One of the most important things I've learned during my time at Serious Eats is that if you want to be a good cook, you need a good set of knives—and you need to take care of them. You'll want to sharpen your knives and hone them often, clean them well, and store them safely.
Another important knife lesson: While it may seem convenient, purchasing a whole set of knives in one of those blocks isn't the best option. As with sets of pots and pans, you'll generally end up overpaying for less important pieces and under-spending on the ones you'll reach for most.
This is why our culinary team has taken the time to separately review individual types of knives, testing to see which performs the best at a variety of tasks—after all, you won't use the same knife to slice bread as you would a terrine, or the same knife to both peel a shallot and carve a turkey. Below, you'll find our picks for the best-performing chef's knife, santoku, paring knife, slicing or carving knife, and bread knife.
Because knowing how to properly maintain and store knives is just as important as the knife itself, I've also included our favorite sharpeners, honing steels, and accessories. There's a lot to cover here, so let's get...chopping.
A Chef's Knife
There is no knife more essential than a chef's knife. The ultimate multipurpose blade, it can do just about anything that needs to be done, whether you're chopping an onion or carving a roast. If, for some reason, you have space for only one knife in your kitchen, this is the one to get.
We tested 27 knives for our review of the best chef's knives, ranging from $15 to $200. Our contenders included both Japanese- and Western-style knives—Western blades are heavier and more curved than their Japanese counterparts—which we put through an assortment of tests, including slicing tomatoes and cutting pineapple.
Our team came out with six winners—three Japanese-style knives and three Western-style—to suit any budget. We recommend trying out a few if you can, since, like a wand in Harry Potter, a knife is only as good as how it feels in your hand.
A santoku is the quintessential Japanese workhorse knife. Like a chef's knife, it can be used for all sorts of tasks, but there are some key differences.
First, santokus tend to have shorter, more compact blades (about six to seven inches) that are flatter than that of a traditional Western chef's knife. This is ideal for shorter, downward strokes, as opposed to the rocking-chopping and -slicing you'd do with a longer blade. The blade design also falls somewhere between the Japanese chisel and a Western double-bevel. For a helpful visual guide to all those blade styles, head on over to our santoku knife review.
What makes a good santoku? It needs to be razor-sharp, lightweight, and comfortable. As with a chef's knife, much of finding the best santoku knife for you comes down to personal preference, so the best strategy is to try working with a few and seeing how they feel. But if you want specific recommendations, we did identify three winners in our review, all at different price points, all of them capable of effortlessly filleting fish and breaking down chicken.
A Paring Knife
When he began his paring-knife review, Daniel ran into a tricky situation. Though he considers his paring knife to be the second most important knife in his kitchen, he also doesn't use it very frequently. For dealing with small or delicate items, though—such as when you're peeling a shallot or halving a lemon—the smaller size of a paring knife is a huge help. Its narrow blade also lends itself to odd jobs in the kitchen, like testing to see if a roasted beet is tender or if a cake is done.
The main takeaway is that you shouldn't have to shell out too much for a paring knife. Own one, keep it sharp, but don't spend so much that you'll be reluctant to replace it when the time comes. Daniel's favorite affordable paring knife is the Wüsthof Pro. If you want to spend more and own something a bit different, he suggests choosing a Japanese upgrade, like this Tojiro DP 3.5-inch paring knife.
A Serrated Bread Knife
A bread knife is recognizable by its saw-toothed edge, which helps it easily and gently slice through all types of bread without squishing the crumb. But the drawback to a serrated blade is it's really difficult to sharpen, so once it gets dull, you either need to send it out to be sharpened by a professional or get a new one. For this reason, you shouldn't spend too much on a bread knife, either.
But you should know which ones are good—the ones that saw as easily through crusty loaves as they do ripe tomatoes and delicate white bread. The knife that outperformed the competition was the Tojiro Bread Slicer. It was so good, Daniel brought it home and got rid of all the other bread knives in his house.
A Slicing or Carving Knife
While slicing and carving knives aren't a necessity, they're really handy to have around during the holiday season, when you're serving up big roasts for a crowd. Thinner and longer than typical chef's knives, they'll slide right through that family-sized turkey without any mess.
Let's start first with the differences between the two. A carving knife has a long, narrow blade that comes to a sharp point; it's especially useful for cutting in and around cartilage and bones. A slicing knife is also long and narrow, but it doesn't taper like a carving knife. It has an even width from the blade to the tip, which is rounded, not pointed.
A slicing knife is used to make nice, long slices of terrines and delicate cuts of meat; the shallow divots keep the meat from adhering to the blade, and the length ensures that you have plenty of surface area to slice the meat, instead of sawing at it. I think we can all agree that meat that's been sawn, with all that glorious juice dripping out onto the cutting board, is the lump of coal of the food world.
In our review of the best slicing and carving knives, the Wüsthof Classic 9-Inch Carving Knife came out on top. It's razor-sharp, it slides through turkey "like butter," as Daniel puts it, and it's perfectly balanced. It is on the more expensive side, but if you often find yourself with a roast that needs carving, it'll serve you well.
As for our favorite slicing knife, that award goes to the slightly odd-shaped Japanese TUO Slicing Knife. Because the handle flattens out and widens toward the base, it tucks pretty well under your fingers, and the angled bolster makes it simple to grasp the blade for better control. It might have been the review's ugly duckling, but it bested some of its much pricier competition.
Accessories for Sharp Blades and Safe Storage
A Honing Steel
Sharpening and honing a knife aren't the same thing. While sharpening actually creates a new beveled edge by removing material from the blade, honing realigns the edge of the blade so that all the teeth that make up that edge are all going in the right direction. By running your knife along the ridges of a honing steel, you'll buff out those microscopic dents that can throw your blade out of alignment. Now when you see chefs on cooking shows honing their knives, you can at least know why they're doing it (though how they can do it so fast is still beyond me).
A whetstone actually sharpens your knife, whisking off microscopic material from the blade for a newly beveled edge. While the technique may take you a few tries, using a whetstone is by far the best way to get your knife sharpened, and it's more affordable than sending out your knives to a professional. (We also don't recommend using electric knife sharpeners; they simply remove too much material at one time and degrade your knives faster than necessary.)
Now that you know what to do, which whetstones should you get? In his guide to knife sharpening, Kenji notes most home cooks only need a medium-grit (800) stone and fine-grit (at least 2,000) stone. He says ultra-fine grit (8,000 and above) are mostly for professional use. If you buy a whetstone or two, you will also want to pick up a stone fixer, which you can use to even out the whetstone surface.
A Knife Rack
There are many ways to safely store your knives. I personally prefer to hang them on a magnetic knife rack, which saves precious counter space and creates some nice wall decor for the kitchen at the same time. If you like to keep your knives hidden away, try using a cork-lined box that'll fit right into your drawer.
If you often transport your knives, blade protectors are a necessity. You don't want blades just dangling willy-nilly in your bag, do you? Consider your safety! Or, at the very least, consider the blades' safety. Rubbing against everything in your bag will make them dull. Blade protectors are the way to go.
A Knife Case
Whether you have limited kitchen space or you're taking your knives to a dinner party or work—hey, for some of us here, taking knives to the office is a real thing!—a knife case is a great way to keep them safe and organized. Slip on those blade protectors, then slide them into the case so they don't poke out and cut you. (It's happened to Daniel!)