A little about me: I cook a lot, mostly dinner at home for my family and friends but sometimes for massive parties of upwards of 200 people. I’ve been doing sous vide cooking since 2010. I run a food blog called Unselling Convenience (also @unsellingconvenience on Instagram if you’d rather follow along there), which is mostly an inspiration board and memory database of things I’ve enjoyed cooking and probably want to cook again. I believe that shortcuts are great, but not at the expense of quality. I administer the Everyday Sous Vide and Instant Pot Love groups on Facebook.
I enjoy inspiring other people to cook and giving advice. Also, I love gadgets, and I’ve tried out a LOT of stuff. I have strong opinions. This post series is about things I use in the kitchen plus a few things I don’t and why, and I hope it’s informative and fun for you. Unless otherwise specified, everything listed here is something I’ve used myself. If you buy something from one of the links, I probably get a small commission which won’t even come close to defraying the amount of money I’ve spent on these things over the years but which will make me happy anyway.
If you haven’t already, also see My Cooking Kit, Part 1 — Cookware & Bakeware.
Ok, let’s talk about knives.
Chef’s knives are very personal. They’re one of the most important tools in the kitchen, among the most frequently used for prep, and can be the most expensive. I can’t make a decision for you about what knives you should get, or what knives will work for you. That said, I think there are some options that are mostly universally appealing, where you can’t go wrong even if you’re not right enough.
The best knife is the one that does the job for you. That probably means one that’s comfortable to hold and use, that’s well-balanced, that’s solidly constructed, that maintains a good edge, is backed by a company with a good reputation, and hopefully isn’t too expensive (but which provides a good value regardless). I own a lot of knives, and sometimes rotate them out depending on my preferences. Like with everything else, my preference is for individual tools that do an excellent job at specific tasks rather than one tool that works in a mediocre way for everything, but there’s a balancing act to be had here.
In this post, I’ll talk about some of the factors to think about when choosing knives, some of the specific knives I use and love, and why I’ve made those choices. I’m a home cook, so I’m generally looking for comfort and reliability, but also for tools that make me happy when I use them. Sometimes the cheapest and easiest thing that will accomplish a specific task is the way to go, but there’s also real pleasure to be had in holding and using a finely crafted artifact. Sometimes I want a tool that will last a lifetime, and sometimes that’s not worth the initial outlay and a cheaper one that works but will wear out in a few years is fine.
On that important note: Some of the things I cover in here are expensive. If that’s not in your budget, you can get by with a sharp $33 8" Fibrox chef’s knife and a $10 Mercer paring knife (maybe even less at a local restaurant supply shop). They’ll probably require more frequent sharpening, and the stamped blades may wear out or snap after a few years, but they’ll generally get the job done. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you have to spend a lot of money to get decent knives, but at the same time, I think there are good reasons to make these investments, not the least of which is the pleasure of using well-crafted tools. I consider the $30–$80 range to be cheap for knives, $80–$150 to be mid-range, and $150-$200 to be expensive. There are many many knives that are more expensive than that, and while I’m sure they’re nice, that’s more than I generally want to spend. A few of the knives I’ve covered here are more than that now but they weren’t when I bought them and I don’t know if I’d replace them at current prices. I am aggressive about seeking out sales, and it’s not uncommon for really nice knives to be had at substantial discounts if you’re patient.
For chef’s knives, there are three main types with some sub-types. The first classification for the shape is:
- Japanese (longer and thinner, with usually thinner blades),
- German (curved edges, thicker blades),
- or French (somewhere in the middle, usually with straight triangular blades).
French chef’s knives are not terribly easy to find in the US, most of them are carbon steel (vs. stainless). They’ll be very very sharp but require more care and a lot of maintenance. For Japanese knives, the two primary shapes are gyuto (more like a traditional chef’s knife) and santoku (more like a cleaver). My personal preference is for santoku knives. They’re a little less dextrous, but they do a good job of slicing and chopping. If you do a lot of rocking chopping, you’ll want a German blade — the curved edge makes that easier.
My favorite go-to chef’s knife blade for everyday use is the Kyocera black blade 6" santoku (many other shapes and sizes are available if you don’t like that one). I have relatively small hands and tight countertops, so a smaller knife makes sense for me most of the time. The black blade ceramics are fired at a higher temperature which makes them more durable than the white blades; I always favor them over the white blades where possible even though they’re a bit more expensive. The Kyocera ceramic knives with plastic handles are comparatively affordable, and I don’t see any reason to get the much more expensive wooden handles. The only real drawback to these knives is that the blades, while very sharp, are somewhat brittle and will snap if flexed — they can’t be used for cutting through bones, frozen food, or cheese (there’s an internal flexion matrix that exerts torsion stresses on the blade, and will also snap them), and they’ll chip or snap if you drop them on a hard surface. But for regular everyday use, they’ll stay sharp for a long time with no maintenance, and require little care. You shouldn’t be doing any of that stuff with your nice knives anyway.
A bonus: they’re sharp, but because of the nature of the edge, they cut more by slicing than by pressure, and as a result I’ve found that they’re much less likely to cut your skin if you bounce one off your finger accidentally. They’re not entirely cut-proof, but that little give buys you an extra split second to realize what you’ve done and back it away before it breaks the surface.
The Innovation series is the followup to the Revolution series, and they have slightly more ergonomic handles. They’re both fine.
For steel knives, I strongly favor Japanese blades — this 6.5" Mac Santoku is my favorite. It holds an incredible edge, and the divots in the side of the blade prevent sticking. For a more traditional chef’s knife shape used for rocking cuts, I love this Messermeister Meridian Elite 8". This was the first chef’s knife I ever bought, and I still love it. It has a German-style chef’s knife shape with a Japanese-style edge. This is an absolute workhorse knife that will handle any task you throw at it.
For steel knives, there are a few things to look out for:
- Forged vs. stamped blade: a stamped blade is a single flat piece of metal, usually mounted into a sculpted handle. Stamped blades don’t have a metal bolster at the end of the handle. These can be fine, but they’re usually cheaper. The bolster of a forged knife often has a more pleasant feel when using a proper pinch grip, but that does depend somewhat on the specific shape used. I find the angled bolsters of Misen knives to be particularly comfortable for me.
- Full tang vs. partial tang: A full tang knife will have the blade extend all the way down to the end of the handle, and it’s usually the case that the blade is visible through the handle. Partial tang blades are embedded in the handle, and may be less durable. All knife blades may separate from the handle over time, but with a partial tang knife, the blade may fall entirely out of the handle. This is a long-term durability issue.
- Clearance of the blade: the overall height of the blade, and the distance between the bottom edge of the handle and the edge of the blade when in use. You definitely want enough finger clearance so your hand isn’t hitting the cutting board (this is a main distinguishing factor between chef’s knives and slicers). Some knives, like this Miyabi Evolution, have a very deep clearance blade and that can be pleasant, but it may feel like you’re too far away from the board and have less control. This is a preference choice.
- Shape of the spine: some knives are flatter on top (in cross-section), some are more rounded. This is a matter of preference. Rounded spines may be more comfortable when putting a second hand on the blade for rocking.
- Full-length bolster: some knives have a bolster that goes all the way down the trailing edge of the blade. This can be more comfortable to hold, but it can also make it more challenging to sharpen the full length of the blade. This is a preference trade-off. The best example I have of this is these gorgeous blue pearl LamsonSharp blades I gave as presents to my wedding party, and I treasure the one I kept for myself. I don’t think this exact model is available anymore, but the Lamson 6" Fire Series is similar.
- Granton edges: some knives have flat sides, and some have small grooves filed out of the edge. The grooves help keep moister foods from sticking to the blade (especially things like potato and apple slices). They can be subtle or very deep (e.g.: Glestain, we’ll talk more about that when we get to slicers).
- The hardness/composition of the steel and/or manufacturing methods: this is a huge huge topic with endless variation and argument. My advice is that unless you know enough about metallurgy to have an informed opinion, you probably don’t need to care about this very much. It will affect somewhat how the knife cuts, what kind of edge it will hold, and how often it needs to be sharpened. But for the most part, all knives from reputable manufacturers are fine, and you shouldn’t worry about getting a specific alloy blend. The quality of the materials will be factored into the price, and I’ve never not bought a knife because it was made out of the wrong metal. Don’t stress about it. If you want to know more about this, there’s a whole rabbit hole of internet to explore.
Misen gets a bit of a special mention here. I was famously critical of their kickstarter and people took that as criticism of Misen when it was really a discussion of risk. I like their knives a great deal! This is my go-to choice when people ask what to buy and don’t have any strong preferences. They’re well-designed, pleasant to use, stay sharp a long time, and are relatively affordable. I prefer the santoku, but the chef’s knife is also nice.
For paring knives, there are three primary options — traditional (triangular blade), sheep’s foot (rounded blade with a straight edge) and bird’s beak (curved blade). If you often do a lot of trimming in hand, you’ll probably prefer the bird’s beak. The sheep’s foot is good for straight cutting, and the traditional shape is somewhere in the middle.
My standard for a bird’s beak is the Messermeister 2.5", but there are many other choices across a wide price range. I don’t have very strong perferences about paring knives other than I’d rather have a bunch of cheap ones than one expensive one. I bought the Kyocera ceramic one a long time ago, and it’s nice too, though it’s not great if your paring needs involve prying.
Paring knives often come with chef’s knife sets, and that can be a good deal, but I wouldn’t get one just to get the paring knife.
This sheep’s foot got relegated to my travel kit. It’s fine.
A slicer has a long thin blade for cutting slices of large roasts, big fish fillets, watermelons, bread loaves, and the like. My go-to blade for this is the Kyocera ceramic micro-serrated slicer. There is a black blade version of this knife, but it can be difficult to find, and I think the white blade one is fine. The micro-serrations are excellent for cutting anything with a skin, and it works very well as a bread knife as well (I have a traditional steel serrated bread knife but I almost never use it and would likely not replace it if I didn’t have it).
This Glestain slicer is one of my absolute favorite knives, though I have some serious sticker shock when I look at the current prices (I bought it about 15 years ago at a substantial discount and I thought it was expensive even then). The deep granton edges prevent sticking to the sides of the blade, but they also look super cool. This is a real luxury that I bring out for special occasions.
This Global utility knife is the carving knife I use most often for chickens and small roasts. I originally got it as part of a set before I knew anything about knives except that Global made good ones, and it’s by far my favorite of the three.
A utility knife is essentially halfway between a slicer and a paring knife. The thin medium blade is easy to maneuver. The black blade 5" micro-serrated utility knife is exceptionally useful for trimming anything with a skin — I use it often for tomatoes and grapes. The black blade 7" serrated slicer (discussed above) is similar, and is exceptionally useful for cutting sandwiches and meats. If I had to pick just one blade to have, it might be this one, even with the ceramic limitations.
Boning and Filleting are two common kitchen tasks that benefit from specialty knives. Their shapes are similar, except that boning knives are typically rigid for cutting around meat bones and skin, and fillet knives are flexible for cutting around fish bones and skin. I got this Wusthof one on clearance, you probably don’t need a fancy knife for this. Mercer makes a perfectly acceptable boning knife and fillet knife for ~$20 each.
There are an endless number of different kinds of “other” knives. These are some of my favorites.
A short bar knife is handy for slicing citrus and is great for all kinds of cheeses.
Sadly, Lamson does not seem to make the bar knife I have anymore, but this Victorinox cheese knife seems very similar. A more traditional shape for Parmesan would be something like this wedge, but I prefer the bar knife, because you can also use it for other small tasks.
This skeleton knife is handy for cheese and other sticky things:
Somewhere along the way I found these delightful Laguiole mini-cheese knives, and they’re a pleasure to use.
If you eat oysters on a regular basis, you’ll want an oyster knife. In a pinch, you can use a flat-head screwdriver to pry them open — don’t use another kind of knife. You’ll probably snap the blade, definitely ruin the edge, and may cut yourself badly.
If you section a lot of grapefruits, you might want this ridiculous thing. It’s apparently available in day-glo colors now.
This cleaver belonged to my great grandfather who was a kosher butcher. I don’t use it often, but I’m glad to have it when I do. Here’s a similar option if your great grandfather was not a kosher butcher.
For steak knives, this Messermeister Avanta 4-piece set is a great deal, but you’ll probably want to sharpen them from time to time. They do not hold an edge nearly as well as the Wusthof Classic steak knives I also have, but the latter have risen in price substantially since I bought them 20 years ago, and I can no longer recommend them as much. They’re nice, but it’s hard to say they’re worth the premium. I strongly prefer non-serrated steak knives. Most serrated knives, especially cheaper ones, get dull quickly and can’t easily be sharpened. Dull ones, and even many sharper ones, will tear meat rather than slicing it, and I find that unpleasant.
Care and Maintenance
Knives don’t require very much maintenance, but that little bit is important. Clean them after every use, don’t leave them sitting out dirty, don’t put them in the dishwasher. Don’t cut on hard surfaces like glass, ceramic, and stone. I keep them on a magnetic knife bar or in a wooden drawer tray. This knife block is probably what I’d use if I had the counter space.
If you want maximum sharpness, you should hone them with a steel before each use, but honestly I almost never take the time to do this. When I do, I usually use a plain steel or this ceramic one. A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one, because it will slip and run the risk of cutting you. I never let my knives get to that point. If you want the least maintenance, Kyocera ceramic is your friend.
Sharpening is a very in-depth topic I won’t go into detail about here. I typically sharpen my knives every few months to a year in batches, depending on what’s needed. For the fine knives, I sharpen them by hand with a water stone like this one. For my steak knives and other blades I don’t care about that much, I use this Trizor XV electric sharpener. Kyocera will also re-sharpen ceramic knives (but I’ve been using some for 15 years and they’re still sharp). Korin in NYC does excellent mail-order sharpening and repair on all fine knives for reasonable prices.
I think that’s about it for now. Enjoy your cutting and slicing!
Part 3 will cover kitchen tools and gadgets…