Slicing Knives

Published November 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.

Slicing a roast, ham, or turkey doesn’t require expert knife skills. But producing thin, even slices of meat can be next to impossible if you don’t have the right knife.

Overview:

After too many debacles carving roast beef into lopsided, haphazard slices with the wrong knife, we know better. When a knife breaks through the surface of meat, it cuts through muscle fibers and connective tissue bundled together like multiple strands of twisted, plastic-covered telephone wire. Depending on how the knife is designed, the fiber and tissue can split apart cleanly or unevenly. To produce thin, uniform slices, heft and sharpness are important—but so are the length and shape of the blade. So while the wide, triangular blade of a chef’s knife is excellent for everyday kitchen tasks such as chopping vegetables or hacking raw chicken into pieces, it is really too thick and blunt to slice meat precisely and too short to get through a big roast in a single stroke. Even worse, the pointed tip wedges into the meat, forcing you to saw back and forth to finish the task. The result: thick, ridged, uneven slices.

But if you set out to buy a knife specifically for slicing, catalogs and cutlery stores present a confounding array… read more

After too many debacles carving roast beef into lopsided, haphazard slices with the wrong knife, we know better. When a knife breaks through the surface of meat, it cuts through muscle fibers and connective tissue bundled together like multiple strands of twisted, plastic-covered telephone wire. Depending on how the knife is designed, the fiber and tissue can split apart cleanly or unevenly. To produce thin, uniform slices, heft and sharpness are important—but so are the length and shape of the blade. So while the wide, triangular blade of a chef’s knife is excellent for everyday kitchen tasks such as chopping vegetables or hacking raw chicken into pieces, it is really too thick and blunt to slice meat precisely and too short to get through a big roast in a single stroke. Even worse, the pointed tip wedges into the meat, forcing you to saw back and forth to finish the task. The result: thick, ridged, uneven slices.

But if you set out to buy a knife specifically for slicing, catalogs and cutlery stores present a confounding array of choices. Blades can be narrow, wide, or extra-wide; rigid or flexible; measuring 8 inches to 14 inches. Tips are pointed or round. The cutting edges are straight, serrated, wavy, or hollowed, a feature sometimes called a granton or kullenschliff edge. Prices range from $19 to $199. No wonder so many cooks just stick with their chef’s knife.

Making the Cut

Past evaluations of knives gave us some criteria to look for: an extra-long blade that could slice through large cuts of meat in one easy glide, enough sturdiness to ensure a straight cutting path, and a round tip that wouldn’t get caught coming down. We also knew to single out knives with a hollow or granton edge. These knives have small, oval scallops carved out on both sides of the blade. By chiseling out recesses close to the cutting edge, a thinner edge can be achieved without sacrificing the heft or rigidity carried by the top of the blade—all the better for producing the thinnest slices with the least amount of effort. We also knew to eliminate carving knives, sometimes advertised as slicing knives, because their pointed tip and narrow blade make them too agile to maintain a straight cutting path. (Their specialty is detail work such as cutting meat off the bone or maneuvering into turkey joints—tasks a chef’s knife can easily handle.) In the end, we chose nine models for testing.

Top-Notch Tapering

As we continued slicing our way through meat and fish, we made another discovery: All of the top knives tapered significantly, with the thickness of the blade narrowing from the handle to the tip. Measuring, we noted that our top three knives tapered by 24 percent to 35 percent, whereas poorer performers tapered only by 5 percent to 17 percent. The thinness near the tip helped testers control the knife, while the thicker base of the knife preserved the weight needed to cut cleanly. Research confirmed that tapering is a traditional characteristic of the very best knives, a key factor in precision, control, and responsiveness. In the end, three knives were jockeying for the top spot. All offered granton edges, generous length, and good balance and helped even our most unskilled testers produce consistently thin, professional-looking slices.

Origins of the Granton Edge

“Granton-edge” knives have oval scallops carved into both sides of the blade. While it’s touted for its nonstick quality, we like the design because it allows for a thinner cutting edge without sacrificing the heft carried by the top of the blade. It also helps to preserve some beneficial rigidity in the blade.

William Grant, founder of the Granton Knives Company in Sheffield, England, patented this innovative edge in 1928. The company still hand-makes granton-edge knives with scallops carved all the way down to the cutting edge (imitators have scallops that stop just above it). Because the knives have a limited distribution in the United States, we chose not to include them in our lineup.

Methodology:

To see how each knife dealt with different textures and thicknesses, we cooked more than 180 pounds of roast beef, ham, turkey, flank steak, brisket, and smoked salmon.

Flexibility

Knives with a stiff blade were too clunky to make thin slices. Very flexible knives permitted too much movement and wobbled on big cuts; however, their flexibility helped when slicing smoked salmon and flank steak, which are cut on the bias, as opposed to perpendicular to the cutting board. For an all-purpose knife, the best choice is somewhere in between.

Weight

Heavier knives were more stable, maintaining a straight path and requiring less effort with thick cuts. Lightweight knives felt flimsy. How well the weight was balanced made all the difference. Blade-heavy knives with light handles felt cumbersome, while knives that carried weight in both the blade and the handle translated their heft into force and power, making slicing effortless.

Length and Width

Slicing a large roast and a ham put blade length to the test. The ideal knife requires minimal motion to create a straight slice. In the past, we’ve recommended 10-inch slicing knives, but we found that a few extra inches greatly helped create a slice in a single stroke. Our conclusion: About 12 inches is ideal.

Tapering

Measured from base to tip of blade. Dramatic tapering was most responsive.

Comfort

Balanced knives with easy-to-grip handles were considered well constructed.

Rigidity

Tested by flexing blade against counter, rigidity was measured on scale of 0 to 10, with 10 as most rigid. Fairly rigid knives—those that rated between 7 and 8—performed best.

Slicing

Average of testers’ scores, determined through slicing meats and cold smoked salmon.

Sharpness

Sharper blades cut meat with less effort and permitted thin slicing.

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