can be a real rabbit hole. If you just want to find the best knives for your kitchen and your budget, the basic information here is all you need.
We hope this was helpful for beginner cooks. Thanks for reading!
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