The single most common use for knives these days is in the kitchen. If you’re cooking, you will definitely need a knife or two. So, what is the best kitchen cutlery?
You will know after reading this review of high-quality knives to accompany your cooking adventures. Plus you’ll find out about accessories to help optimize the performance of your knives, such as the proper cutting boards and sharpening steel.
Guys are no longer running around the woods chasing down big game with a bowie knife (I’ve always cracked up at Jake Johanssen’s take on “knife season,” (see the 7:30 point…)), nor are most men silently taking out sentinels around a terrorist camp in the dead of night, but we are cooking and eating every day, and for that a good chef’s knife, paring knife, santoku knife, cleaver, and other cooking cutlery is indispensable. Not to mention cutting boards, knife sharpeners, and cookbooks explaining how to use them. The best of all these tools for cutting, peeling, slicing, and dicing add a lot to the ease and satisfaction of preparing food.
You’ve probably already got a few knives in your kitchen but chances are that not a lot of planning went into obtaining them. For such a necessary tool as a kitchen knife, it’s too bad most guys don’t put more care into getting the best.
You may not be a professional chef, but if you cook at all, you’re basically doing what a professional chef does when it comes to cutting up food, peeling vegetables, and slicing meat. Superior kitchen knives can add to the enjoyment of the whole cooking and eating experience. Plus, it makes the job a heck of a lot easier.
In addition, as I’ve mentioned in my previous post on knives every guy needs, a well-made knife is simply a satisfying object to own.
Here, in “Kitchen Knives 101,” I’ll offer suggestions on how to acquire the best knives to use for your culinary tasks — knives you’ll be proud to own. You can buy them all through this post from the best online retailers of kitchen equipment by clicking on the links and images of each type of knife listed below.
To get started, you should know that you can meet your need for kitchen cutlery by having just 3 versatile knives.
You can handle 90% of cooking-related tasks with a santoku knife, a good paring knife, and a high-quality chef’s knife. The best models and manufacturers of these types of knives are described below. You don’t have to break the bank to buy good kitchen knives but keep in mind that a number of the best brands offer lifetime warranties, so that makes them a little more expensive. Be aware that a top-rated, well-made kitchen knife can last for generations.
By the way, if you end up with knives from different manufacturers, don’t worry — any professional chef’s kitchen has the same diversity of kitchen cutlery and it just means you’re discriminating about your tools…
A santoku knife is the “utility infielder” of the kitchen knife team. It does a lot of things well. After trying a santoku knife, many cooks think it is the most versatile knife to own.
The shape of the santoku knife — a combination of a cleaver and a chef’s knife — allows it to excel in the areas of slicing, dicing, and chopping, particularly vegetables and fruits, but it also works well with meats like fish and chicken, which you can slice very thinly with a santoku.
The thinness and sharpness of the blade also makes it easier to mince things (you can make mincemeat of, well, meat). Many santoku knives have a granton edge, which is a pattern of grooves along the side of the blade that creates air pockets so that vegetables and fruit tend to stick less to the blade as you’re slicing. Santoku knives often handle more easily than a heavier chef’s knife. You can get pretty fast with one after practice. About the only thing a santoku knife might not do well is chop through bones. And for slicing bread, a longer-bladed, serrated knife might work a little better.
Below are a couple of top-rated santoku knives.
Rachel Ray helped popularize the santoku knives made by Wusthof and for good reason: they’re excellent knives. For a knife of this quality, it’s also reasonably priced. It has a lifetime guarantee. The blade is high-carbon stainless steel with a granton edge, full tang, and the handle is triple-riveted polypropylene.
The Wusthof Gourmet 7-inch Santoku Knife with Granton Edge has become one of the most popular kitchen knives ever:
I’ve used this knife myself and particularly like its balance and maneuverability. Many other reviewers have praised this knife as well.
New York Magazine asked chef Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama to evaluate ten of the top santoku knives in the world. He tested them by chopping onions, slicing chicken, and mincing parsley — even slicing parchment paper. Of the Wusthof, he said that it was well-balanced and that “the blade is very thin, but in a good way, and it’s very sharp and cuts well. Ideal for slicing chicken and vegetables.” Cooks Illustrated magazine consistently rates these Wusthof knives at or near the top. Click here to see a good selection of Wusthof Santoku knives at Zappos, including the top-rated Classic and the Classic Ikon.
Below is another variation on the santoku. It is the Shun 7-inch Santoku Knife with Granton Edge. This knife was Blade Magazine’s 2008 “Kitchen Knife of the Year,” so I think it’s safe to say it’s one of the best kitchen knives. It was also the number 1 knife on Chef Takayama’s list. It is made in Japan by Kai using the Damascus process, which produces a beautiful moiré pattern on the blade. It arrives from the factory exceedingly sharp. (Try cutting a tomato with this baby — it requires almost no pressure beyond the blade itself.)
It has a little more rocker in the blade than many other santoku knives, so for those who prefer a bit of a compromise between the classic santoku straight edge and a conventional chef’s knife, this knife fits the bill.
It has stainless steel bolsters and buttcaps and a high-carbon stainless steel blade. The blade is clad with 16 layers of softer steel for durability, then etched to show the unique “Damascus” finish. The edge is harder than that found on most knives, allowing for extra sharpness.
The handle is made of Pakkawood and starts out as thin layers of white birch that are dyed black. The birch sheets are layered between sheets of plastic resin, then fused together under high heat and pressure. The result is a handle that looks and feels like wood but is dishwasher safe. The other unique feature of the handle is the design. The manufacturer calls it a “D”shape but it actually looks more like a tear drop. It has a distinct ridge that goes down the side of the handle that fits perfectly in the hand (for right-handers), as well as stabilizes the blade to prevent turning and twisting.
Though a little costlier than the Wusthof, the Shun 7-inch Santoku Knife is worth it for those who prefer the best. Modern materials (forged VG-10 steel blade clad with SUS410 high-carbon stainless steel) combined with a classic design make this a truly remarkable kitchen knife that will last a lifetime. It may not turn you into a master chef but when you use it you’ll feel like one. Find it at a good discount here.
No cook can be without a paring knife; you can use them to do everything from peeling an apple to removing eyes from potatoes to de-veining shrimp — anything that requires precision and/or working in tight spaces. The blades are generally in the 3- to 4-inch range.
You can find a cheap-ass paring knife for about $9, but why do that to yourself? The steel won’t be great, you’ll be getting the low end of manufacturing quality, and it won’t last a lifetime. You can find really good-quality paring knives for not too much more. A worthwhile paring knife will set you back about $40. Moving up, among the best paring knives you can find some that are works of art for double that amount. Below are several models to consider in order of cost and (IMHO) beauty.
First is the Wusthof Classic 3½-inch Paring Knife. It’s got a lifetime warranty, a high-carbon stainless steel blade, and a triple-riveted handle that is dishwasher safe. The blade has a pointed tip for tasks like digging the stems out of peppers, and a super-sharp, hand-polished edge. A great little knife that you can get for under $40 here.
And here’s a deal: Get a FREE $25 Gift Card with a purchase of Wusthof cutlery of $250 or more and free shipping on orders over $59 at Sur La Table. Click here to shop and take advantage of this Wusthof deal now.
Moving up a bit in quality, to the left is the outstanding Shun 3½-inch Paring Knife with a Damascus blade that’s razor-sharp right out of the box, Pakkawood handle, a piercing tip, and stainless-steel end cap and bolster. A knife that you’ll be proud to own and display in your kitchen. This is one you’ll want to hand-wash (as with most of your great kitchen knives, actually — why have them banging around in the dishwasher?). The VG-10 “super-steel” blade is composed of carbon, chromium, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, silicon, and vanadium.
Now here is an exceedingly cool paring knife — the 3-inch Ultra-Chef from Al Mar. With a one-piece, hollow, stainless-steel handle and a blade that comprises 33 layers of steel surrounding a central cutting core made of VG-10 stainless that has been heat-treated to a Rockwell C-scale hardness of 60-62, this is the samurai sword of paring knives. It is exceedingly light and comfortable in the hand.
Each Al Mar knife is hand-finished and hand-sharpened at the factory. It comes gift-boxed from Japan. Al Mar is not necessarily a famous household name in the U.S. (except among professionals), but their manufactured knives rival custom, hand-made blades. Sure, the price reflects that, but for that price you get a work of art. Get one for yourself or as a gift for a discriminating cook here for a discount.
Although expensive, Al Mar knives are worth every penny, especially for highly-trained chefs who are serious about what they do. One review posted online states: “It’s the best knife I’ve ever bought. Grade A+.” Bottom line: you cannot get a better kitchen knife than one from Al Mar.
Finally, here is a paring knife from Japan that is also quite stylish but in a more rustic — though no less high-quality — way: the Haiku 3¼-inch Paring Knife. These traditionally-styled Japanese knives feature handles made of honoki wood (the wood traditionally used to make the handles of Japanese swords), and have molybdenum/vanadium steel blades. Haiku knives have a bamboo peg (a “mekugi”) inserted into the side where the tang and handle are joined. This adds stability and is the same technique used by Japanese sword makers for hundreds of years. The 2005 and 2007 winners of the Bocuse d’Or (Serge Vieira and Fabrice Desvignes, respectively) were noted for using Haiku knives. This is a charming, mid-priced knife that can be found here for a good price.
Haiku also makes a fine 5-inch Utility Knife that is a little larger than a traditional paring knife and is suitable for a wide variety of cutting tasks in the kitchen. That’s it to the right.
Choosing one of the fine paring knives mentioned here will not disappoint even the most discriminating of cooks. When you think about it, there has probably never been as broad a selection of high-quality knives in the history of the world as you’ll find in the marketplace these days. As with many products, knives keep getting better while the price relative to quality goes down. And we still have the “star” of kitchen knives to consider…
The Chef’s Knife
Next we move on to the “Babe Ruth” of the kitchen-knife team: the burly chef’s knife. This is often the first thing that comes to mind when people think of the typical “kitchen knife.” It comes in handy for a wide variety of kitchen tasks, as well as in cheap slasher horror flicks.
Also known as a “French knife,” the chef’s knife is a general-purpose tool that can be used for slicing vegetables, meat, and cheese, mincing and chopping, as well as disjointing chickens and larger cuts of beef and ham (not to mention buffalo and ostrich). The blade can be anywhere from 6 to 14 inches in length (8″ is common), and features a pronounced curve toward the tip, which allows for a rocking technique when chopping or dicing. There are a lot of good chef’s knives on the market. I have used a number of different ones. Below are three to consider, in order of quality and prestige.
Here’s a good “entry-level” chef’s knife that could serve you well for a long time — for a lifetime, actually, since it’s got a lifetime warranty: the Forschner 8-inch Chef’s Knife. It’s also sold under the Victorinox name (yes, the company that makes Swiss Army knives).
This knife was recommended by Cooks Illustrated as a best buy.
The knife is light-weight, with pretty good balance. It’s got a stamped, polished, high-carbon steel blade, and a taper ground with no bolster. Since it’s got no finger guard, you can easily hold it by the top of the blade, if you like that technique. It’s tempered to accept numerous sharpenings. The handle is made of a patented material called Fibrox that gives a good grip, even when wet. It’s certified by NSF International for commercial food service. Customer reviews praise this knife for the quality relative to the cost. It’s a good knife for around $30. If you’re watching your budget, start with the Forschner and you can upgrade down the road to one of the models below.
Okay, you’ve decided that you’re committed to having some of the best kitchen tools money can buy — or you’re looking for a great gift for a friend who’s a serious chef or a recent graduate from cooking school. In either case, consider one of the following two knives.
First, the Shun Classic 10-inch Chef’s Knife. This is a large knife with a core of VG-10 super-steel clad with 16 layers of SUS410 high-carbon steel on each side, producing a 33-layer blade with the distinctive Damascus look.
This knife is made in Seki City, Japan, known for hundreds of years as an important center for producing samurai swords, and you will probably feel like a samurai the first time you pick up this beautiful knife. At the least, you’ll feel like a kitchen pro.
The knife features a Pakkawood handle and stainless steel bolsters and endcaps. The blade is sharpened to an astonishingly sharp 16 degrees. Go ahead — break down a whole turkey or split a hard squash, even slice bread; this knife can do it all (including more delicate slicing and mincing tasks). The additional leverage from the 10-inch blade is noticeable.
Additionally, it will look impressive up on a magnetic strip on the wall of your kitchen — where any passing food-guy will note it appreciatively. This is the knife preferred by cookbook author and TV host Alton Brown. Use it carefully — if you have not been exposed to a knife of this quality, you will not believe how sharp it is! For example, if you try to test the edge by running your thumb along it…well, probably not a good idea. Just use it a lot for cooking, treat it well (wash and dry by hand after use and sharpen as needed, preferably professionally). Find it here for a 20% discount. Guaranteed for life by Kershaw Shun. (Note: the handle of the Classic is optimised for right-handers. If you want a more “ambidextrous” knife, try the Shun Premier 8-inch Chef’s Knife. It’s also got that beautiful Damascus blade, as well as a hammered “tsuchime” finish.)
And then we have the Ken Onion 8-inch Chef’s Knife — the only knife on this page that comes with a display stand. Why? Because in addition to being functional, it’s a work of art. It’s got those ergonomic yet organic curves going on.
You won’t want to hide this knife in a drawer (not that you’ll want any of your fine knives banging around in a drawer with the rest of your everyday kitchen implements). If you’ve been reading these knife entries, you’ve probably gotten the impression by now that I like Ken Onion’s stuff. You’d be right. His designs are distinctive and he’s a multi award-winner. This knife is no exception. It was selected “Kitchen Knife of the Year” by Blade Magazine, and won awards at the 2005 Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair. Bon Appétit reviewed the knife and stated that it had good balance, making it easy to maneuver. The blade is VG-10 high-carbon stainless steel with a Damascus finish; the handle is Pakkawood. The handle is designed to minimize arm tension and provide increased safety during use. The shape of the blade allows for “gliding” the knife across the cutting surface and the bolster is angled to create space for your thumb and index finger for an efficient grip.
In other words, the knife is both efficient and beautiful. Sure, it’s more expensive than other chef’s knives available out there but, aside from its outstanding quality, it’s distinctive and will last you a lifetime. That makes it a good value and a tool you’ll be proud to own. Alton Brown says that this knife has the sharpest straight-from-the-factory edge he’s ever seen. Try it for yourself! Find it here for a good discount.
That will cover the basics of your kitchen knife collection. Begin by getting the knife that will be the most useful — wherever the most glaring “hole” currently exists in your collection. If you’ve got a sort of acceptable chef’s knife, start with a santoku. Then move on to a paring knife. Or whatever you’ll use the most. Acquire one of the above knives every couple of months to spread the cost out over time. Or drop obvious hints before Christmas or your birthday. Eventually, you’ll have a set of kitchen knives that rivals that of a professional chef.
Beyond the Basics
Now, if you’ve already got some pretty good knives and you want to add something really exotic (yet functional) to your collection, consider the following deals:
Just about anything made with titanium is cool. Titanium is light, strong, resists corrosion, and can withstand high temperatures. Who wouldn’t want to use it to make knives? Kasumi, located in Seki, Japan (800 years of samurai sword-making tradition) thought titanium made sense and produced these gorgeous knives that combine molybdenum/vanadium steel with a titanium coating, making for one of the sharpest possible knife edges. Titanium is non-toxic and does not generate the ferrous ions that can give food that “metallic” flavor from conventional steel knives. It’s abrasion-resistant and easy to care for in daily use. The abrasion-resistance also protects the steel, enabling the blade to maintain a razor-sharp edge for a longer time, yet it glides through food easily.
And one more exotic set of tools to consider is ceramic knives. Some chef’s swear by them, especially this set from Kyocera — a 5½-inch Santoku and a 3-inch Paring Knife. The blades are made from zirconium oxide, an advanced ceramic second in hardness only to diamond. They are extremely sharp and will hold their edge for years without sharpening if handled correctly. They resist stains and rust and are chemically inert, meaning food acids will not affect them. They are also light in weight and easily handled. They come with a 5-year warranty from the manufacturer.
Just don’t drop your ceramic knives (they might shatter) or try to chop bones (the blade can chip). Anything else, though — slicing, dicing, mincing, julienning, cutting, trimming, seeding, and peeling — these knives will whip through. Considering their high-tech origin, the price is reasonable. Use them only on a wooden or polyethylene cutting board (see below). If they ever need sharpening, you must send them back to Kyocera. These will also be a conversation-starter in your kitchen!
Hardly anyone really needs a meat cleaver. Except maybe a butcher. Then again, you may frequently be cutting up chicken parts for stock or dealing with lobsters, so you might find it handy to have one. What is for sure is that there’s just something satisfying about having a big ‘ol cleaver hanging up on the wall of your kitchen, just sitting there all ready to use, powerful and unapologetically functional. So, for when you feel powerful and unapologetically functional, here’s a premium cleaver for your consideration:
This is the Global 6½-inch Cleaver. The blade is 6½ inches of stainless steel, ice-hardened and sharpened to a 15-degree angle. The three-piece construction — blade and two handle halves — are welded or forged (depending on the Global model) for a seamless, hygienic, uniquely balanced instrument of death. Global knives are known for their innovative design and quality. Cooks Illustrated rated this cleaver at the top. It has been praised by reviewers for its balance — heavy enough to cut without being tiring, light enough for maneuverability. What it does best is chop through just about anything. “Will split bone without chipping,” wrote one online reviewer. Another wrote, “It chops bones, bangs through half-frozen carcasses when necessary and is worth every penny.” Used by top-ranking chefs world wide. Find it here for almost no discount (Global knives rarely get discounted, but…worth every penny, remember).
On the other hand, with regard to usefulness, there is the Chinese cleaver, which some cooks swear by. It’s sort of like a santoku on steroids. Used mainly for chopping vegetables and light meats (some cooks even employ two cleavers when mincing and turn their cutting board into a manual Cuisinart). It also mashes, scrapes, and scoops. Plus the better ones still look impressive. Especially the stainless steel Chroma Type 301 Chinese cleaver with 7″ blade (pictured at right). It was designed by F. A. Porsche (yes, the designer of the 911 sports car) with input from Austrian chef Jörg Wörther. Chef Wolfgang Puck uses Chroma knives in his home. This cleaver is beautiful (not necessarily a word you use often with cleavers) — functional, too, with a hand-ground blade and lifetime warranty. Find it here for a pretty good discount.
Honing and Sharpening Your Knives
It won’t do you any good to have the best kitchen knives in the world if they’re not sharp. Aside from ceramic blades, knives — including all the steel models listed above — need occasional sharpening and regular honing. Honing — which smooths the blade — can be done at home with a steel.
When it comes to sharpening, many folks send their high-quality knives to a professional sharpener about once a year. You can try to sharpen them at home, but you should know what you’re doing or you may not get the best result.
Here is a high-quality steel you can use to hone your knives — the Wusthof Classic 10-inch Sharpening Steel (somewhat of a misnomer, since knives are best sharpened using stones and honed using steel). This is a good steel that’s not too expensive. You should hone your knives regularly. See below for a video on how to hone your knives. Remember, there’s a difference between honing (smooths the blade) and sharpening (reestablishes the blade angle).
Of course, it’s not impossible to sharpen your own knives and it’s a handy thing to know how to do. If you’d like to try sharpening your knives at home, you’ll need a good set of stones (heh). Electric knife sharpeners sometimes tend to not put the right angle on a blade and they also remove a fair amount of steel. So start with this set of fine, coarse, and medium sharpening stones: Smith’s Tri-Hone Sharpening System. This knife-sharpening tool includes a sharpening angles guide, honing oil, and instructions. For a reasonable price, this is a useful sharpening set, suitable not only for kitchen knives but for pocket knives, hunting knives, and other edged tools.
Here’s the video on how to hone and sharpen knives:
Of course, when you’re cutting something you’ll need something appropriate to cut on. You don’t want to cut on a granite counter-top, glass, or a ceramic dinner plate (any of which will take the edge off your knives pretty quickly). You’ll want a good cutting board. Following are several that are beautiful and functional. Since they’re made of bamboo, they’re also environmentally hip. See the Bamboo Cutting Board Collection at Wayfair.
Bamboo is actually 16% harder than maple and thus more durable. Bamboo is also sustainably harvested and regrows quickly. These cutting boards come in a number of useful sizes and styles. Each will add a cool appearance to your kitchen.
Bamboo and other wooden cutting boards are good for just about any kitchen cutting task, but you might want to add a polyethylene plastic cutting board (also fine for knife blades) for use with meats, poultry, and fish. Unlike the bamboo board, you can stick the plastic board in the dishwasher.
Here is a top-rated high-density plastic cutting board (12 x 16 inches) — the Architec EcoSmart Cutting Board:
Find this multi-purpose cutting board made from sustainable materials for under $20 at Sur La Table online.
Finally, if you want a really stylish and versatile piece of kitchen furniture to use as a cutting surface, as well as for serving, storage, and as a central organizing piece in your kitchen, consider the John Boos Cucina Americana Toscano Kitchen Cart with Butcher Block Top. It’s beautiful and functional, with a 3-inch hard rock maple top, two drawers, stainless steel towel bars, commercial-grade casters, etc. The company, John Boos, builds each of these beautiful and functional carts to order. It is an heirloom-quality kitchen tool.
So, unless you’re one of those guys who just “knows” how to do things — repair a car, invade a city, use a knife — you’ve gotta learn some techniques to get started. Otherwise you won’t get the most out of your collection of fine kitchen knives. You think the greatest chefs in the world came out of the womb knowing how to julienne? Knowing which end of the knife to hold is a start, and here’s a good basic intro video for technique:
After all this talk about knives…
It would be nice to have something to cook, right? What will it be? Bouillabaisse? Meat loaf? Parsnip oven fries with curry dipping sauce? Whatever, you’ll probably want a good cookbook to get some ideas and methods. The movie “Julie and Julia” has done a thorough job of reminding everyone just how good Julia Child’s cookbook is. Some say it’s the best cookbook ever. Put it on your shelf alongside other classics such as the Betty Crocker Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking. Then pick a recipe and start slicing!
(What the heck does that mean? It means the same as the title of the magazine below on the right, only in Swedish.) (Say: “Smah-kleeg mole-teed.”)