Kitchen Knife Buying Guide

Kitchen Knife Buying Guide

A sharp kitchen knife is the single most important item in your culinary arsenal. It’s the only tool that can do everything from cutting up a whole chicken to finely mincing garlic or herbs. But buying a great knife, or a great knife set, is tough. For starters, almost any knife is sharp when it’s new, a finding we confirmed in our last major test of kitchen knives, when the vast majority of models scored favorably for cutting performance. 

Instead of getting hung up on a knife that’s simply sharp, hone in on construction, ergonomics, and feel, because along with how you use and care for a chef’s knife, those factors determine how a knife will hold up over time, and how easy it’ll be to use for repetitive cutting tasks day after day. 

That’s exactly what we did in our most recent test and assessment of eight chef’s knives, which we conducted in our labs, as well as in our home kitchens. Here’s what to know before you buy a kitchen knife. 

illustrated chef knife with labeled parts

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Parts of a Knife

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
Choose a knife with an oval-shaped handle for the best ergonomics. Avoid knives with grooves, slots for fingers, or contours, because these are rarely ergonomic for a broad cross-section of users. Wood or metal handles provide a good grip, while plastic or synthetic handles can get slippery. 

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.

What to Consider When Shopping for Kitchen Knives

Focus on Essentials
You only need two knives in your kitchen—a chef’s knife and a serrated bread knife. The chef’s knife cuts just about anything, except for crusty bread, while the bread knife, well, you can probably guess. A small utility or paring knife is nice for items like strawberries, as are kitchen shears, which work for everything from twine to trimming a rotisserie chicken into pieces. But unless you’re committed to buying or building a full set, you can keep it to the basics. 

Consider Size
As the workhorse of the kitchen, the size of your chef’s knife needs some consideration. You’ll find most are between 6 and 10 inches. Shorter knives are easier to handle and control, but longer knives let you slice through larger foods, like a watermelon or a roast. For many, an 8-inch chef’s knife hits the sweet spot, which is why it’s the most common size you’ll find. 

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, which is a flared piece of metal where the handle meets the blade, designed to protect the hand during cutting. Because forged blades are generally less flexible than stamped, they are less apt to bend over time. 

Stamped knives, created by a cookie-cutter-type machine, are usually the same thickness throughout, except at the cutting edge, where they’re finer. They usually lack a bolster and heel. Stamped knives were historically cheaper, and considered to be inferior, but there are a few high-end companies that make premium stamped knives, including Global. 

Consider Composition
Steel is the metal used to form most knife blades, but not all steel is the same. Most knives use a combination of stainless steel and carbon steel, but in varying quantities. Stainless steel resists rust and corrosion, while carbon steel can take a better edge. Look for a knife that offers "high-carbon stainless steel" if you want to blend the best of both metals. 

Hold the Handle
The best way to get a feel for a knife is to use it, or at the very least, grip the handle in the store. Some retailers, like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, have return policies that allow you to exchange a knife 30 to 60 days after purchase. Take a new knife for a test run in your own kitchen, to make sure it’s comfortable, easy to control, and doesn’t cause cramping while you cut. 

Knife Brands to Know

Most premium knives hail from Germany or Japan. German manufacturers make mostly European-style knives, which often feature thicker blades and a large bolster. Many Japanese manufacturers opt for a thinner blade and a finer edge. The brands featured here include many that CR has tested in the past, or which we recently reviewed with our in-house ergonomics expert. 

A large manufacturer of inexpensive cutlery, sold at major retailers like Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Macy’s, and Walmart.

A large company that uses direct-to-consumer and multilevel marketing to sell knives. Though these knives often come with fairly premium prices, they include a lifetime warranty. Their signature handle features large indentations or grooves, which our experts say isn’t ideal when designing a knife that will provide an ergonomic grip.

Global makes Japanese cutlery in Yoshikin, Japan, using a blend of high-carbon stainless steel. Its knives feature modern, dimpled metal handles that are oval in shape, which is naturally ergonomic, but handles are on the small side, so large-handed users especially may want to try them before buying.

J.A. Henckels has been making premium knives in Solingen, Germany, for around 300 years, now using a mix of high-carbon stainless steel. In addition to high-end knives, it also makes more mass-market knives, sold at lower prices, in stores like Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s.

Keemake is a company that makes Japanese-style knives sold almost exclusively on Amazon. It offers great styling at low prices, but our testing has found design lacking when it comes to ergonomics.

Best known for its stand mixers and other small appliances, KitchenAid also makes licensed cutlery and chef’s knives at entry-level prices.

Mac is an American knife company that manufactures knives in Japan. It’s known for using an exceptionally high-carbon blend of stainless steel in their construction. Its products are geared toward chefs and professionals and are sold online.

Mercer is a manufacturer that uses German and Japanese steel to produce premium knives sold online on its own website, as well as on Amazon.

Shun is a 20-year-old knife company that makes premium, Japanese-style knives sold at high-end retailers like Williams-Sonoma.

Like J.A. Henckels, Wusthof makes premium European-style knives in Solingen, Germany, using high-carbon stainless steel. Its knives tend to be premium, with no entry-level offerings, and are sold online as well as in high-end retail stores.

A brand best known for small kitchen gadgets like potato peelers, Zyliss makes entry-level knives for home cooks.