What Kitchen Knives Should I Buy? An Expert Guide

Published on 01/23/2024 · 11 min readChoosing the right kitchen knives? Our expert guide helps you select essential knives for your culinary needs, ensuring quality, versatility, and precision.
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

Photo by Julia Filirovska

TL;DR: Certain kitchen knives are must-haves, like chef’s knives, paring knives, and bread knives. When picking out a knife, consider the blade material, if it’s Western or Japanese style, and how to care for it.

I’ve loved both knives and cooking since I was a kid, and my parents encouraged me in those interests. As soon as I got my own kitchen, I began getting my own kitchen knives, and over time I tested a wide variety over the years. I’m happy to help anyone looking to get a new knife because I know that a well-made knife makes prep work so much easier.

There’s a lot of jargon that goes with knives and steel, and that can make buying a good knife seem difficult. But that’s what Curated Kitchen Experts are for! All of our experts are familiar with the brands and terminology and would be delighted to help you find the right knife for no additional charge if you contact them for advice.

What Is a Kitchen Knife?

A kitchen knife is a knife that is used in food prep and cooking. There is a wide variety of specialized kitchen knives, but this article is going to focus on the knives that every home cook should have in their repertoire.

Things to Consider When Buying a Kitchen Knife

There are certain things that every knife should have, like a comfortable handle, a well-balanced blade, and a sharp edge. When picking out a kitchen knife, here are some questions to ask yourself.

Blade Material

Blades can be made from several materials. If you’re unfamiliar with the terms, it can be difficult to know what the best choice for you is. Here’s a summary of the different options you’re likely to encounter.

  • Stainless steel: It was discovered in the late 1800s that adding chromium to iron made steel that resisted corrosion. The process was refined from there, but this material is durable, doesn’t rust, and holds an edge well.
  • High-carbon stainless steel: Many knives are now made from high-carbon stainless steel or high-carbon steel. This type of stainless steel has a higher carbon content, allowing it to be harder. A harder metal can hold a sharper edge and go longer between sharpenings.
  • Carbon steel: Before stainless steel was invented, most kitchen knives were made of carbon steel. There are still certain high-end brands that use this material, as it’s extremely hard without being brittle, which allows it to hold a keen edge for a very long time. It can’t ever be left wet, though, as carbon steel has no protection from corrosion.
  • Ceramic: The ceramic used in knife blades is harder than steel, allowing the knives to be incredibly sharp and rarely need to be sharpened. But the material has no give, meaning that it’s brittle, making ceramic blades vulnerable to chipping or even breaking.
  • Damascus steel: Long ago, the city of Damascus was known for its steel and steelworking. A variation of the process the ancient blacksmiths used is still in use today. Damascus steel is made by folding the metal over itself and then hammering it into shape. The result is a blade with beautiful wavy patterns on it. As this process is primarily employed for aesthetic results, these knives tend to be expensive.

A Japanese chef’s knife and Western santoku knife, both made with Damascus steel. Photo by Di Doherty

How Do I Care for Kitchen Knives?

Every manufacturer will have slightly different instructions on how best to care for their knives, but there are a lot of commonalities in how to care for your kitchen knife. Here are some tips for making sure your knives stay in good shape for years.

  • Handwash: The dishwasher is hard on knives because of the harsh cleaning agents in detergent and the prolonged high temperatures. Most higher-end knives aren’t dishwasher safe, and even knives that are will benefit from handwashing. Use a sponge, dish soap, and hot water to clean them. It’s best to dry your knives immediately afterward, too, to prevent water spots and rust.
  • Proper storage: Storage is another important aspect to consider regarding knife care. I recommend a knife block, drawer tray, or magnetic bar to keep both you and your knives safe.
  • Regular honing: A honing steel (also called a honing rod or sharpening steel) is an important tool to have for knife care. A sharp knife has a very thin edge, so using it can cause that edge to curl over. This makes the knife feel dull, even if it isn’t, and more likely to slip when cutting. Running the edge of the blade over a honing steel will straighten out that curl, making the knife feel sharp again and safer to use.

Japanese or Western Style?

There are two primary styles of kitchen knives: Japanese knives and Western knives (sometimes called German knives). While neither style is inherently superior, they have different tasks at which each one excels.

  • Japanese: Japanese kitchen knives are lightweight and have a razor-sharp edge. The blade is made of a harder steel so that it can have a thinner blade and hold a viciously sharp edge. The drawback is it makes the blade more brittle, so it’s easier to chip. Japanese chef’s knives shouldn’t be used on bones, joints, or frozen foods.
  • Western: If durability is more important to you, you want a Western-style knife. Western knives are made of a softer, thicker steel, making them on the heavier side. That thicker blade makes them much less likely to chip or break, so it is ideal for joints or frozen foods.

Types of Kitchen Knives

There are a lot of types of kitchen knives out there, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Instead, I’m going to include the must-have knives and what they’re best at.

Chef's Knife

Photo by Katerina Holms

A chef’s knife's main selling point is its versatility. They can chop, slice, mince, and dice, and their pointed tip allows them to work around bones. The most common is an 8-inch chef’s knife, but a 6-inch version is prevalent too.

Benefits:

  • Has a deep blade, giving your knuckles clearance
  • Curve on the blade allows for a rocking chop motion
  • Ideal for meat, poultry, and a variety of veggies

Be aware:

  • Too big for delicate foods
  • Doesn’t excel at any one thing

Paring Knife

Photo by Kelly vanDellen

This is another knife that’s an absolute necessity. Paring knives are small, between 3 inches and 4 inches, and are used for small or delicate tasks like peeling an apple or deveining shrimp.

Benefits:

  • Lightweight and easy to handle
  • Come in three main styles:

Be aware:

  • Too small for larger tasks
  • A bird's beak paring knife has limited uses besides peeling

Bread Knife

A bread knife can also cleanly cut through cakes. Photo by Anna Shvets

Bread knives have long, thin blades with a serrated edge. These knives are excellent for cutting bread and other baked goods, as the teeth along the edge of the blade allow them to grip what they’re cutting, resulting in a clean cut rather than a tear. While it doesn't have to be a bread knife, everyone should own a serrated knife.

Benefits:

  • Can cut baked goods without tearing them
  • Large enough to handle even large loaves

Be aware:

  • May struggle with smaller tasks serrated knives are specialized for, like cutting up tomatoes and citrus
  • Harder to sharpen, as each serration must be sharpened individually

Utility Knife

Photo by New Africa

This type of knife is in between a chef’s knife and a paring knife, ranging from five to seven inches. Utility knives typically don’t have a deep blade, so they are easier to maneuver than a chef’s knife.

Benefits:

Be aware:

  • Doesn’t give as much knuckle clearance
  • Will struggle with hard vegetables like squash

Santoku Knife

Photo by SHVETS Production

If there’s any kind of knife that can take the place of a chef’s knife, it’s a santoku knife. These knives are usually 5.5 inches or 7 inches, so they’re large enough to handle a lot of different tasks.

Benefits:

  • Ideal for slicing, chopping, and dicing and can handle veggies like onions and carrots as well as meat and joints
  • Has a larger cutting surface, so it excels at slicing

Be aware:

  • Has a curve in the spine instead of the blade, meaning that they can’t do a rocking chop (unless you have a rocking santoku)
  • Fewer options than chef’s knives in terms of size and variety

Boning or Filet Knife

Photo by tab62

While this knife might not be a must-have, it’s likely next on the list. Filet knives and boning knives overlap quite a bit, as both specialize in removing meat from bone. A filet knife is usually smaller and more flexible, making it better for fish or poultry, while a boning knife is good for tougher meats like pork or beef — but a lot of manufacturers make an in-between knife.

Benefits:

  • Excel at cutting close the bone to remove as much meat as possible
  • Can filet fish, remove fat caps, and silvered meat easily

Be aware:

  • Thin blades aren’t great for chopping or slicing
  • Most boning and filet knives are shorter, meaning they can struggle with large cuts of meat

Features to Look for

There are certain descriptors to look for to make sure that you’re buying a high-quality knife.

Full Tang

The tang is the part of the knife that extends into the handle. A full tang runs down the entire length of the handle, giving the knife better balance and more durability. A properly balanced knife’s center of gravity is where the handle meets the blade.

The alternative is a partial tang, which only goes partway down the blade. While it’s less durable, it does make the knife lighter.

Paring knives with a visible full tang and partial tang. Photo by Di Doherty

Forged

Forging is a process of manufacturing knives that involves shaping them from hot steel. This process allows for a superior grain in the steel, making the metal last longer and hold a better edge.

The alternative is stamping, which involves cutting the blade out of a piece of steel with a die. This process is quick and inexpensive, meaning that stamped knives are cheaper and lightweight but don’t last as long.

How to Pick the Best Kitchen Knife for You

To help you pick out just the right knife for your needs, I’m going to describe three different people and what knives I’d recommend to them.

Elliot: College Student Who’s Just Learning to Cook

Elliot just recently moved out and is trying to learn to cook for himself. He’d like to get a knife that performs well, but he doesn't have a lot of extra income.

Features to look for:

  • Mid-range brands known for affordable, well-made knives
  • A full tang for durability

Recommended products: Misen Chef's Knife, Cangshan Helena Chef’s Knife

Marco: Professional Who Wants to Improve His Diet

Marco spent most of his youth getting takeout, but now that he’s getting a bit older he wants to try to improve his eating habits. He’d like to start cooking for himself to make sure he’s getting better nutrition, and he wants some good knives to start with. A friend of his recommended a santoku, so he’s interested in one of those.

Features to look for:

  • A Western-style santoku, for durability
  • A synthetic handle, for easier care

Recommended products: Zwilling Pro Hollow Edge Rocking Santoku Knife, Mercer Culinary Damascus Santoku Knife

Serena: Dedicated Cook Looking to Invest in Herself

Serena cooks for her family and is looking to get some high-quality knives to make the process easier and more enjoyable. She’d like her knives to be very sharp and stay that way to allow for easy, precise cutting. To start with, she just wants to replace the knives she uses the most, like her chef’s knife and paring knife.

Features to look for:

  • A Japanese-style knife for sharpness
  • High-carbon steel for a knife that can hold an edge better for longer

Recommended products: Miyabi Kaizen II Chef's Knife, Shun Classic Blonde Paring Knife

Find the Right Kitchen Knife for You

Photo by Vitalii Borkovskyi

Everyone at Curated strives to make sure that you get exactly what you need. If you have any questions, want recommendations, or just want to speed up the search process, start a chat with a Curated Kitchen Expert! This free service allows you to chat with a real live Expert in the field to help you find the perfect knife for your needs.

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

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