The Best Paring Knives

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

After a chef's knife, a paring knife is the type I reach for most. I use paring knives more often than bread knives, filleting and butchering knives, utility knives, slicers, and cleavers. That said, compared to a chef's knife, I don't use a paring knife all that often, and when I do, it tends to be for relatively inconsequential tasks, like halving a lemon or peeling the dry outer skin off an onion or clove of garlic.

That makes the paring knife a bit of a strange case: It's the second-most important knife in your arsenal, and also not all that important. Therefore, I've long been a big believer in buying inexpensive paring knives, sharpening them when necessary to maintain their edges, and then replacing them as needed.

Now I've put that belief to the test. What'd I learn? Mostly, that I was right to think that in most cases, cheap paring knives are the way to go. But I did also play with a couple of higher-end Japanese paring knives, and the knife geek in me liked them. They have even more limitations, but, depending on what you use a paring knife for, and whether you're willing to pay more for it, they might be worth considering.

The inexpensive ones I recommend are Wüsthof's Pro-line paring knife (my favorite) and Victorinox's 3.25-inch Forschner, an old standby of mine that I've been relying on for years.

Among the Japanese upgrades, I liked Tojiro's 3.5-inch paring knife, as well as a larger, four-inch version made by Mac.

Why You Need a Paring Knife

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Almost every basic cutting task in the kitchen, whether it's dicing an onion or breaking down a chicken, can be done with a chef's knife. But there are some jobs that require a smaller, more delicate tool. For mincing smaller alliums like shallots, cutting up small fruits, and trimming vegetables, a paring knife is frequently a better choice. Pretty much any task that would feel overly clumsy with a large chef's knife is well suited to a paring knife—if I had to perform emergency surgery in a kitchen, a sharp paring knife would be my instrument of choice. Morbid? Maybe, but practical, too.

Because paring knives are so small, they also allow for different grips and cutting methods: You can work on a board if you're mincing a shallot, but you can also cut "grandma-style"* by holding the knife and food aloft and letting the trimmings or pieces fall into whatever vessel is below them.

* This is a phrase I picked up in Italy, where the nonnas would almost never use a cutting board. Like, literally, they could cut a watermelon held aloft.

On top of that, they lend themselves to odd jobs in the kitchen. Not sure if your cake is done in the center and you can't find a cake tester? Need to test the tenderness of a roasted beet? A paring knife works in a pinch in both cases, being small and narrow enough to not leave behind any obvious signs that it's been inserted into the food.

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Paring knives are also useful for peeling onions and garlic, way better than stubby fingers alone at sliding under the dry skin and prying it free.

If I'm being totally honest, a paring knife is often the knife I'll grab to slice open stiff food packaging, like vacuum-sealed bags, even though that's probably not great for the blade. Yes, I sometimes abuse my paring knives, and I'm comfortable admitting it.

Types of Paring Knives

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Paring knives come with a range of blade lengths, about two and three-quarters inches on the low end for a bird's beak knife, and hitting upwards of four and a half inches on the high end—that's almost verging into utility-knife territory. Most, though, have blades between three and four inches.

Aside from the blade length, the main difference worth being aware of is that paring knives come in three general shapes: bird's beak, classic (for lack of a better word), and sheep's foot.

  • Bird's beak, also known as a trimming or tourné knife, has a concave blade shape similar to that of a sickle. It is particularly cut out (huh, sorry) for trimming, peeling, and detailed knife-work tasks that most home cooks don't need to worry about.
  • Classic paring knives, which I've sometimes seen described as "spear tip," have a slight belly on the blade, sort of like a pared-down (oh god, sorry) chef's knife.
  • Sheep's foot (a.k.a. flat) paring knives look like heavily whittled (just stop me already) santokus, with a flat blade edge and rounded spine near the tip.

There are a few other shapes and names that pop up from time to time—like the "clip point" paring knife, which just describes a knife with a tip that tapers more dramatically—but they're less important to know about.

The Contenders

First, I eliminated bird's beak knives from this test, since their utility for the home cook is limited.

Within the remaining types, I wasn't able to test all the paring 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 The Sweethome, to see which ones they liked.

To keep the scope of my testing from getting out of control (and unreasonably expensive), I set an upper price limit of about $60, although about half of the knives I tested were under $20.

One important caveat: 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.

Testing and Results

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I put all the knives through a series of basic cutting tasks, including trimming and peeling carrots, peeling the skin from onions and shallots, hulling strawberries, cutting citrus suprèmes, slicing tomatoes, and mincing shallots and herbs.

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A few things became quickly apparent. First, there's not much correlation between out-of-the-box cutting ability and price. One of the sharpest knives in the bunch, the Wüsthof Pro, was also one of the cheapest—it was even sharper than some more expensive Wüsthofs I tried. (There's a chance it'll end up holding its edge less well over time, but after a couple of months of frequent use, I haven't had any problems.)

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Second, Japanese-style paring knives are not good for in-the-air work because, frankly, their design makes them dangerous for that. See, unlike the Western-style ones, in which the blade edge's width transitions more or less directly into the handle with the help of a bolster, the Japanese-style ones have a wider blade and no protective bolster. Try doing knife work in the air with one of them and you're liable to cut yourself on the extremely sharp back edge of the blade. In fact, I cut myself while trying to figure out if there was a safe way to hold those knives like that, and that was while I was fully aware of the risk.

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The even width of blade and handle in this Western-style paring knife makes off-the-board cuts possible without accidentally slicing the fingers of the hand holding the knife; with Japanese-style paring knives, this grip is dangerous.

The Japanese-style knives, though, are really nice for board work, like shallot-mincing, tomato-slicing, and such. They feel especially precise in the hand for those detailed cutting tasks.

Last, I found that I didn't love the sheep's foot blade all that much for any cutting task, whether on the board or in the air. This is a matter of personal preference, though. Kenji has written in the past about just how much he prefers them and why. For whatever reason, I just didn't experience them in the same way. Still, I picked my favorites of that group, in case you're a fan of that shape.

The Best All-Around Paring Knife: Wüsthof Pro 3.5-Inch Paring Knife or Victorinox 3.25-Inch Forschner

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The Wüsthof Pro 3.5-Inch Paring Knife, made from stamped metal, came out on top in my tests, both for price and for cutting ability. It had one of the sharpest blades in the bunch, rivaled only by the Japanese knives I tested. Interestingly, Wüsthof changed its sharpening process a few years ago, switching to a steeper 14° edge angle from its previous angle of roughly 20°. This may explain why the knife leaped to the head of the pack, although it doesn't explain why this blade was sharper than some of the other Wüsthof knives I tested. It has a lightweight, grippy plastic handle with a somewhat ergonomic shape that's easy to hold.

Victorinox's 3.25-inch Forschner, a blade I've carried in my knife bag for years, also performed well, though it was less sharp than the Wüsthof. It's still sharp enough to complete just about any cutting task, and if you know how to use a whetstone, you can put as fierce an edge as you want on it, so I'd still recommend it. Plus, it's even cheaper than the Wüsthof Pro by a few bucks (at the time of publication), meaning you can be a little rough on it without feeling too guilty. Like the Wüsthof, it's made from stamped metal (which is part of what keeps its price down) and has a textured plastic handle that's comfortable to hold.

Victorinox also makes a slightly larger, four-inch paring knife. Its longer blade means it can comfortably cut somewhat larger foods, like, say, a navel orange, so that's worth considering as well (although I was never really bothered by the shorter blades in any of my tests). That larger size felt more unwieldy in my hand, especially when I was doing in-the-air cuts, so it's not a knife I gravitate toward, but it's a possibility if you think you'd like a bigger size.

Best Japanese-Style Paring Knives

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If cutting things "grandma-style" in the air isn't something you ever do, then you may want to consider a Japanese-style paring knife, which, as I described above, is good almost exclusively for board work.

I liked the feel of the knives from both Mac and Tojiro, the latter a company I've grown to like more and more for its affordable, quality cutlery. (Seriously, the bread knife is amazing.)

Both knives feel elegant and razor-sharp, slicing through ripe tomatoes like they aren't even there. But again, beware: Pick either of these up in the air and try to hull a strawberry with it, and there's a decent chance you'll accidentally nick your finger on the bolster-free heel of the blade, which sticks out and just begs to be inadvertently touched.

The biggest difference between the two is that the Tojiro has more of a sheep's foot shape, with a flat blade edge, while the Mac has a slight curve that's more like the European knives. Once again, which of the two you prefer will come down to personal preference on the blade shape. It is worth noting, though, that I enjoyed the flat blade of the Tojiro more than I did the sheep's foot blades described below, because, thanks to the greater distance between the handle and the blade edge, it felt less awkward to use—I could get the Tojiro's flat blade all the way down to the cutting board without bumping my fingers against the work surface.

Best Sheep's Foot Paring Knives

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Kenji has made a very compelling argument about the superiority of sheep's foot paring knives. In theory, his arguments all make sense to me, and clearly it's a knife shape that works well for him and for many other cooks. But for whatever reason, I tend not to like the action of these blades as much when I use them. Since I know that's not a universal opinion, I went ahead and picked a couple of favorites from among the sheep's foot options.

On the cheaper end of the spectrum, at under $10, is Victorinox's version, with a 3.25-inch blade. It has everything in common with the classic blade option I described above, except the shape. In line with my general feeling that most paring knives aren't worth splurging on, this is probably the one I'd get.

If you're willing to shell out quite a bit more money, I found Wüsthof's three-inch classic with a hollow-ground blade a little more enjoyable to use. Mostly what I liked is that it's a heavier knife, and, at least with this particular blade shape, I find that a little extra weight makes the cuts easier. It also has hollow-ground sides (sometimes called "Granton" edges), referring to the shallow divots on each side of the blade; it's a design that reduces surface area and therefore lessens the chance that food will stick to the knife as you cut. It's not a feature I find all that important for most of my paring-knife tasks, but I know some people find it helpful. If you're one of them, maybe this is a knife to consider.