Buying Kitchen Knives
Kitchen knives are an essential tool for home and professional chefs. Whether you’re just starting out and looking to purchase your first kitchen knives or if you’re looking to upgrade an existing set, we’re here to help. Our kitchen knife buying guide provides an overview of the key decision-making factors you should consider when shopping for new knives. Let’s get started!
Not all knives are created equal. That’s why it’s important to know what features to look for. This guide is designed to provide enough information for you to gain an understanding of what these important features are. If you’d like to learn more about a specific topic, there are more detailed articles linked in each section.
Don’t have time to read through the whole guide? We understand. Use the table of contents below find the section you’re most interested in.
Table of Contents
- Buying Kitchen Knives
- Parts of a Knife
- Blade Construction
- Blade Material and Hardness
- Handle Materials
- Japanese vs German Style Knives
- Care and Maintenance
- Popular Kitchen Knives
- Knife Sets vs Individual Knives
- Warranty and Returns
- Knife Brands
Parts of a Knife
Before we dive into specific characteristics, it’s important to understand the different parts of a kitchen knife. Recognizing these terms and having a basic knowledge of what they mean will help you as you read about what features to look for and consider.
Click on each knife part to read its full description
Where the edge and spine meet. Used for piercing and scoring.
First third of the blade (includes the point). Used for delicate slicing and cutting.
Opposite the sharpened edge, this is the thickest part of the blade. The thicker the spine, the stronger and more stable the blade.
Area between the blade and handle. Provides weight and stability and protects the hand from sliding onto the blade. Not all knives have a bolster.
Metal circles on the handle of the knife that secure the tang to the handle.
Extends from the bolster or heel to the butt. Handles can vary in shape and material.
The end of the handle.
Metal part of the blade that extends partway (partial tang) or fully (full tang) into the handle. Provides strength and stability.
Widest part of the sharpened edge. Strongest part of the blade used to cut hard ingedients. Some bolstered knives do not have a heel.
Sharpened portion of the blade that runs from teh tip to the heel. Also called the belly.
The way a knife blade is created is arguably the most important feature when it comes to kitchen knives. There are two main types of blades used to make kitchen knives: forged and stamped. Forged blades are made from a single piece of steel that is heated and shaped into a blade, typically by a skilled craftsman. Stamped blades are cut or “stamped” out of a sheet of steel like cookies with a cookie cutter.
Forged Knife (left) vs. Stamped Knife (right)
By design, forged knives have blades that are typically thicker, full-tang, and include a bolster. They are strong (less flexible) and will hold an edge longer, requiring less frequent sharpening. The benefits of having a forged knife are they feel sturdy and balanced in your hand thanks to the full-tang/bolster design; and, they have more power to cut through something hard like sweet potatoes due to their strong, thick blade. The biggest drawback to forged knives is that they are more expensive than other knives because of the time and skill required to make them. When your looking for a knife, the easiest way to determine if it is forged is to look for the presence of a bolster as stamped blades will not have one.
Stamped knives do not go through a forging process meaning they have no bolster and their blades are thinner and more flexible. This can cause them to lose their edge faster, but how fast really depends on what you’re cutting with them. The benefits of having a stamped blade are they are light allowing you to cut for a longer period without your hand feeling tired, they are ideal for tasks such as boning or filleting due to the flexibility of the blade, and they are less expensive. The drawback to stamped blades is few have full tangs and they are not as strong as forged blades. This leads to weak points, especially where the blade meets the handle causing it to break more easily.
Which is Better?
Forged knives have long been considered a better option than stamped knives. However, new technology has greatly improved the quality of stamped knives. In fact, many well-known knife brands now offer both forged and stamped series. It really comes down to personal preference. We would recommend if you’re on a budget or don’t intend on using your knives for heavy, daily chopping a quality stamped knife would suit your needs. However, if you’re looking for a reliable knife that can be a daily workhorse, we would recommend investing in a higher-quality forged knife.
Blade Material and Hardness
The most common material used to make kitchen knives is steel. This may seem straight forward, but there are actually many different types of steel knife makers can use. Each is different based on elements that have been added to create specific steel alloys. It’s important to find the right balance of elements when making a quality kitchen knife. For instance, you want a blade that is hard but not so hard that it is brittle and easily breaks. Here is where blade hardness becomes important. Knifemakers use Rockwell hardness ratings to describe the hardness of their steel. Harder steel has better edge retention but is more likely to chip, softer steel won’t hold an edge as long but is easy to sharpen at home. Ideally, kitchen knives should fall between 52 and 62 on the Rockwell scale with the best quality knives usually between 58 and 60. Here we provide an overview of the most popular steels used by the best knife companies along with their hardness ratings.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel
High-carbon stainless steel is the most popular type of knife blade material. Stainless steel has added chromium which makes it more resistant to corrosion and oxidation. High-carbon stainless steel also has added carbon which makes the steel harder and gives it better edge retention. It offers the best of both worlds in terms of performance and maintenance.
We believe the best high-carbon stainless steel option for the widest range of users is one called X50CrMoV15. It can have a hardness rating between 54-57 depending on the manufacturer. This steel is common among many German knife makers and provides a good balance between rust resistance, durability, and edge retention.
Carbon steel is a popular option for those who are looking for a strong knife that can be sharpened to an extremely sharp edge. These knives are very precise and are typically used by skilled chefs. Carbon steel is on the high end of the Rockwell scale with a hardness of 60+ giving it great edge retention. The trade-off is that carbon steel has no chromium meaning it is more susceptible to rust and corrosion. Even when maintained properly, these knives will oxidize over time changing the color and texture of the steel.
Damascus steel is known for its wavy pattern. This type of steel is created by folding and welding different types of steel together. The characteristics and hardness of Damascus steel are dependent on the steel used to create it. For instance, many high-quality Damascus knives are made using a carbon steel core and layering stainless steel on top. This creates a knife that has the best qualities of both steels, strong and durable yet corrosion resistant. The largest drawback to Damascus steel is its price. Not only is there the cost of two types of steel, but the process of folding and welding the steel is time-consuming and requires a skilled craftsman. If you like the design and are comfortable paying more, a Damascus steel knife is a good investment. You should always purchase knives from a reliable brand, but especially in this case. Some surface treatments can make steel appear to be Damascus when it truly is not. Be wary of lower-priced Damascus steel and do your research before purchasing a lesser-known brand.
Ceramic blades, though not as popular as steel, can be useful in the kitchen. They are extremely hard and typically thin. Making them a good option if you’re looking for a lightweight knife to dice fruits and vegetables. Their hardness also gives them good edge retention so you definitely won’t need to sharpen them as much as a steel blade. However, the trade-off with ceramic is it’s not only extremely hard but also extremely brittle. Flexing the blade or dropping it may cause it to break or chip. The blade is too brittle for use on meat or anything frozen so you’re very limited on what you can cut with it. A ceramic knife is less expensive than a steel blade and may be a good tool to complement your other knives, but they will never be able to replace a good steel blade completely.
Knife handles, though often overlooked, are important as they directly relate to how comfortable and safe you will be when using your kitchen knives. Choosing the right knife handle is based on personal preference and depends heavily on the grip and appearance that appeals to you. There are a variety of handle materials to choose from; yet, the most common are wood, synthetic, or metal handles.
Wooden handles have been used on knives for centuries and are still found on many high-quality knives today. Many people like the classic, rustic feel they give to their kitchen. The benefits of wood handles are that they provide good grip, don’t get as hot or cold as other materials, and can be sanded down if they become damaged. On the downside, wood handles can be hard to clean and require a lot of maintenance. They are also more prone to staining. Knives with wood handles cannot go in the dishwasher or be submerged in water for extended periods or they can warp and crack. When choosing a wood handle, be sure to seal it with food-safe mineral oil and follow the manufactures maintenance instructions.
Synthetic handles are the most common type of kitchen knife handle. They typically come in the form of fiberglass, plastic, resin, acrylic, or other composites. Some of the most common types of synthetic handles are polyoxymethylene (a type of plastic) and G-10 (a combination of fiberglass and epoxy resin). An appealing benefit to synthetic handles is that they come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. They are also easy to care for and more durable and water-resistant than wooden handles. The drawback with synthetic handles is they may not provide as good of a grip as wood and can become slippery when wet.
Metal handles are another natural choice for kitchen knives and are usually made from stainless steel, aluminum, or titanium. These materials are durable, easy to maintain, and fit nicely in your hand. Like synthetic handles, metal handles can become slippery when wet; however, many now feature a textured pattern to provide better grip. The main drawbacks of metal handles are they can become hot or cold when exposed to extreme temperatures; and, unless they have a hollow core, they can make knives heavy and uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of time.
Japanese vs German Style Knives
The two most popular types of kitchen knives are Japanese-style and German-style (also called western-style) knives. Based on traditions and where these knives are made, each style has its own unique characteristics which make them suitable for different tasks in the kitchen. There are very few American made knife companies; however, those that do exist create knives that follow the German-style.
Japanese Style Knives
Japan has a rich history of knife making that dates back to the early 1600s. Japanese kitchen knives are made from some of the hardest steel which allows their blades to be thin and sharp. These knives have great slicing abilities because Japanese cuisine relies heavily on sushi and sashimi. They also tend to have a straighter edge, which is better for slicing fish. The harder steel means Japanese knives hold an edge longer than other knives, but it also means they’re harder to sharpen and will be more brittle and chip more easily. Japanese knives tend to be lighter than German-style knives. This is due in part to the thinner blades but also has to do with the type of material used for the handle. Japanese knives traditionally use wood or wood composite (such as Pakkawood) handles which are lighter than metal or synthetic handles. Some of the top Japanese knife makers include Shun, Miyabi, and Global.
German (Western) Style Knives
German cuisine traditionally features a lot of meat and vegetables so German-style knives are usually heavier and have a more robust build than Japanese knives. The blades are thicker and often have a bolster and curved edge which makes them great for chopping but not as good at slicing. They’re made with softer steel which means they won’t hold their edge as long but they’re easier to sharpen at home and also less likely to chip. German-style knives are heavier than Japanese knives. Their thicker blade usually has a full-tang construction and most use synthetic handles. The additional weight allows you to cut through meat and tough vegetables more easily without applying extra pressure. Some of the top German brands include Wusthof, Zwilling, and Mercer.
Care and Maintenance
All knives, no matter the brand, need care and maintenance. Knives that are not properly cared for will not only need to be replaced more often but can become dangerous to use. Here are a few tips and accessories that will help you extend the life of your knives and keep them performing at their best.
There are many reasons why it’s important to keep your kitchen knives sharp. First, a sharp knife is a safe knife. When a knife is sharp, less pressure is needed to slice through meat and vegetables. This gives you more control and keeps the knife from slipping. Second, you can get more precise, clean cuts with a sharp knife. A dull knife can ruin your food by crushing it instead of slicing through it. Finally, having a sharp knife makes kitchen tasks more enjoyable. There is nothing more frustrating than struggling to prep food with a dull knife.
There’s no set schedule on how often to sharpen your knives. This will vary based on the type of knife and how often you use it. As a rule of thumb, a regularly used knife should be sharpened around once to twice a year with honing in between. Knives can be sharpened at home using a sharpening steel (not to be confused with a honing steel) or an electric sharpener. Another option is to send your knives to be professionally sharpened. There are many reasonably priced professionally sharpening services and some brands offer lifetime sharpening as part of their warranty.
Hand Wash vs Dishwasher
Many people may not realize it, but cutting boards can have a big impact on your knives. The type of cutting board you use will impact how often you need to sharpen your knives. Wood cutting boards are gentle on knives and will help keep your blades sharp, though they do require you to condition them over time. Bamboo boards don’t require as much maintenance but and slightly harder on your knives. Plastic and glass cutting boards are easy to clean and care for but will dull your knives quickly. If you opt for a plastic or glass cutting board, be sure to use a chopping mat to protect your knife blade.
Storing Kitchen Knives
Popular Kitchen Knives
Knife Sets vs Individual Knives
Now that we’ve covered the basics of kitchen knives, you may be wondering if it’s better to buy a knife set or purchase knives individually. The answer to this question depends on your needs and budget. If you are just starting out, we recommend purchasing a knife set. Knife sets typically include the three essential knives (chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated knife) as well as other great options such as a Santoku knife, boning knife, utility knife, and carving fork. Knife sets are a great way to get all the knives you want without breaking the bank; however, the drawback is you may end up with knives you never use. Watch out for sets that offer unnecessary knives, such as three different sizes of the same knife. These sets may look impressive but end up being impractical.
If you have been cooking for awhile or know exactly what types of knives you need, buying individual knives may be a better option for you. You can purchase the exact knives you need and don’t have to worry about storing unused knives. It also gives you the option to spend more money on a better quality knife that you’ll use more often or purchase multiple sizes of the same knife (i.e. 8 inch chef’s knife and a 10 inch chef’s knife). No matter which route you choose, be sure to purchase quality knives that fit your needs.
Warranty and Returns
This usually goes without saying, but making sure you’re buying a quality kitchen knife from a manufacturer that stands behind their product is important. There are many kitchen knife brands that look great and offer good pricing, but will not hold up over time. Choosing a brand with a lifetime warranty not only protects your investment but gives you peace of mind that if something happens, the company will make it right.
In addition, if your purchasing your knife or knife set online we recommend looking for sites that have good return policies. Just in case the knife you ordered isn’t exactly what you thought it would be or ends up being the wrong size, you can easily return or exchange it. We recommend checking Amazon when purchasing online. If they carry the brand your looking for, they have a great return policy that’s fast and easy.
When it comes to the brands there are many to choose from. Some of our favorites include Wusthof, Zwilling J.A. Henckels, Dalstrong, and Shun. These brands offer high-quality knives that will last for years with proper care. We recommend reading our brand reviews and doing your own research before purchasing any knife to find the brand that best suits your needs.