Tip of the day: How to choose knives

Consumer Reports News: December 05, 2007 12:26 PM

If the carving job you did on your Thanksgiving turkey resulted in a botched bird, perhaps you need some new kitchen knives to help you get better results. Use our buying advice to sharpen your knowledge of knives and then refer to our recently updated Ratings (available to subscribers) to find the best models for your budget. Your family will thank you at the next holiday gathering.

Focus on essentials. A well-equipped home kitchen should have at least four types of knives. The chef’s knife, usually 8 inches long, is the most important and the workhorse of the kitchen. You'll use it for chopping, slicing, and dicing a variety of foods. A slicer is generally longer and thinner and is used mainly to cut cooked meat. A utility knife is often interchangeable with a chef’s knife for cutting and slicing fruits and vegetables, though its smaller size—4 to 6 inches—can make it more convenient. A parer, usually 3 to 4 inches long, is perfect for peeling and coring.

Know the terminology. Knives are forged or stamped. Forged knives, which tend to be higher priced, are created when a single piece of molten steel is cut and beaten into the desired shape. The blade is sturdy, with a heavy bolster and heel to protect the hand during cutting (see Knife anatomy, below). Because forged blades are generally less flexible than stamped, they are less apt to bend over time. Some makers use the term “forged” when in fact they use a different process to imitate the forged look.

    Stamped knives, created by a cookie-cutter-type machine, are usually the same thickness throughout, except at the cutting edge. They lack a bolster and heel. Although the top-rated knives are forged, stamped knives are capable of very good performance. They’re also generally less expensive than forged.

Consider how you cook. For more specialized preparation, choose a set in with lots of pieces, or buy additional separately sold knives from the same line, referred to as “open stock.” Most fine-edged knives have open stock available. The santoku is a cross between a chef’s knife and a cleaver. Its cutting edge is straighter than a chef’s knife, so there’s less opportunity to “rock” the blade for fine slicing. But if you’re not versed in rocking you might prefer the santoku. It’s also lighter and less bulky than a cleaver, though not suitable for chopping through bone.

Factor in care. If the people in your household tend to leave unwashed knives in the sink or put them in the dishwasher—both no-nos—choose a set in the Ratings that indicates it’s not prone to corrosion. All the fine-edged sets require regular honing. If you’re not willing to hone, consider the low-maintenance choice mentioned in CR Quick Recommendations (available to subscribers).

Hold the handle. Look for a knife that is rated excellent or very good for handle comfort and balance. If you’re shopping at a specialty or department store, ask a salesperson if you can hold a sample knife to see if you like the fit. (Click below to learn about the different parts of a knife.)

Knife anatomy (click on the illustration)

Bolster. A thick band of steel on forged knives. It helps balance the knife and protects your hands from accidental slips.

Edge. The working part of the blade. The middle section cuts and slices. Advice: Before each use, hone the edge with a knife steel—a special, textured rod—to smooth and align a sharp edge. Sharpen the blade with a stone or other device to create a new edge when cutting becomes less precise. To gauge sharpness, cut paper down the edge. Hand-wash and dry the blade right after use to prevent corrosion.

Handle. Scales are the parts of the handle that create its grip; the butt is the end. Advice: Choose textured plastic, rubber, or bare-wood handles, the best grips for wet hands. Never soak a knife: Water can seep into gaps and corrode the steel, and wood handles can warp and splinter. Dishwasher detergent and excessive heat can also damage the handle.

Heel. The edge near the handle, it cuts through large or tough foods when you press down hard. Advice: Use a chopping block. Cutting on hard surfaces such as tile, natural stone, or quartz composites can dull the blade, as can using the blade to scrape food from the chopping block.

Spine. The top of the blade, opposite the edge.

Tang. The part of the blade that extends into the handle, the tang gives the knife balance.

Tip. The forward quarter of the blade. It’s best for cutting small or delicate foods. The point is good for piercing. Advice: Don’t use the tip, or any other part of the knife, as a bottle opener or for other uses for which it’s not intended.

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