Buying a Bread Knife

We look at products from Dexter 1818, Zwilling J.A. Henckels and Mercer Culinary

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Over the last few years, I’ve become wedded to my bread knife. I would venture to say there’s nary a single tool in the kitchen as versatile as a bread knife. It not only glides through crusty artisan loaves and baguettes, it will magically cut through soft, delicate fruit or veggies.

Let’s not forget how it effortlessly slices those ripe tomatoes (there’s an obligatory shot in every magazine article about bread knives) but it’s useful for all kinds of fruit and vegetables–onions, limes, mangos, breadfruit, grapefruit, oranges, avocado, melons, squash, Okinawan sweet potatoes—you name it.

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What’s more a high quality bread knife can slice through fruits and vegetables without leaving a mess on your cutting board. The serrated edge allows one to (gently) saw a rubbery-skinned fruit (like a mango) without crushing it. You can work magic with very little downward pressure. It’s useful for both squishy, delicate foods and very firm, tough foods or even meat. 

Yes, this is a bread knife story but it is useful for other purposes than slicing artesinal loaves. (Rob Kay photo)

In short, its become my “EDC” kitchen blade.

For this story I plan to look at three bread knifes — the ZWILLING Pro 9-inch, Bread Knife Z15 Serration, the Sani-Safe Scalloped Sandwich knife from Dexter Russell and the Mercer Culinary Genesis 8-Inch Bread Knife.

Bread knives uber alles

Am I some apostate or weirdo for using a bread knife for items other than bread?

Hardly. For example, author and (former) Bon Appetit food writer Andy Baraghani, declares that he too uses his bread knife for all kinds of chores. (You can watch him eviscerate a pineapple on this video). Not only is it useful for just about any fruit or vegetable (as alluded to above) but a bread knife comes in very handy whacking capped honey cells to prepare a frame for the honey extractor.

So back to the blog.

We’re looking at these three knives–from top to bottom, the Mercer Culinary M20508 Genesis 8-Inch Bread Knife, ZWILLING Pro 9-inch, Bread Knife Z15 Serration and the Dexter Russell Sani-Safe 8″ Scalloped Bread Knife. (photo Rob Kay)

When my old bread knife literally disappeared (who knows what happened) I decided it was a sign that I should acquire something new. But first, I wanted to educate myself.

Here’s what I discovered…

Blade Length

Obviously if you actually do use your bread knife for mostly bread, it’s got to be long enough to span the width of the loaf you want to slice. If you are mostly slicing sandwich-width loaves or baguettes, an 8-inch bread knife will be fine. If you’re using it for mostly non-bread items, a shorter blade is preferable. (For wide, oblong artisanal loaves, you might consider something 9″ or longer). I use a bread machine which keeps my loaves on the compact side. For bigger loaves (or as alluded to above, for harvesting honey) consider a 10 or 12-inch blade.

Flexibility & Serration

A bread knife blade should not have too much flex–it should not feel thin or wobbly. The rule of thumb is if you press the tip into your cutting board, you should only get the slightest bow. With a wimpy blade you could slip and get cut when slicing something dense. Of course if you buy a knife online, you’re not going to know the condition of the blade. So getting it from a quality manufacturer is the way to go. The (inexpensive) Dexter model below had some flex but was usable for most applications.

The Sani-Safe 8″ Scalloped bread knife from Dexter Russell (Rob Kay photo)

So back to “technology”. What about the serrations?  

If you’re cutting hard-crusted bread, consider a knife with “pointier” teeth. With softer crusts, a more rounded tooth might be better. In general, a scallop pattern might be a good compromise, especially if you’re planning to use the knife for a variety of applications (other than bread). Wider serrations will also be easier to sharpen than the smaller serrations bunched close together. That’s an important point to consider.

Maintenance

What about care? Manufacturers do not recommended to wash your knife in a dishwasher. The recommendations below came from the Mercer website and would be good guidelines to follow for all knives:

After each use, carefully wash cutlery by hand with warm water and mild- to medium-strength soap; rinse and thoroughly dry it with a soft towel.

The Zwilling Pro Z15 measures 9 inches

Cutlery should never be washed in a dishwasher: the intense heat and radical temperature changes may cause the handle to deteriorate; the blade edges will become dull through rubbing against each other; and caustic soap will cause staining and pitting of the blade.

Cutlery should not be soaked or submerged for long periods. Chlorine and bleach products discolor and pit high-carbon steel. If chlorine or bleach products come in contact with the blade, thoroughly rinse off immediately.

Galvanic action—the transfer of electrons from one metal to another—may cause pitting on the blades. To prevent this, avoid long periods of soaking in aluminum pans or a stainless steel sink, remove cutlery from condiments (such as mayonnaise) stored in aluminum or stainless steel pans.

Always store cutlery in a cutlery block or sheath to preserve the cutting edges and prevent personal injury.

Kitchen Testing the bread knives

ZWILLING Pro 9-inch, Bread Knife Z15 Serration

What can you say about Zwilling, officially known as Zwilling J.A. Henckels, a 290 year old German brand? Quite a bit actually.

Zwilling is one of the most recognized and respected names in the cutlery and kitchenware industry. They offer a wide range of products that cater to both professional chefs and home cooks around the world.

The company was founded by Peter Henckels in Solingen, Germany, a city renowned for its blade-making tradition. The is located about 40 km, a short drive north of Cologne, where my great uncle Bim ran Brüder Landauer, a department store. The name “Zwilling” (which means “twin” in German) is the source of the iconic “twin” logo.

Full disclosure, I have dual US and German citizenship but readers can rest assured I would never be biased testing a German product. (Products made in Germany do tend to be pretty good though).

So back to the review. Even though a bread knife review doesn’t seem to elilcit the excitement as a chef’s or carving knife, don’t be fooled. A good bread knife is adaptable to many applications. The Zwilling Z15 Pro 9″ Bread Knife was able to handle just about everything I threw under it–baguettes, artisanal breads and of course tomatoes. (It received “Best Overall” bread knife in a review from Food & Wine).

A scallop pattern, such as the Z15 serration above works if you’re planning to use the knife for a variety of applications. Suffice to say it’s extremely sharp (Courtesy Zwilling)

When I first started using this tool it was so sharp, I literally had retool my technique–in other words “re-educate” my muscle memory. With this knife you don’t have to use much pressure. It’s hefty and robust so the extra weight combined with the sharp cutting edge means the action is more like a violin bow rather than a saw.

For example during mango season part of my routine is to cut up a ripe mango for my breakfast bowl of fruit and yoghurt. I’d gotten used my old chef knife but the Zwilling Pro took things to a different level. It glilded right through the mango–cutting through the pit as if it were the flesh of the fruit! So I had to recallibrate. I also found it useful to cut prunes with the sharp serrations and rounded tip.

Along with “heft” it has an ergonoimcally friendly handle.

The Zwilling Pro glided right throuigh the mango but I had to recallibrate my technique because the blade was so sharp. (Rob Kay photo)

Using it to slice anything was effortless. Price is $139 on Amazon.

Dexter Russell Sani-Safe 8″ Scalloped Bread Knife

Dexter Russell, established in 1818, is also no slouch when it comes to having a notable “cutlery” history. The company was founded by Henry Harrington in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Originally named Harrington Cutlery Company, it was the first cutlery manufacturer in the United States. Nowadays Today, Dexter-Russell is known for its extensive range of professional cutlery and tools used in the food service industry. Dexter-Russell knives are used by chefs, fishermen, butchers, and food service workers, ensuring the company’s legacy continues in kitchens and workplaces around the world.

The Dexter Russell Sani-Safe 8″ Scalloped Bread Knife worked well with most items. For those on a budget, it’s a good bet. (Rob Kay photo)

So what was my experience?

Actually quite good considering the (low) price. The sharp serrations and rounded tip made it easy to slice through just about anything. The plastic handle is not as fancy as a higher priced item but the ergonomics are satisfactory. The blade is flexible compared to the Zwilling Pro but considering that the later is more expensive by a factor of about 5X you’re not going to get Kruppstahl as the Germans used to be fond of saying. Nonetheless (as alluded to above) I found it quite “usable” for bread and just about everything else. One of the nice qualities of this particular knife is that at 8″ it’s easier to manipulate than a larger knife. (I used it the other day to dismember a pig that had died in my snare).

At $23 on Amazon, the Sani-Safe 8″ Scalloped Bread Knife is not going to break the bank.

Mercer Culinary M20508 Genesis 8-Inch Bread Knife

The Genesis 8″ Mercer Culinary breadknife combines German metalurgy (high carbon steel) and Taiwan manufacture (Rob Kay photo)

Mercer Culinary was founded over 30 years ago and has grown to become a leading name in the culinary tools industry. The company is based in Ronkonkoma, New York, and is family-owned. That is often a good sign. Family businesses can provide a commitment to quality and customer satisfaction that larger, public companies may not be able to equal. Mercer Culinary has established a strong presence in the culinary education sector, partnering with many culinary schools and institutions. Not a bad sign either.

The Mercer Culinary M20508 Genesis 8-Inch Bread Knife combines German metalurgy (high carbon steel) with Taiwan-based manufacture. The blade is firm (not wobbly at all) and very, very sharp. The “Santoprene” handle (not certain what that means) is comfortable and feels ergonomically correct. And yeah, it cuts everything quite efficiently. This looks to be a great melding of good technology and inexpensive manufacturing. Taiwanese products are generally very well made.

Yes, folks you can even use a bread knife to cut bread! The Mercer model does a keen job of cutting my rye/spelt loaf. (Rob Kay photo)

At 8″ (of course you can get whatver size you want) I like it for all the reasons I’ve alluded to above. It’s a handy size. The weight and balance feel excellent.

If you don’t want to spend the $100+ for a European-made product, this seems like a good option rather than a “compromise”. I can’t think of anything I dislike about this knife. As a matter of fact, I think it’s a winner. For $40 on Amazon, you can’t go wrong.

Keeping them sharp

Generally, a serrated blade is stays sharp for quite a while longer than a standard blade but of course, it can dull just like any knife. I’ve read that when a serrated blade gets dull you either need to send it back to the manufacturer or, let a pro sharpen it. However, there’s other options.

A company called Knife Aid has a mail-in service in California that will sharpen your knives. They provide a special envelope and you send your items to them. It makes sense if you have high end utensils and don’t have the time or wherewithall to do it yourself.

How often to you need to sharpen? Sharpening your bread knife it every six months or so should be adequate. To do it you’ll need a honing steel or a ceramic hone. You can purchase these from the knife manufacturer or on Amazon. The idea is to sharpen the teeth on your knife (as illustrated in the video above).

The Ken Onion Work Sharp Blade Grinder Attachment is great for deburring the edge of your breadknife. (No we’re not demonstrating a bread knife in this photo). (courtesy Work Sharp)

I’ve used use the Ken Onion “Work Sharp” sharpener for a number of years and I think it’s terrific. (If you are going to get this tool, I also suggest getting their newest version of the tool that comes with a Work Sharp Blade Grinder Attachment).

Once you have completed the task with the honing steel or ceramic rod (as demonstrated by the video) you can deburr your knife with a Blade Grinding Attachment. (See below). 

Sasha Hua, the Work Sharp spokesperson explained that most folding and EDC knives have serrations are ground into the right side of the blade with a flat side on the back (left side with knife in hand looking down onto blade spine). Kitchen bread knives are often ground on the other side, just reverse the method below to accommodate. 

The diagram above shows where to place the bread knife’s blade to deburr the edge.

Conclusion: All of the above products were more than satifactory kitchen tools.

All the knives reviewed were extremely sharp. One of the main differences between the more expensive (Zwilling Pro and Mercer Culinary products) and the Dexter, was the blade rigity. Both of the former had a heft and robustness which lended itself to a stability that the Dexter model didn’t have.

For slicing lime or grapefruit the Dexter’s comparatively flexible blade wasn’t an issue. However if you were cutting something more massive like a watermelon or something really dense, like meat, you’d need a beefier blade.

Off course not everyone can afford a $100+ breadknife. If you are on a budget, the Dexter model would serve you well for most applications.

Rob Kay is a technology columnist for the Honolulu Star Advertiser and the creator of FijiGuide.com.

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