Published March 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.
Do you really need a bread knife, a tomato knife, a sandwich knife, and a cake splitter? We wanted one all-purpose serrated knife.
Choosing a serrated knife isn’t as simple as it sounds. Do you want serrations that are pointed, scalloped, or saw-toothed? Big and spread-out or tiny and crowded? Or maybe a mix of styles and shapes on one knife? Do you want a blade that’s forged or stamped? One that sticks straight out from the handle, one that curves—a little or a lot—or even one where the handle is tilted downward from the blade? What about offset serrated knives, where the blade drops down from the handle into an L shape?
And must you buy different serrated knives for different tasks? Can a knife that’s good for cutting bread and sandwiches also cut tomatoes, split cake layers, and separate dough for sticky buns?
In contrast to a chef’s knife, which works best when its straight edge is pushed through food, a serrated knife relies on a slicing motion in which the blade is dragged across the food’s surface as it moves down through it. To excel in our testing, the serrations had to exert just the right amount of grip on the food’s surface. In the past, we’ve found that scalloped edges (also known as reverse serrations) provide too little grip, skidding before biting in; the one model of this type we included in our lineup lived down to this expectation. Pointed serrations, on the other hand, needed to be just the right size—too long and they had too much grip, snagging and tearing at the soft interiors of the bread, cake, and sandwich; too small and they were ineffectual on the tougher tasks.
But it’s not just point size that matters in a serrated knife; blade size is equally important. Blades shorter than 10 inches just couldn’t cut across larger foods like 9-inch cake rounds or big loaves of bread without getting lost inside. We were excited about a 14-inch knife, but while its serrations did every task exceptionally well, it was just too much knife—we kept bumping into objects at the back of the counter as we worked on the cutting board.
We also tested offset serrated knives, where the blade is lower than the handle by a few inches, making an L-shaped profile and another new-style knife which sported a downward-sloping handle designed to be more ergonomic and comfortable for the cook. In the end, none of the innovations we sampled were improvements over classic serrated knives.
Based on our previous experience, we didn’t think it would matter whether a serrated knife was forged or stamped. And, for the most part, it didn’t—our top two knives were one of each. However, we did appreciate the way the heavier blade and more steeply tapered serrations of our top-rated knife, which is forged, sliced into food with greater power and ease.
We found that for a knife to be a great all-purpose tool that excelled at cutting bread and soft, ripe tomatoes as well as cake layers and gooey sticky- bun dough, it needed three main traits: a slightly flexible blade between 10 and 12 inches long, with serrations that are both uniformly spaced and moderate in length. We found two that could boast all three qualities.