I've long held two beliefs about bread knives. The first is that you shouldn't spend a lot of money on one. Unlike chef's knives, bread knives are difficult or impossible to re-sharpen, limiting their useful lifespan and forcing you to replace them every five years or so. The second is that, aside from a small amount of variation here and there, there's not much that separates one bread knife from another—as long as their serrated blades can cut bread (and a few other things, like tomatoes), as most of them can, then they're good enough.
After testing several bread knives for this story, I've had to revise the latter position: The differences are significant. In my testing, one task in particular separated the great bread knives from all the rest: slicing a very tender white sandwich loaf. Of all the knives I tried, only two—the two I'm recommending here—successfully completed that task.
Those two knives are the Tojiro Bread Slicer 235mm F-737 and the Dexter-Russell 10-Inch Scalloped Slicer/Bread Knife. Read on for more testing details.
Why You Need a Bread Knife
Bread knives occupy a niche role in your kitchen blade arsenal. You won't use a bread knife nearly as often as a chef's knife, the true workhorse of the kitchen, but for a limited set of tasks, they are necessary. What defines them is their serrated blade, which gives them a saw-toothed edge that can make quick work of some of the most rugged items, and also the most delicate ones.
The primary job of a bread knife is to slice bread. A good bread knife should saw through a tough crust without mangling or compressing the tender crumb within. Other knives are often not a good choice for this, since very hard crusts can damage finely sharpened blade edges, while any blade that isn't sharp enough may require too much downward pressure, crushing the airy bread in the process. Bread knives are similarly useful for related tasks, such as leveling the delicate and tender layers of a cake.
Unless you keep your other knives extremely sharp, a bread knife is often your best bet for successfully slicing through a ripe tomato without destroying it. Thanks to their teeth, bread knives fly right through tomato skin without requiring you to press down and risk crushing the delicate flesh underneath. Bread knives are also handy for cutting thick-skinned melons and tough winter squash, since their teeth can cruise through sturdy, resistant peels where other knives often get stuck and fail.
A straight-edged slicing knife is great for carving big pieces of meat, like a prime rib or brisket, but most of us don't carve enough large roasts at home to warrant giving it the extra space in a knife drawer. A bread knife makes a fine stand-in.
Types of Bread Knives
There are a handful of design considerations when you're choosing a bread knife.
The first is length. The blades I tested ranged from a short seven inches all the way up to a little more than 10 inches. Because some of the foods you're likely to cut with a bread knife can be quite large, like big loaves of bread and watermelons, I recommend choosing a knife of at least nine inches.
Next is shape: Most bread knives are straight, with the handle in line with the blade, but some are offset so that the blade is positioned lower than the handle. This is because most bread knife blades are thin, which gives little to no clearance for your fingers when the blade is close to the cutting board. This can sometimes cause your knuckles to grind against the board for the last few strokes when you're slicing through a loaf. In my tests, though, the performance of the offset knives wasn't good enough to recommend them, even though I otherwise like that design. (That said, if you find one you like, go for it.) The good news is that my two top picks performed so well that I never had an issue with my knuckles hitting the board. It helps that they both have long blades, which allows you to position your hand off the board while the blade reaches whatever you're cutting with ease.
The third consideration is the shape of the serrated edge itself. All of the knives I tested had the much more common pointy-toothed edge, but some people are fans of the less common wavy-shaped design. I have a couple of wavy serrated knives at home, and they've always been fine, but not special enough to convince me that it's an inherently superior shape. What amazed me the most was how big a gap in performance I observed, even between pointy-tipped serrated knives that seemed nearly indistinguishable to my eye. Two knives with serrations that looked almost exactly alike could perform wildly differently, one doing an amazing job and the other a terrible one.
Cook's Illustrated analyzed the serration shape in their tests (warning: paywall) and found that knives with more widely spaced teeth tended to perform better. That may be, though I held all my knife blades side by side and could hardly see an obvious spacing difference in most cases.
Another important consideration, especially if you're thinking about cost, is maintenance: A bread knife can be honed by running each scallop up and down along a honing steel (a laborious task!), but its serrated edge is much more difficult to actually sharpen than those of other knives. This is as true for a $200 knife as it is for a $30 one. You could send it off to be professionally sharpened, or possibly attempt to do it yourself, but I tend to think that's more trouble than it's worth. Instead, my advice for most people is simply to replace their bread knife when they notice that its edge has started to wear out. Because I know I'll be replacing my bread knife from time to time, I never spend too much on one.
I wasn't able to test all bread knives on the market—there are far too many. To narrow down my selection, I looked at online reviews and the popularity rankings on sites like Amazon.com. I also looked at reviews by other sites and magazines, like Cook's Illustrated and The Sweethome, to see which ones they liked. (I was not able to get my hands on The Sweethome's runner-up, the Mercer Culinary Millennia 10-Inch, so I can't speak to its quality.) I also set an upper price limit of about $50, although most of the knives I tested were under $30. It's worth noting that I found little relationship between price and cutting ability in my testing group; some of the more expensive ones didn't fare well, while my two top picks, described below, are on the cheaper end.
There is one important caveat to mention: It's almost impossible to pick the "best" of any type of knife. Knife preference is deeply personal, and what feels good in my hand may not feel good in yours. Still, the conclusions of my testing reflect my preference not just in terms of balance and form but also in terms of basic cutting ability. I asked a colleague to repeat some of my cutting tests, just to make sure that the successes and failures weren't the result of my particular cutting style; sure enough, the results were consistent, even when the knife was in another's hand.
Testing and Results
For my tests, I put all the knives through a series of basic cutting tasks, including: slicing a baguette into thin rounds; slicing a large, rustic loaf with a very hard crust; slicing a tender and delicate loaf of white sandwich bread; slicing ripe tomatoes as thinly as possible; and slicing a hard butternut squash (both cutting through the squash and using the knives to remove the peel).
While I found noticeable performance differences among the knives on many of these tasks, the one that most clearly demonstrated the superiority of my top two blades was the soft sandwich bread test. Save for those two, not a single knife could get through the tender loaf without mangling it. In the photo above, at left, you can see the bread after one of my many failed attempts to slice it cleanly; at right, you can see how perfectly the Tojiro blade cut through it.
Every other test mirrored the tender sandwich bread test, just to a less extreme extent. For slicing tomatoes, my two top knives made the thinnest, cleanest slices. Many of the other knives were able to slice the tomato as well, but less cleanly and easily.
When slicing squash, once again, my two top picks performed best, while the other knives managed but didn't breeze through it. For cutting the squash in half, the Dexter-Russell stood out, thanks to its rigid, heavy-duty blade, while the Tojiro excelled at the finer task of taking off the peel.
The Best All-Around Pick: Tojiro 235mm F-737
The Tojiro Bread Slicer 235mm F-737, with as unsexy a name as they could have given it, blew me away. Tojiro makes another bread knife that costs almost three times as much, but this one, just $22 at the time of publishing, was so good that I don't see any obvious need to upgrade to the more expensive one. That said, if this cheaper version is ever unavailable, I wouldn't hesitate to get the pricier one based on my experiences here.
With a 235mm (9.25-inch) blade length and a wooden handle, it feels lightweight and deft in the hand, with fine, sharp teeth that sailed through everything I threw at it. The blade is slightly flexible, making it great for more delicate work, like removing the peel from a hard winter squash.
As for bread and tomatoes, it cut the thinnest, cleanest, and easiest slices of all the knives, a pure pleasure to use. This is going to be my go-to bread knife from now on—in fact, I've already ordered one to replace my current bread knives at home. The one downside is that the thin, flexible blade bowed slightly with heavy-duty tasks, like cutting a hard squash in half (though it managed to get the job done regardless).
If you do a ton of heavy-duty work, I would recommend my other pick, the Dexter-Russell.
My Favorite Bread Knife for Heavy-Duty Tasks: Dexter-Russell 10-Inch Scalloped Slicer
If the Tojiro is all finesse, precision, and delicacy, Dexter-Russell's 10-inch bread knife is a tank. It's a couple of ounces heavier than the Tojiro, with a grippy and comfortable plastic handle, and a thicker spine on the blade that remained rigid no matter the task. I'd happily throw the heftier cutting jobs at this knife without any worry about whether it can handle them.
Amazingly, despite its heft, it was still delicate enough to cut a straight and clean path through the soft sandwich bread and ripe tomatoes—not quite as pristinely as the Tojiro, but close.
It might be overkill to suggest having two bread knives in your collection, but if you did decide to go that route, these two complement each other perfectly. Even if you get just one, pick according to your needs, and either one will perform admirably.