Choosing knives is one of the most important decisions an avid cook can make. Knives are among the most used tools in the kitchen, but can also be some of the most mysterious for buyers. One problem is that price doesn't always correlate with quality. Another is that a knife's performance "out of the box" may deteriorate rapidly upon frequent use. Add in unsubstantiated marketing claims, shady salespeople peddling hard-to-recognize brand names, and buying a knife can end up resembling buying a used car.
The good news is that a short list of expert tips can help you get educated in a hurry. Following those tips will ensure that you get the most appropriate knives for your budget. These tips can certainly save you a bundle of money but, more importantly, will help you walk away with great knives. If you've never wielded a light, razor-sharp Japanese Chef's knife, you're in for a real treat.
After I've laid out these tips, I'll apply them to a set of price ranges and make specific knife recommendations. Of course, choosing knives is a personal decision. You'll want to consider your style of cooking, how often you cook and the tasks you frequently perform. But the recommendations should serve as a good starting point -- they're all great knives and are priced appropriately.
The Great Kitchen Knife Revolution
Before we get started, it's worth reviewing some kitchen knife history. Many people are unaware of the great upheaval that the kitchen knife industry has undergone in the last decade.
Needless to say, it has completely changed the landscape for buying cutlery. The short version of this great story is that the best knives available today were unheard of even ten years ago. Ten years ago, there were only two names in kitchen knives -- Henckels and Wusthof. And it had been that way for many years.
Today, those German knife makers are scrambling to keep up with new, superior knives introduced by Japanese knife making companies.
German knives still have their place in the kitchen, don't get me wrong, but if you've been stuck using those knives for the last decade, you'll be pleasantly surprised when you try out a knife from Global, MAC or Shun.
Learn more about the rise and fall of the great knife-making companies.
Tips for Saving Money on Kitchen Knives
Some cooks will tell you that you can't buy kitchen knives on a budget. "You get what you pay for", they'll say. Or "you can't get decent quality for under $150".
I don't buy it. Granted, you're not going to get a full set of quality knives without shelling out some serious dough, but there ARE some great values out there. And if you're smart about how you spend your money, those values can be found.
1. Don't Buy Too Many Knives
One of the first mistakes people make when buying a set of knives is to go out and get the largest set they can. "Why buy the 14 piece set when you can get the 21 piece set for just $75 more?" they reason.
The answer is simple... You're never going to need all those knives. If you're a professional chef who needs the perfect knife for every task, then you'll certainly need a lot of knives. But for the rest of us, we can get by with a small number of high-quality knives. Buying three good quality knives instead of a 14-piece set with lots of "filler" can save you more than fifty percent. Of course, you won't have as many knives as with the large set. But your knives will be just as useful for most tasks and will be much higher quality.
Which knives are essential and which can you live without? Click here to find out.
Knife Set or à la Carte?
Many people assume that the best way to buy knives is as part of a set. And yet, most experts will tell you NOT to buy a knife set, but rather to buy knives one-at-a-time. That way, you get exactly the knives you want and don't pay extra for knives you don't need.
Of course, there are times when a knife set makes sense. Click here to discover the pros and cons of each.
2. Sharpness Matters More Than Price
Many people are happy with the performance of their knives when they first buy them, but then neglect to maintain them over time. A few years later, they're left wondering why these knives seem ineffective.
It may seem obvious that kitchen knives need to be sharpened periodically and I'm sure that most people know this. And yet, many home chefs don't know how to do this, don't want to do it, or just plain forget to do it. I make a habit of inspecting knives in as many home kitchens as I can and I can reliably say that the blades are too dull in about 90% of them.
If you don't know how to maintain knives properly, you might be tempted to discard old knives before their time. Or, worse yet, you might buy expensive knives in the hope that they will be sharper than an inexpensive set. Sadly, this is not always the case. Buying a new set of sharp knives and then keeping them sharp will put you way ahead of the game -- regardless of how much your knives cost.
How to choose sharp knives and keep them that way? Check out our kitchen knife sharpening guide.
3. Know Your Steel
The single most important factor in determining the quality of a kitchen knife is not its name brand, its price or whether it was stamped or forged. It's the steel used in the blade. Better quality steel will last longer, can hold a sharper edge for a long time, and will be easier to resharpen.
And yet, other than making vague marketing statements about "high carbon content", most manufacturers do not advertise the makeup of their steel. This can lead to a costly mistake for the consumer -- purchasing knives made from inferior steel. Generic "high-carbon" knives might feel great when they come out of the box, but they're sure to disappoint down the road.
Click here to learn about the different materials typically used and to learn what type of steel you should choose.
Applying the tips above to a set of different budget tiers yields some real bargains. Most of the knives on this list are known more for their quality among professional chefs than for their name recognition and corporate marketing budget. If you've read this far, it won't come as any surprise that each recommendation includes just a small set of essential knives and that each knife is made of high-quality steel, is razor-sharp and can be kept that way.
Of course you don't need to stick to a single price level -- if you're buying à la carte as most experts recommend, consider mixing and matching knives from each price level. You're likely to save even more money doing that, as you may choose to get a high-end Chef's knife but other knives from the lower-priced categories.
Cutco's made a name for themselves by showing people just how sharp home cutlery can be. I applaud them for that, but don't particularly care for their knives. In my opinion, the steel's nothing special and the price is too high. In short, they don't fit our three money-saving rules above.
Recommended $50 Knives
Cooks Illustrated's recommendation -- the Forschner 3-Piece Fibrox set -- is a screaming bargain. It's not beautiful and the steel is merely good, but it will out-perform just about any other knife in this price range. For those looking for more stylish knives, KAI's Komachi series is another great choice in this range.
In this price range, buying à la carte allows you to consider a top-notch Chef's knife from the Shun Classic or MAC Professional series, and then supplement with the less-expensive Forschners from our lowest price tier.
If you're determined to buy matching knives, Messermeister makes a great small set in this price range. Messermeister is not as well-known as Wusthof and Henckels, but their knives are a much better value. Their San Moritz Elite Knives are made of high-quality steel and are reasonably-priced.
$300 - $500 Knives
At this level, you're no longer making sacrifices. You'll find great knives intended for serious amateurs as well as professional chefs.
Shun is the current kitchen knife king. You can't chop an onion without noticing their great press. The Shun Seven Piece Classic set epitomizes the three money-saving tips outlined above.
Another option is Global. Global was the first knife maker to introduce the world to the joys of razor-sharp Japanese steel. The feel takes a little getting used to but the Global 5-piece set is priced appropriately.
If you're buying à la carte, consider the knives from Shun and Global mentioned above, but also check out MAC Professional Knives. They're lesser-known and are not typically sold in sets, but they are great performers and are typically less-expensive than both Shun and Global.
If you're an aspiring professional or simply want the best knives that money can buy, you've got a ton of great choices in this range. Choosing one is really a personal decision, so it's hard for us to recommend just one.
Look for top-notch Japanese makers such as Hattori, Misono, Blazen, Glestain and Nenox to name a few. All of these makers produce exceptionally sharp knives with centuries-old knife-making traditions to back them up.
One Knife to Rule Them All?
If you've read this far, you may be curious to try out the virtues of Japanese knives without committing to a large purchase. Choosing a single 8" Chef's knife from one of the recommended names above will allow you to test the waters a bit. Either the Shun Classic or the MAC Professional make a good start to a Japanese-themed set and won't break the bank.
Can't get enough kitchen knives? I've attempted to provide an introduction to the world of high-performance kitchen knives and supply some recommendations, but I've only scratched the surface.
If you're a true knife head, then you already know about KnifeForums.com and Foodie Forums. Some very knowledgeable and friendly people hang out there and are happy to answer any and all of your questions.
Chad Ward is one of those friendly and knowledgeable knife buffs, but he went one step further -- he wrote a book. "An Edge in the Kitchen" is a comprehensive book about Kitchen knives. It's a great read.
Drop Me a Line
Buying and using kitchen knives is a very personal experience. Have you tried out some of these knives and loved them? Don't agree with my money saving tips? Leave a comment below or send an email and let me know what you think.