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Paring Knives

By Cook's Illustrated Published January 2011

How we tested

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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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*