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Just like a good kitchen knife, for a good steak knife to make the cut, it's gotta be sharp, comfortable, well-balanced, and sturdy. But that's where the similarity ends. Steak knives differ from kitchen knives in two important ways:

  • 1) A steak knife must look good. A kitchen knife is all utility and no form. A steak knife, on the other hand, should look and feel elegant. It should make me want to touch it. Using a plastic-handled bottom-of-the-barrel knife on a top-dollar dry-aged rib eye is like using Mr. Bubble in your solid-marble bathtub. It just doesn't make sense. I'm willing to plunk down a couple of extra dollars for a handsome set that will last a lifetime
  • 2) A steak knife is used on a plate, not on a cutting board. Cutting boards are forgiving. Plates are not. This may seem insignificant, but it means the world when selecting the proper edge for your knife (as we'll get to in a minute)

With those parameters in mind, let's explore our options.

On The Edge

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When it comes to edge choice, there are basically three options: straight, serrated, and micro-serrated.

Straight-edged knives, like the Virtorinox Rosewood Straight Edge Steak Knives ($100) may seem like a good choice at first glance. Straight out of the box, they cut through a steak like butter, leaving a smooth, clean cut face. And if plates were made out of wood or plastic like a good cutting board, these would be the knife of choice for me. The problems arise a dozen meals down the line when the hard ceramic plate renders that formerly razor-sharp edge about as useful as a spoon.

Even fancy, expensive straight-edged knives from high-end manufacturers like the Twin Cuisine Steak Knives from Henckels (set of 4) ($149.95) or the Classic Steak Knife Set with Aluminum Case from Wusthöf (set of 4) ($169.95) suffer from the same problem, despite their hard forged stainless steel edges. Unless you are willing to sharpen your knives every half dozen steaks or so, avoid them.

Micro-serrated edges, like the ones found on the Eversharp Steak Knife Set from Henckels (set of 4) ($29.99) are barely an improvement over straight edges, and are unfortunately the hallmark of cheap craftsmanship. They are machined on to the the straight edge of low-quality stamped knives to help them grip food slightly better. Just like on a straight-edge, the microscopic serrations dull and wear down easily. Unlike a straight edge, which can be re-sharpened, there's only two things you can do with a micro-serrated edge that's gone dull: One of the is to dump it in the trash and the other is too illegal to mention here.

20100830-steak-knives-forschner-victorinox-serrated.jpgSerrated knives are the way to go. It's true that as some reviews have pointed out, a serrated edge will cut meat into sightly more ragged bites than a sharp straight edge will. But you know what? Who gives a &*%$! I'm about to stick that piece of beef into my mouth where it'll be masticated to oblivion. Is my mouth so holy that heaven forbid anything but a perfectly formed 6-sided bovine polyhedron dare cross the threshold of my lips to tarnish its sanctity? Please! I'll take a knife that cuts well repeatedly over a knife that produces perfectly smooth cut faces any day.

Large serrations on a blade are the best way to guarantee that your knife will continue cutting through your lamb chops with ease, even with repeated abuse against a plate.

For those of you on a tight budget for whom the look of your steak knife doesn't matter all that much, the Forschner by Victorinox Pointed Tip Steak Knives (set of 6) ($34.95) offer the best bang for your buck, coming it at just over $5 per knife. But as I've mentioned already, it's my belief that a steak knife should add some style to the place setting as well as being functional. This leaves us with a few prettier options:

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Two different sets made by Henckels fit the bill nicely.
The Gourmet Steak Knife Set with Wood Case from Henckels (set of 8) ($79.95) are made of high-carbon stainless steel in Germany and feature the classic black-handled, triple riveted design. If you've already got a set of German steel in a knife block, these knives will match them nicely. If you prefer the look of steel (I do), then the Stainless Steak Knife Set with Wood Case from Henckels (set of 8) ($86.95) are a better option. Made from the same high-carbon steel as the black-handle version, these Spanish-made knives are slim, nimble, elegant, and have a voracious appetite for cutting through rare meat.

For the ultimate in beef-cutting luxury, the best steak knives are the iconic knives produced in Laguiole, France. The best have got slim, sharp, serrated blades, with ergonomic, smooth, triple-riveted wooden handles featuring the distinctive bee symbol at the heel of the blade. But beware—cheap, Chinese-made imposters abound (bee symbol and everything!) and can be difficult to spot* until you get them in your hands and realize that the detailed craftsmanship is missing.

*One clue is phrases like "Give as a thank you gift to sales representatives that entertain clients regularly" in the product description.

There are way too many versions of the knife on offer online, and without ordering and trying all of them, there's no way for me to guarantee which are fakers, and which are the real deal. Here's a few things to remember: It's a good bet that if you're paying under $80 for a set of 6, however, that you're getting the knockoffs (higher end versions with fancy handle materials can run beyond $300 a set). The knives come in straight-edged and serrated versions. You want the serrated ones. Your best bet to guarantee quality is to either visit a reputable knife retailer and try them out for yourself, or order them direct from a website where returns are simple.

Always look for a guarantee that your knives were actually constructed in France.

Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. "Like" The Food Lab on Facebook or follow on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

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