The Importance of a GOOD Bread Knife

My main culinary knives – they’re all razor-sharp!

Though I’ve never cooked professionally, I have always believed in working with a great - and razor-sharp – knife when I’m cooking. And over the years I’ve slowly built up my collection to address specific needs as shown to the left. It’s a small collection, but those knives handle just about everything I do in the kitchen.

The knife that’s second from the right is my old faithful Wusthof chef’s knife that I’ve been using for over 30 years. It’s my trusty, all-around knife. I keep it well-maintained and super sharp; so sharp that several years ago, I wasn’t paying attention and chopped off the point of my index finger (but that’s another story – don’t worry, it grew back). Its gleaming edge is an indicator of just how sharp it is. 🙂

To its right is my Global Ni 9 1/4″ bread knife (it actually feels longer). I just purchased this a couple of weeks ago and after using it plenty since I brought it home, I’m kicking myself for not getting a real good bread knife a lot earlier.

My previous bread knife is more of a general-purpose utility knife that I’ve used for lots of other things besides bread. It’s a Mercer Culinary Offset Serrated knife (shown below). It was cheap – under $20 – but I love it and still use it daily.

And though I love this knife, a negative thing about it is that it doesn’t hold an edge very well, and I have to sharpen it at least once a month with a rat tail diamond and keep it constantly honed while using it. But it’s great for dicing tomatoes and peppers, and since it has a non-reactive blade, doesn’t need to be cleaned and dried after use. So I let the family use this knife. 🙂 They don’t get to touch my good knives!

And because it’s a general-purpose knife, it was designed for compromise between a variety of uses. One of those compromises is the flexibility of the blade. It’s great when working with fish or meat, but for slicing bread, that flexibility makes it difficult to cut consistently-sized slices.

The Global Ni, on the other hand, is absolutely rigid and is reinforced by the slightly convex grind which limits or even eliminates the lateral movement of the blade while you slice. Furthermore, it is truly a one-sided blade (convex on the inside (your finger side) and flat on the outside), made for a righty, so as a right-hander, I have lots more control. On top of that, while my Mercer is sharp, the Global Ni is scary-sharp. I’m actually able to cut slices that are less than 1/4″ wide! Talk about control!

On top of that, my Global Ni’s blade tapers from tall at the heel of the blade to slightly narrower at the tip. This promotes a back-and-forth slicing action much like a chef’s knife but without the acute sweep in the front third of the blade. This makes for a more triangular blade profile, and as the triangle is the most stable shape in nature, the vertical movement of the blade is pretty much eliminated.

Okay, okay. As usual, I’ve started to geek out on stuff that may not at all be of importance to some folks, so I apologize if I seem to be a bit pedantic. But I just love knives and while I was writing this post, I had a conversation with a bladesmith in Ashland, Oregon named Michael Lishinsky of Wildfire Cutlery. I’m commissioning a custom knife that’s a riff on a traditional Japanese Honesuki Maru (aka Hankotsu) and had to confirm handle and blade dimensions with him.

Most folks don’t really put too much thought into getting a good knife. But here are some good reasons to consider one:

  • While you can get sharp edge on even a cheap knife, the steel used in good knives is of much higher quality, which allows the edge angles on those knives to be much lower making them scary sharp. It’s counter-intertuive, but the sharper the knive, the safer it is as the chance of it deflecting while you’re cutting is significantly reduced. Ever have a blade slip on you when you’re slicing an apple?
  • Good knives generally retain their edges much longer as the steel they employ is harder than their cheap counterparts. They do require a bit more care, but think of it like having a nice car. You’ll tend keep a nice car clean on the inside and out, whereas with an old beater, you might not apply the same amount of care.
  • Great knives are made to last a lifetime. I talked about my 30-year-old Wusthuf above. Cheap knives don’t last nearly that long and that also makes them dangerous. A friend of mine recently was washing one of his cheapos and didn’t know the handle had delaminated from the tang. The blade came away from the handle, slipped out of his hand, and seven stiches later… Needless to say, he took my advice and invested in a couple of good knives.

When you go searching for a good knife, know this: You don’t have to spend a fortune for a good knife. You’ll sometimes hear of people spending $2000+ on a knife. That’s ridiculous and borders on the my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours territory. And while I love Japanese knives, I only have two, and I spent less than $200 on both of them combined (I got them on sale at a local cutlery store).

As far as blades are concerned, forged knives are better than stamped knives as forging works at the molecular level of the steel and thus makes the metal stronger. But I’m not partial to hand-forged vs. machine-forged knives. Hand-forged knives tend to be more expensive. I wouldn’t avoid one if I saw a good deal and I really needed a knife, but I’ve been absolutely happy with the knives I have and they’re all machine-forged.

With respect to metal, carbon steel is harder and sharper than stainless but requires a LOT more care. You to wash and dry carbon steel immediately after each use and you should avoid making long contact with citrus as that will corrode the knife. But carbon steel can be damn sharp!

As for bread knife-specific traits, I’d look for these primary traits:

  • Blade length should be longer than the widest bread you make. A 10″, while pretty long, will cover most bread except for huge miches. F. Dick makes a 12″ bread knife that is amazing. It’s like a mini sword. And you get one, you wouldn’t be lying when you said you have a 12″ Dick.
  • Taller blades, at least 1″ provide much more control when cutting.
  • The blade should be absolutely rigid, no matter how much you spend. A flexible knife will make cutting straight slices challenging.
  • While it may seem pointy-tipped teeth would be better, I found that rounder tips provide more edge contact and, with bread at least, will throw far fewer crumbs while cutting.