Why are most of us so woefully uninformed about our kitchen knives?
We’re intimidated by our knives when they’re sharp, annoyed by them when they’re dull and quietly ashamed that we don't know how to use them with any competence.
And, shopping for knives? Well, that can be overwhelming, not to mention expensive.
There are so many to choose from and so many terms to get a handle on. Stainless vs. carbon steel? Stamped vs. forged? Should I buy a Japanese or a German blade? Do I need another paring knife?
To cut through the hype and help you make a smart purchase, we’ve put together a detailed kitchen knife buying guide that every home cook should read before setting out to shop for a knife.
This series will cover everything from knife characteristics and comparing different materials to pricing expectations, storage and sharpening tips, as well as specific knife shapes, starting with an explanation of terms:
Anatomy of a Kitchen Knife
Buying a good kitchen knife for the first time can be a little like shopping for your first car. There are lots of confusing terms and very little clear information. Here’s what you’ll need to know to keep pace:
The point of a knife is furthest away from the handle. Most kitchen knives have pointed tips for piercing, cutting, and separating foods into very small portions. Knives with rounded tips are reserved for special tasks, such as cutting cheese or separating joints.
The edge is the sharpest part of the knife blade and runs along the bottom opposite of the spine.
The heel is the thick base of the knife blade right before the handle. It’s used to cut tougher products with more force.
The tang is the part of the knife that extends into the handle to provide support and leverage. A full-tang knife is considered the best for keeping a handle intact after repeated high-pressure usage.
How to check the length of a tang? On a typical wooden handled knife, you can check the bottom or top of a knife’s handle to see if there’s a visible strip of metal that extends through its length. Otherwise, look for the phrase “full-tang” on the product’s packaging.
The handle, or scales, is the grip of the knife. Handles can be wood, plastic, or stainless steel. Wooden handles are most common because they provide the best “grip” under different circumstances, whereas stainless steel handles are the lowest maintenance, but may become slippery when hands are wet.
The bolster is a collar or raised area between the blade and handle. Its function is to provide additional mass just forward of the chef’s hand, improving stability, balance, the and strength of the knife.
Comparing Knife Blade Materials: Carbon, Stainless, and Ceramic
What makes for a good knife? Different materials make for blades with varying characteristics, including sharpness, strength, and ability to hold and edge. Here are your three options:
Carbon Steel is a mixture of iron and carbon that makes a hard but brittle blade. The major selling point of a carbon steel kitchen knife is that this material holds an extremely sharp edge for extended periods of time.
However, the material is susceptible to rusting and discoloration and requires the more upkeep and care than the alternatives.
Those who purchase a carbon steel blade should be prepared to clean their knife immediately after use, taking care to remove excess moisture to reduce the risk of rusting or staining.
It’s advisable to lightly coat your carbon steel knives with mineral oil after use and before storing.
Despite the need for extra TLC, many cooks agree that the maintenance required by carbon steel is well worth the convenience of a tool that holds its edge.
Stainless steel blades rust less easily and break infrequently when compared to their carbon steel and ceramic counterparts.
However, the attributes of a softer metal that allow stainless steel to be lower maintenance also mean that the edge will wear down after a shorter period of time.
In a nutshell, your average stainless steel knife is an ideal entry-level material for less experienced cooks who are starting to explore what they might prefer in the shape and weight of a knife.
They’re also a go-to option for experienced cooks on a budget, or those who would prefer to occasionally sharpen as opposed to carefully cleaning and oiling a blade after each use.
Note that all steel has carbon. We’ll explore the relationship between these elements in the next section, but it’s worth noting that the debate of carbon versus stainless isn’t black and white, but is more of a sliding scale where you decide between performance, maintenance, and price.
Ceramic blades don’t rust, discolor, or leave a metallic taste after cutting. Made of strong materials such as aluminum oxide and zirconium oxide, ceramic knives are durable and keep their sharp edge for years.
Although these knives rarely require sharpening, they do dull. And, when they do, the sharpening process is the most difficult and specialized of the blade options. Of course, they’re also the most expensive option.
Because ceramic is such a hard, brittle material, they tend to break if dropped on a solid surface, so clumsy types might consider steering clear. Their brittle nature also means that ceramic knives aren’t suitable for cutting through bones or frozen food.
Ceramic blades are best for finely chopping vegetables, switching between various foods without transferring taste, and use with lemons, limes or other highly acidic foods with will ruin conventional steel blades.
A Closer Look at Steel Used in Kitchen Cutlery
If you read the above and decided that steel—whether carbon or stainless—is the right material for your next kitchen knife, you might not give the metal a second thought.
The fact is that there are hundreds of varieties of steel used for kitchen knives, some offer astounding performance, take a patina just like your grandmother’s go-to knife, and hold and edge despite abuse. Others are worthless.
For example, a knife categorized as “high-carbon stainless” can contain between .5 and .8 carbon, 13 to 18 percent chromium, a little manganese, molybdenum, silicon, phosphorus, and sulfur. This ratio makes for steel that is easy to produce while offering high stain resistance, and reasonable wear resistance.
However, manufacturers will frequently try to make their steel sound superior by throwing in high tech terms that you’re unlikely to recognize. Here’s a brief key to help you decode marketing speak:
1. Iron is the starting point in steel. Alone, it’s relatively soft, stains easily, wears quickly, and is prone to bending. But, add a bit of carbon and you’ll end up with hard, carbide platelets that will hold a keen edge.
2. Carbon is present in all steels—this basic mix is called “carbon steel,” and it’s the stuff your grandmother’s knives were made of. We’ve already mentioned that they require extra TLC. But, in return, give you a great edge.
Since carbon is present in all steel, what should you look for when paying for “high carbon” cutlery?
Marketers vying for your attention might call anything greater than .5 carbon content “high carbon steel,” but half a percent is hardly “high” in anyone’s book.
Instead, the cutoff that metallurgists use to make that determination is called the “eutectoid point” which is just under .8 percent carbon. It’s safe to say that anything above .8 percent can be called “high carbon steel,” and will offer better performance and a longer-lasting edge.
Just remember, higher carbon content can make steel less stainless and more brittle—which is why high carbon steel requires more maintenance than the stainless steel alternatives.
3. Chromium is added for corrosion resistance. A steel with 12 percent chromium or higher is considered “stainless,” though all knife blades will stain or rust eventually if left uncared for. Chromium is just a little more forgiving and also adds to a knife’s resistance to wear.
4. Cobalt is an alloy that allows steel to be quenched at higher temperatures, which leads to an increase the metal’s strength and hardness. If you notice cobalt listed as an ingredient, you’re probably looking at a quality product.
5. Manganese is common in most cutlery, since it makes steel more responsive to heat treatment. It adds in grain structure, increases hardness, and wear resistance.
6. Nickel is generally used in pots, pans, and sinks to give steel additional toughness and corrosion resistance. Its presence is an indicator of commercial-grade cutlery used in cafeterias, and usually isn’t found in the high-quality knife steel consumers will shop for.
7. Silicon increases steel’s hardness and strength.
8. Tungsten and vanadium are strong carbide formers that contribute toughness and allow steel to take a hard edge. Look for one or the other to indicate that a steel offers higher heat, wear, and shock resistance, as well as a general sign of quality.
The above list can help you decode marketing promises of toughness and stain resistance. Just be aware that many manufacturers are somewhat secretive about exactly what goes into their formulas.
However, an indicator of decent performing kitchen cutlery worth your money is if the manufacturer provides you with any information about the ingredients in their steel at all.
Different Methods of Producing Kitchen Knife Blades
It’s not only what your knife is made out of, but how it’s made that’s important. Common knowledge holds that there are two methods for constructing knife blades: stamping and forging. (Things are a little more complicated. But first, let’s get these straight.)
A stamped blade is cut, or stamped, out of a roll of steel, and then handles are attached. Since there is no bolster, and since stamped blades tend to be on the thinner side, a stamped knife is typically lighter and less expensive than its forged counterpart.
A forged blade requires more skill to make, resulting in a more expensive (and many would say better crafted) knife.
In the process of forging, a thick, hot piece of steel is shaped by pounding it with a forging hammer and die. Forged knives are also given bolsters—that piece of metal where the blade meets the handle, which serves to protect stray fingers as well as offer balance between the blade and handle.
Because of the bolster and the thicker steel, forged knives are often substantially heavier than stamped knives. Their heft can be useful for chopping, but can also lead to fatigue more quickly.
Forged knives often, but not always, have a full tang, which means that the knife is made from a single piece of steel from the tip of the blade all the way to the end of the handle. Besides being sturdier than a partial tang, a full tang will make a knife better balanced, which in turn can make it easier to use.
Machined Knives Elevate Stamped Steel
Most mainstream advice involving knives will wax poetic about how forged blades are superior to stamped in every way.
The craftsmanship required to forge a blade conjures up images of a seasoned artisan lovingly hammering a fiery piece of steel into the desired shape that you hope to purchase—for top dollar, of course.
Conversely, stamped blades are presented as cookie-cutter, cheap, thin, and generally a tool unworthy of the love and care you pour into your meals.
Mainly, it comes down to a representation of old world craftsmanship versus mass-produced, disposable goods.
This representation may have been true at some point, but now there are better materials, better ways to make knives, and better ways to keep them at peak performance than what’s been passed down through generations of sink-side banter.
If you compare a hundred-dollar forged knife with one that you picked up from the grocery store in a pinch, of course, the premium forged blade will come out ahead. However, modern manufacturing has allowed for new processes in which stamped knives are no longer one in the same.
There’s a new type of blade in town. These knives are cut and precision-ground from a billet of high-alloy steel using a method that custom knife makers call “stock removal.”
So, while these knives might begin as stamped from a sheet, the level of finish that goes into them is equal to that of a forged produce.
Coined machined knives to distinguish them from stamped options, experts remark that this style of knife is noticeably lighter and alleviates the fatigue felt after extended use.
German vs. Japanese Knives
So far you’ve learned the anatomy of a kitchen knife, different materials, and manufacturing techniques. There’s just one more factor to learn about before you’re ready to shop: the difference between German and Japanese style knives.
Note that traditional Japanese knives have a single sharpened edge. They’re also long, slim, and almost sword-like in appearance. However, we’re talking about double-beveled, westernized versions.
The evolution of these Japanese-Western hybrids meant that, if you’re buying from a name brand, German-made and Japanese-made western-style knives have more similarities than differences – and you really can’t go wrong with either one.
However, there are variances in angle, shape, weight, thickness, and type of steel that may make one or the other more your style. Here’s a lowdown on their differences.
German knives feature an angle of 20-22 degrees. Its curved geometry facilitates the rocking style of chopping. Weight varies from blade to blade, but German-style knives tend to be heavier than their Japanese counterparts, which also aids repetitive chopping if you’ve mastered the rocking movement.
The all-around heavier, thicker, and more robust German knife is ideal for, you guessed it, more robust chores since the heft and softer steel translate into a more durable blade that can handle tough tasks like cracking through bones.
Japanese knives feature a lesser angle of only 12-16 degrees. Their straighter edge is better suited to chopping and making clean slices.
Japanese knives are also thinner, don’t have a bolster (that knob of metal that protects your fingers), and made of a harder metal.
They are also, on the whole, much more expensive.
How to Choose Between a Japanese and German-Style Knife?
The slim, lightweight Japanese blade is ideal for precision work such as finely mincing vegetables and slicing thin sheets of fish. However, the delicacy of the blade and hardness of the steel make it prone to chipping during heavy-duty tasks.
You're not going to reach for your Japanese-style blade when cutting through hunks of meat that might potentially contain bones.
Alternately, the all-around more robust German-style knife can handle heavy-duty tasks. But, wielding it for fine chopping might become quickly tiring.
What’s the Best Kitchen Knife for You?
Nothing could be more necessary or more important to cooking than your knives. Not only does having the proper cutting tools on hand make preparing meals smoother, easier, and more comfortable, using a sharp knife that’s right for the task means wasting less food and time.
With that in mind, those artisan-crafted, carbon-steel blades that shine from store display shelves are often quite pricey.
And, remember, a fancy, long, Japanese knife does not a good cook make. Nor does your average home chef require an entire collection of forged blades to accomplish weeknight dinners.
“So many of the problems that home cooks face result from a cultural tendency to confuse what is appropriate and necessary in a professional kitchen with what is appropriate and necessary in a home kitchen.” says Bay Area chef Samin Nosrat.
That confusion, continues Samin, is just to entice your average home chef to buy more stuff and to convince you that you can’t cook well without it.
Now that you’re fully up to speed on the anatomy of a kitchen knife and the available variables in blades, read part two of our kitchen knife buying guide, where we’ll share the three kitchen knives that everyone needs, what to look for in each, and how to go about shopping for your next kitchen knife.