Paring Knives

Published January 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.

Is it worth shelling out the bucks for forged German steel, or can a $5 blade make the cut?

Overview:

Nothing can compare with a chef’s knife when it comes to sawing through large cuts of meat, chopping chunky vegetables, or transforming herbs into mince. But for detail work—hulling strawberries, coring fruit, scraping out vanilla beans, or trimming away a tough patch of silver skin on a roast—smaller, more maneuverable paring knives are far better tools. Their blades can be as stumpy as 2 inches or as long as 5 inches, and they come in a range of shapes. We’ve long preferred the versatility of the classic style, with its slightly curved blade and pointed tip resembling a mini chef’s knife.

Since our last review, in 2006, two German makers have introduced changes to the geometry of their knives, and some of the cooks in the test kitchen have raised concerns about the flimsiness of our previous favorite. So we decided to take another look at these blades. We armed ourselves with 10 of the latest models, most boasting our ideal blade length of 3 to 3 inches, in a wide variety of prices—from our current favorite and bargain buy to… read more

Nothing can compare with a chef’s knife when it comes to sawing through large cuts of meat, chopping chunky vegetables, or transforming herbs into mince. But for detail work—hulling strawberries, coring fruit, scraping out vanilla beans, or trimming away a tough patch of silver skin on a roast—smaller, more maneuverable paring knives are far better tools. Their blades can be as stumpy as 2¾ inches or as long as 5 inches, and they come in a range of shapes. We’ve long preferred the versatility of the classic style, with its slightly curved blade and pointed tip resembling a mini chef’s knife.

Since our last review, in 2006, two German makers have introduced changes to the geometry of their knives, and some of the cooks in the test kitchen have raised concerns about the flimsiness of our previous favorite. So we decided to take another look at these blades. We armed ourselves with 10 of the latest models, most boasting our ideal blade length of 3 to 3½ inches, in a wide variety of prices—from our current favorite and bargain buy to a gleaming forged blade that cost 14 times as much. We then subjected the knives to a range of tasks to determine their maneuverability, comfort, and precision.

Core Issues

Since the foremost function of a paring knife (as opposed to a chef’s knife) is to offer greater control for in-hand detail work, we started our assessments at the very tip of the blade. We slipped each knife into fresh strawberries, evaluating how easily we could glide the point around the hull to remove the stem and the whitish core without losing much fruit. Ultra-fine tips allowed us to effortlessly make deft cuts, while blunter tips clumsily jutted into the berries and left raggedy holes in the fruit.

The strawberry test confirmed that a blade much longer than 3½ inches compromises precision and agility. The longest blade in our lineup—the 4-inch sibling to our favorite 3¼-inch knife—had trouble navigating the inside of a berry. That said, its extra length was a plus for bisecting a bulbous apple and slicing a block of cheddar. But as soon as we switched back to the more intricate work of trimming apple cores, this longer blade just got in the way.

We also found that we preferred knives that had a more even balance between blade and handle, which made them feel almost like an extension of our hands. The handles on some models were so weighty that they actually seemed to be pulling the blade away from the food as we sliced. Heavier handles also made hand-held tasks like hulling strawberries or coring apples more awkward.

Sharp Differences

Another crucial component to any good knife is the actual sharpness of the blade. Take sectioning oranges: The goal is to remove perfect juice-filled segments intact and uncrushed, and only a very sharp blade can slip into each section and right up against the membrane that divides the flesh. Some knives left us with oozing orange scraps; others turned out a neat heap of orange wedges, crisply cut and full of juice. Same deal with mincing shallots and slicing fibrous ginger root. While the top performers reduced the aromatics with ease, other models struggled to make clean, sweeping cuts through the foods.

But were the more successful knives performing better simply because their factory edges were sharper? Curious, we took a closer look at the blades on our front-runners. As it turned out, the two top-scoring knives and its close runner-up recently underwent “East-West” makeovers, their cutting edges changed to a typical Japanese 14- or 15-degree bevel angle per side, as opposed to a traditional Western angle of 19 to 22 degrees. (Our former favorite uses a similar angle: 17 degrees.) Did changing the angle improve the performance? Maybe. But when we later ran the German knives through a sharpener that brought the angle closer to that of a more traditional Western edge, our testers couldn’t detect much difference in the cutting ability of the knives.

So, while those new edge angles seem to be a plus, they are only one of several factors that make these German paring knives so successful: well-shaped blades with sharply pointed tips; compact overall length; good handle-to-blade balance, weight, and proportion; and comfortable grips that feel secure and don’t slip, no matter if you’re cutting in the hand or on a board.

Don’t get us wrong. We still like our old favorite (and current Best Buy), a light knife with a slim, sharp blade. And you can’t beat its low price. But for those who appreciate working with the more secure feel of a solidly built paring knife, we found a near-perfect tool.

Paring Knife Menagerie

The world of paring knives includes specialty blades like the “bird’s beak” and “sheep’s foot” styles, both of which are named for their resemblance to animal appendages. The former’s narrow, deeply curved blade is a chef favorite for carving vegetables into intricate shapes. The latter has a rounded tip and a straight blade, like a miniature santoku knife. We pitted one such blade against our all-purpose winning paring knife and found that the sheep’s foot configuration worked well for precise slicing jobs done on a cutting board, like julienning small fruits and vegetables. But skinning curvy apples and digging the cores out of delicate strawberries was another matter. Here, the broad, asymmetrical tip of the sheep’s foot was a handicap compared to the slim, more-flexible spear-point tip of the all-purpose model. A bird’s beak paring knife has the opposite problem: Designed only for hand-held carving, its hooked blade is no good for slicing on a cutting board.

The bottom line: These specialty knives have their uses, but neither is a replacement for our favorite all-purpose blade.

Bird’s Beak

Best for decorative carving in the hand.

Sheep’s Foot

Best for straight cuts on a cutting board.

All-Purpose

Best for cutting and peeling, in the hand or on a cutting board.

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