We get it. Sometimes a “homecooked” meal means dragging your sorry ass home late from work to slice up an avocado, slap it on some bread, and dredge it in hot sauce while cruising Netflix. But just because you’re not getting all Ina Garten up in your efficiency kitchen on a Tuesday doesn’t mean you should use the crappy knife your last roommate left behind. That shit is dangerous -- it’s easier to slip and cut yourself with a dull, flimsy knife than a sharp one, which will move through a potato like butter. Even the occasional home cook should have a basic set of good quality kitchen knives -- a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife -- and you can buy all three for less than $100. Having ones that slice quickly and maneuver easily makes dinner prep approximately 1,000 times less annoying.
And you don’t have to shell out hundys for a great, sharp knife. There are some crazy expensive ones made by samurai descendants and forged in, like, the fire of a mountain cave or something, but unless you’re an ultra-serious chef, you don’t need to shell out that kind of dough. Instead, consider these 10 excellent, inexpensive knives.
For a truly budget chef’s knife, you can’t beat the Wüsthof Pro. The bare-bones workhorse was designed for the rough and tumble of fiery restaurant kitchens. Though lightweight, the Pro is sturdy and sharp, with a tall, curved blade that facilitates a rocking motion for swift chopping. This knife is a bit bigger than others on the list -- and might be slightly trickier for small hands to maneuver -- but the rubberized, ergonomic handle is the most comfortable of any of them.
J.A. Henckels International is the offshoot value brand of ZWILLING J.A. Henckels, a popular German knife manufacturer. Both are made from German steel -- valued, along with Japanese steel, for its durability -- the main difference is that the pricier ZWILLING knives are made in Germany, while the less expensive International knives are farmed out to Spanish manufacturers. As a result, International knives are about a third the price. But this one is still a hefty, well-balanced, and sturdy slicer. Heavier than the Wusthof Pro, it can feel like it’s actually helping you slice.
If you’re willing to spend a bit more on your chef’s knife, get the Misen. The Everlane of the knife world, Misen is a direct-to-consumer start-up. Because of its cut-out-the-middleman model, the knife is more than half the cost of similar high-quality knives. The Misen knife, with its thin, sharp Japanese steel blade, is beautifully balanced; it’s nicely weighted, but delicate and easy to hold. It also looks great, and offers you the option of a pale blue, gray, or standard black handle.
The santoku is an all-purpose Japanese knife that some cooks prefer to the Western chef’s knife. It’s typically shorter than a German-style chef’s knife -- five to seven inches long instead of eight to 10 -- has a straighter, thinner blade, and a rounded tip, which make it great for chopping and delicate slicing. The smaller size can also feel more manageable for those lacking serious knife skills. Mercer supplies the majority of culinary schools in North America with knives, and excels at tough but affordable products. Its santoku knife is hefty and sharp, with a rubberized handle that makes it easy to grip.
A paring knife doesn’t need to be heavy to be good. In fact, you’re often better off with a light, simple knife like this one from Victorinox, the company best known for its Swiss Army knives. With its thin blade and grippy plastic handle, this knife may feel insubstantial, but it’s plenty sharp and great for handling delicate work like slicing berries or peeling an apple. The handle also comes in lots of fun, bright colors.
If you prefer a knife that feels a little more substantial, try the Wüsthof Gourmet knife. The handle has a little more weight to it than the Victorinox, or the paring knife from Wüsthof’s Pro line (which is like the Victorinox but with a shorter blade and less grippy handle). This Wüsthof still feels comfortable to hold through delicate work, and its weight may help you feel more in control, but the blade is a tad shorter than the Victorinox, which means it might not get a clean slice through wider fruits and vegetables.
A good serrated bread knife, maybe even more than any other knife, needs to be sharp, sturdy, and cheap, because even though you technically can sharpen them, it’s very annoying and hard to do. So you want a knife that’s super-sharp to begin with, and will last a while before it’s so dull you have to replace it. The Dexter-Russell is that knife: It’s as basic as they come, but heavy, strong, and sharp enough to glide through a crusty loaf or a delicate tomato with ease.
This is a popular budget bread knife, and a few features make it a bit nicer to use than the Dexter-Russell. For one, the handle is slightly offset from the blade, so your knuckles stay clear of the counter even when you’re sawing through the bottom of the loaf. The handle also has a comfortable rubberized grip, and the slight curve of the blade facilitates sawing back and forth. But when it came down to it, this knife had a little more drag than the Dexter-Russell -- it’s not quite as sharp.
You do not necessarily need a cleaver for everyday kitchen work. But it can come in handy for more than just hacking up a chicken. Use it for chopping hard vegetables like winter squash, or for roughly mincing anything from scallions to beef. Plus, the wide flat of the knife is good for scooping things up off your cutting board. Good cleavers aren’t always cheap, but Dexter-Russell makes a nice hefty one that will stand up to a beating. For tougher tasks, or if you have really strong arms, go for the beastly 8in heavy-duty version.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Marguerite Preston is a freelance food writer with a penchant for pastries (making them and eating them). Follow her @marguerite_s_p.