When steak (or any serious cut of meat) is on the table, a set of steak knives should be, too. After 40 hours of research, interviews, and testing, we’re convinced the Messermeister Avanta Pakkawood knives have the best value by far. Beautiful to look at, comfortable in the hand, and as high-performing as knives six times their price, they’re great tools. (And, if you prefer a classic black handle, the Messermeister Avantas come that way, too, at an even better price.)
I’ve been cooking for myself and for crowds since I left high school (20 years ago—gah!); between that and various stints in construction and landscaping, I’ve come to appreciate well-made, well-designed hand tools—including knives. And having wasted money on crummy, expensive (but well-marketed) knives more than once when I was younger, I have a particular regard for knives that truly justify their price (and even more for those that overachieve).
For my own needs and as a journalist, I’ve researched deeply into knife-making materials, knife design, and knife performance over the years; Mark Richmond, owner of Chef Knives to Go, has been particularly helpful on several occasions. Last year’s guide, researched and written by Sweethome senior editor Christine Cyr Clisset, produced a wealth of information also incorporated here. Christine gathered reviews from America’s Test Kitchen (registration required), Saveur, and Serious Eats; she learned about knife styles and materials from Dexter Ewing of BLADE magazine and Howard Nourieli of Bowery Kitchen Supplies; and she spoke to Rick Gresh, the executive chef at David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago for practical advice on steak knife performance and care.
Finally, we’ve now tested 15 different steak knives on 16 pounds of beef in two real-world test sessions, involving a dozen Sweethome staffers and friends. If there’s a question about steak knives, however obscure, we’ve asked it and found the answer.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know the line: “First prize is a Cadillac … Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Alec Baldwin’s speech is cinema legend. It’s also insightful. Glengarry Glen Ross (the play, not the film) premiered in 1984, when there was nothing more quintessentially American than big cars, lost jobs—and steak for dinner. Of course second prize is a set of steak knives! Almost everyone would have appreciated them—if not the circumstances they arrived under.
Today, second prize would be something else. Americans are eating less meat in general, and less beef in particular, so not everyone needs a set of steak knives these days. But if you eat meat regularly, you really should have one. It’s amazing how much nicer it is to slice a tenderloin or chop with a well-made blade designed for that purpose. And that will hold true even if you’re already using a cheapo set of serrated steak knives, let alone if you’re hacking away with the dull table knives that came with your silverware.
A nice set of steak knives also dresses up a place-setting, so if you like to entertain—or just like to make a fancy meal now and then—you may appreciate owning a set, too. Finally, one thing that held true in 1984 still holds true in 2015: steak knives are a special gift for the right person. You can even spend Cadillac money, if you’re feeling extra generous.
There’s no consensus on what makes a good steak knife. The fact is, there are so many different styles that making direct comparisons is almost impossible. Some steak knives are straight-edged (also called fine-edged) like chef’s knives; some are serrated (broad-toothed, that is, like bread knives); still others are what’s known as micro-serrated and have fine-toothed blades that look like scaled-down wood saws.
Even the experts don’t agree. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats prefers a serrated blade; Rick Gresh of Chicago’s Primehouse favors straight-edge, as does America’s Test Kitchen; Saveur recommends straight-edge, traditional serrated, and micro-serrated models; and Amazon customers review all three types positively.
And there are dozens of other ways knives can be differentiated: by blade shape and length, by blade and handle material, by the way the blades are made (forged versus stamped—see “Notes on materials and construction”), and so on. On top of all that, “best” is a subjective term, especially for a simple tool like a steak knife, for which look and feel are almost as important as performance.
But in our original steak-knife test, a consensus did emerge: everyone strongly preferred straight edges. Even the least-impressive straight-edge knife sliced through the meat smoothly and easily, whereas even the best serrated knife forced everyone to saw back and forth. So for this year’s update I focused my research exclusively on straight-edge knives.
To help narrow the field, I tried to put myself in Sweethome readers’ shoes. If you’re serving steaks to a crowd for a special occasion—a self-catered wedding, for example, or a Fourth of July backyard blowout—or if you’re simply on a budget, you need knives that work great and look decent but don’t break the bank. If you’re giving them as a gift, on the other hand, you’re probably ready to splurge on knives that are beautiful to look at, but you also want to be sure they’re a delight to hold and use. And if you’re looking for steak knives for yourself for everyday use, I figured you probably want something that hits a sweet spot between cost, looks, and performance. With these scenarios in mind, I set out to find an inexpensive set (less than $25); a luxury set ($200–$500); and a mid-priced set (between $50 and $125). (Steak knives almost always come in sets of four, but to account for any differences in that number, we also calculated the price-per-knife of every set we tested.)
Then I dove into the jungle that is the steak knife market. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of models available; because many of them are mass-produced and sold under multiple resellers’ names, I restricted my search to well-known manufacturers’ house brands.
There are also dozens of styles available, from the utilitarian to the ultramodern. But for most people’s taste, a steak knife should look like a steak knife, and to me and the Sweethome editors I polled, that means a traditional upswept blade with riveted handles. That immediately nixed the many models with molded-rubber or plastic handles, the sort you see on restaurant-grade kitchen knives.
Insisting on straight-edge blades also eliminated a huge swath of the inexpensive and mid-priced serrated steak knife options. Serrated blades are very cheap to manufacture; almost every steak knife set under $100 features them. In fact, finding good straight-edged knives at low prices proved to be the biggest research challenge.
But after ten hours of hunting, I had five new knife sets to test (and an Alp-size discard pile). They ranged from about $20 for four knives (roughly $5 apiece) to $400 for four ($100 each). To these, we added last year’s pick (the Victorinox Rosewood Straight Edge Steak Knife Set), alternate (the J.A. Henckels International Classic Forged Steak Knives), and upgrade models (the Wüsthof Classic Ikon Steak Knives), whose prices lay in between.
Last year’s test, Sweethome editor Christine Cyr Clisset cooked six pounds of chuck steak and two of tenderloin, and, with her husband and two friends, used 10 different steak knives to slice them up over the course of dinner. This year, Sweethome kitchen editor Lesley Stockton and I pan-seared eight pounds of hanger, skirt, and flank steak, the toughest steak cuts available—we wanted a real test, no tender cuts—and invited half a dozen colleagues to lunch. Everyone used each knife repeatedly and under real-world conditions: The steaks were arrayed and sliced on china plates, the way they would be in your home. (China, which is much harder than steel, is rough on knife edges, and we wanted to see how our test models held up.)
I also made sure that our testers were diverse: we had men and women; large people and small; experienced knife-handlers and folks who don’t give knives much thought at all. I asked everyone for their impressions on simple performance (how well each knife cut the steaks), on feel (how well or poorly the knives fit the hand, and how flimsy or sturdy they seemed), and on looks.
The Messermeisters also have a long and upswept blade—the ideal steak knife shape, resulting from centuries of evolution. The length allows the knife to slice through even a thick steak in one stroke, and the upswept tip lets your elbow move up as you slice instead of back, where it might strike your chair or a waiter. Many mid-priced knives we looked at—including our pick from Victorinox last year—appear simply to be paring knives, whose short, straight blades are designed for peeling and trimming fruits and vegetables, not slicing meat. Moreover, Messermeisters are extremely sharp, with edges that are evenly ground and finely honed—a sign of good quality control during the production process. (This may be due to the fact that the blades are produced in Germany, long known for its exceptional cutlery, before being sent to China for handle-attachment and finishing.) In our tests, they sliced steaks as effortlessly as knives that cost five times as much, far better than any other knives in their price range.
Also unique to the Messermeisters’ price range, their handles are finished with pakkawood—an industry term for resin-impregnated natural wood—instead of the more-common cheap plastic or unfinished wood. Pakkawood is strong, durable, and stable—basically, it doesn’t absorb water or dry out and expand or shrink accordingly—but retains the rich and variegated look of natural wood. (Many high-end Japanese kitchen knives, including our Best Chef’s Knife for Most Cooks, feature pakkawood handles for these reasons.)
As mentioned, the Messermeisters have one-piece, full-tang construction, with the blade and handle forged from one continuous piece of steel that runs from end to end—yet another feature that’s usually reserved for more expensive knives. The full tang makes the knives inherently stronger than knives with partial tangs (which don’t run all the way to the end of the handle), and it makes them heavier. That’s a good thing: in our tests, knives in the three-ounce range simply felt more comfortable and impressive in the hand, and the Messermeisters weigh almost exactly that.
The only flaw we found was the not-quite-perfect finish—there were slightly-raised rivets on some handles—but still, the Messermeisters’ quality of construction is well above that of the other knives we tested in its price range. (Last year’s pick from Victorinox, for example, costs about a third more per knife, yet features wide gaps between the rosewood handle and the blade.) Simply put, with most knives you get what you pay for; with the Messermeisters, you get more.
Not tested, but also recommended, is the black POM-handled version of the Messermeister Avanta knife, which is otherwise identical. POM (polyoxymethylene) is a hard, dense, strong plastic; it’s been used on classic riveted-handle kitchen knives for half a century (e.g.). No steak knife should be put through a dishwasher, but if you must, these will stand up best.
One criticism: the Ikons come in a simple, clear plastic box. It’s sturdy enough to use for knife storage but left us wishing for something more distinguished-looking, particularly if the knives are intended to be a gift. For about $100 more, the blackwood-handled Ikon steak knives come in a walnut case; it’s unfortunate that this is not an option for the standard model.
Chicago Cutlery’s Walnut Tradition steak knife set is the best low-cost set out there. The knives are not perfect by any metric: the blade-edges are coarse and uneven; at 60 grams/2 ounces, they’re a bit lighter than we’d like; and the fit-and-finish is indifferent. In fact, they appear just to be industrial-grade boning knives with steak knife handles slapped on. Put it this way: if the Messermeisters give you more than you pay for aesthetically, these give you exactly what you pay for, and not a penny more.
Several testers diverged from the pack on steak knife aesthetics, preferring something with cleaner, modern lines instead of the traditional look. If that also describes you, the Opinel South Spirit set is our recommendation. The Opinel blades are noticeably less sharp than the Messermeister and Wüsthof, but they still cut our tough test-steaks neatly and efficiently. The beautiful handles are made of olivewood, which, in addition to being pretty, is naturally water-resistant (though not virtually waterproof, like the pakkawood on the Messermeisters; the Opinels absolutely must be hand-washed).
The Opinels underperform noticeably in one category: weight. At just 35 grams—barely more than an ounce—they feel insubstantial in the hand. They also come in a simple cardboard case that won’t last long in your silverware drawer; you’d want to store it somewhere less trafficked like a high shelf. But on looks and performance, they’re winners at the price. (Lastly, if you’re looking for something to brighten your table, Opinel also makes a version of this knife that’s fitted with colored hornbeam-wood handles; these got Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport’s recommendation this past summer.
All these knives are low-maintenance, but there are a few things you should do to keep them performing their best.
First and foremost: hand-wash them, and dry them afterwards. (This is especially important for the Opinel and Chicago Cutlery models’ natural wood handles.) Dishwashers are hard on knives, both because of the high temperatures and chemicals in the soap, and because of the banging around. Spending a few minutes after dinner hand-washing your steak knives will go a long way toward keeping them performing well for years.
Second: store them in the box they came in; in a knife block, knife roll, or knife tray; or on a magnetic strip. You don’t need anything fancy; you just need to keep the blades protected from the wear and tear they’d suffer sitting amongst your everyday forks and spoons. (You also need to protect your fingers from the wear and tear they’d receive from accidentally grabbing a sharp steak knife.)
Third and last: keep the edges sharp by running them on a knife steel before each use. Remember, though, that a steel is only there to maintain a sharp edge, not to create one. After many, many steak dinners, your knives will need to be re-sharpened—something you can do at home or have done professionally at any good cutler for a few dollars per blade. But unless you are essentially carnivorous, that day won’t arrive for a long time. When we spoke to Rick Gresh of Primehouse restaurant in 2014, he said he hadn’t re-sharpened his steak knives once in the eight years he’d owned them.
If you’ve spent more than a few minutes researching knives, you’ve likely run into a bewildering fog of jargon and technical specifications. Here’s a quick guide, which applies to steak knives, chef’s knives, and everything in between:
The phrase high-carbon steel is basically marketing hype: every steel alloy used to make knives is high-carbon. You can ignore the phrase it if it’s used, and you needn’t worry if it’s not. Do note, however, that if a knife is listed only as “high-carbon” or “carbon steel,” it will easily rust. To be sure your knife is rust-resistant, make sure it is also listed as stainless.
Stainless steel is steel alloyed with at least 12 percent, and usually 14 to 18 percent, chromium. The chromium forms a dense layer on any exposed surface which rapidly oxidizes, preventing oxidation (rusting) of the steel underneath. There are multiple types of stainless steel, some more corrosion-resistant than others; all those used on our recommended knives (and all those used by major manufacturers) are high-performing: extremely corrosion-resistant, capable of taking and holding a sharp edge and easy to re-sharpen.
In ancient times, Damascus referred to a special type of steel created by Middle Eastern smiths. In legend and perhaps in fact, it was tougher, harder, and held a better edge than any other steel in the known world. Today, Damascus simply refers to a decorative, layered type of common steel, formed by stacking slabs of different alloys, welding them into a solid block, and folding the block over itself repeatedly. (Watch here.) Despite loud claims to the contrary, Damascus knives are not sharper or stronger than knives made of a single piece of steel, but many people consider them more beautiful.
There are thousands of different steel alloys—mixtures of iron, carbon, and any of 20 or more other elements—each designed for a different purpose. Knife alloys alone run into the dozens, and the names are alphabet soup: AEB-L, VG-10, 19C27, ZDP-189. My advice is: ignore them all, at least for steak knives. Whatever alloy a good manufacturer chooses will perform perfectly well.
As used by knifemakers today, rosewood is rarely real rosewood. And that’s good: real rosewood (a term that refers to several tropical species) is endangered and banned from international trade. In knifemaking, the term “rosewood” now refers to any hardwood that’s been dyed a reddish-brown color; beech is commonly used and environmentally sound.
POM (polyoxymethylene; also known as acetal and Delrin, and often called POM resin) is a heavy, hard, and strong plastic. It is highly resistant to acids, solvents, salt, and heat, and it’s food-safe for knife handles. Not surprisingly, it has been used in that role for decades. It’s not a sign of cheapness or inferiority; most top manufacturers offer POM-handled knives, typically aimed at restaurant chefs and serious home cooks. (A POM-handled santoku has been my workhorse for nearly two decades, and none of the fancier knives I’ve since purchased has budged it from its throne.)
Pakkawood is an industry term for resin-impregnated real wood. The resins—which are biologically inert and food-safe—make the wood denser and far more stable and water-resistant. Pakkawood is often dyed black, but it can also be clear- or color-stained to highlight the wood’s natural grain, as on our top pick.
Finally, you’ll see a lot of talk about forged versus stamped blades. Forged blades are made of a single chunk of steel that’s hammered into shape. Stamped blades are punched out of flat sheets of steel, with any additional shaping done by grinding metal away. For many years, forged knives were more or less inherently superior to stamped blades: the forging process produced knives with stronger, more uniform, more easily sharpened, and more durable blades. But stamped knives have closed the gap considerably. (America’s Test Kitchen famously put a cheap, stamped Victorinox chef’s knife and an expensive, forged Bob Kramer model under the microscope; the Victorinox exhibited comparable metal quality.) Stamped knives also have the advantage of being far less expensive. There’s no reason, in short, to insist on forged blades anymore, although you’ll still find them on most high-end knives.
Last year’s winner, the Victorinox Rosewood Straight Edge Steak Knife Set, continued to impress on performance and looks. Unfortunately, Sweethome buyers experienced big problems with lack of availability after we recommended them. Worse, by the time of writing, the set had risen from an initial price of $130 for six ($21.75 each) to about $180 ($30 each). And when compared to the Messermeisters, their head-to-head competitors, the Victorinox lost in every category: performance, appearance, weight (41 grams, half the “ideal” weight), fit-and-finish, and price. It wasn’t fun (or difficult) to take them off our list of picks.
The J. A. Henckels International Classic Forged Steak Knives were our pick last year for black-plastic-handled knives, and they are still good knives. But they’re twice the price of the black-handled Messermeisters and performed less well when cutting steaks.
We brought in two new high-end steak knife sets: Shun Premier and Wüsthof Epicure. Both perform astonishingly well—you won’t find sharper steak knives under the sun. Visually, however, testers felt that both were wanting, albeit for opposite reasons. The Shun knives are magnificent but border on ostentatious, with their mirror-polished, hammer-finished damascus blades and decorative rear bolster. The Wüsthofs, by contrast, are austere to a fault: The thinking behind their boring recycled-wood-fiber handles is nice, but at an MSRP of $600, surely some equally-green reclaimed walnut burl was in order. Our testers unanimously preferred the quiet elegance of last year’s pick, the black-handled Wüsthof Ikons, to both.
Still, it should be stated again that at high-end prices, you’re mostly paying for aesthetics; performance will always be adequate, and typically outstanding. So if you’re already planning to be lavish, why not search for something unique to your taste? Fashion and industrial designers are always dabbling in side projects, and steak knives are one of them. A few minutes on Google just now revealed these orange-lucite-handled hepcats. More are surely out there.
The following knives were considered but rejected; the list is not comprehensive, and all serrated knives, in particular, have been deleted. We simply don’t recommend them. But you may run into some of these knives on your own knife searches. This is why they’re not our favorites:
The Wüsthof Classic Steak Knife Set wasn’t reviewed in any editorials, but it was the fourth-top-rated set on Amazon and comes from a well-respected knifemaker. This straight-edged knife cut really nicely, but everyone preferred the rounded Ikon handles to the Classic square handles. Also, one of our testers didn’t like how the Classic knives have the Wüsthof logo on the handle (which makes them look like kitchen knives).
The Zwilling Twin Cuisine II set also didn’t come with any editorial reviews, but we opted to include it in testing after trying and liking the knives at Williams-Sonoma. The straight-edged blade of the knife we tested cut very cleanly. Yet one tester said the handle looked “ostentatious” and didn’t think it would fit with her other silverware. These knives are also less balanced than some of the others, and for the price we prefer the Wüsthof Ikon set.
Laguiole steak knives – This is not a brand, but a name used for knives made in Laguiole or Thiers, France. These are classic, beautiful knives, based on traditional shepherd’s pocket knives. They have slightly curved blades and handles made from a variety of woods and even “mammoth fossil,” but there are also less expensive ones with colorful acrylic handles. There are many imitations of these knives on the market, since the name “Laguiole” isn’t copyrighted. A popular and authentic maker is the Dubost family, which sells their knives at Williams-Sonoma. We tried these knives at Williams-Sonoma and didn’t like how the rivets in the wood handles felt rough. We also couldn’t find any warranty information for these knives. We think the knives we tested are a better value. Given that these are more boutique knives, we didn’t feel they fit into the scope of this review. If you happen to be traveling through France, though, and can afford a set, we’ve read nice things about the authentic versions.
Wüsthof Gourmet Steak Knife Set – Was not more highly recommended than the other Wüsthof and Henckels knives we tested. We also tried this set out at Williams-Sonoma and thought the handles felt cheap.
Wüsthof Grand Prix II Steak Knife Set – Did not receive better reviews than the other Wüsthof sets we opted to test.
Wüsthof Classic Hollow-Ground Knife Set – This set looks identical to the Wüsthof Classic set we tested, except the knives have dimpled blades, which are supposed to slice more easily. The Classic set we tested received better reviews, so we opted not to test this one.
The Messermeister Avanta Pakkawood steak knife set offers an unbeatable combination of looks, performance, quality, and price. You could hunt for days—we know, because we did—and you’d find nothing that approaches them. Happy eating.
Originally published: December 21, 2015