It is very difficult to find an answer to the question, “What is a bread knife used for?” or “Why do they call them to bread knives?” or “Who invented the bread knife?” However, this is not a question we asked, it is one we asked, and asked, and asked. We did not come up with it, we have just been asking it.
It is not a question we have been answering either.
So how did it get started?
What Is A Bread Knife?
A bread knife is a long knife with a serrated (or “scalloped”) cutting edge.
What a bread knife will do is enable you to slice bread without squishing it. Its large serrations allow it to grip the crumb and the crust of bread to cut it, without having to press down on the bread to do so. Straight-edge knives have to press into bread to gain an initial purchase to start cutting.
What a bread knife won’t do is guarantee you even slices. Even with a good bread knife, some people still cut bread so crooked that their spouses are tempted to run out and buy them a miter box.
Right-handed bread knives have serrations on the left side of the blade (to counteract the pull to the right your hand does and help you keep the slices straight.) A left-handed bread knife, for the same reason, has the serrations on the right side.
The longer the bread knife, the truer the cut, and the more versatile it is for all shapes of bread, even round ones. Ideally, look for one 22 to 25 cm (9 to 10 inches) long. You will never regret having one too long.
You can get some bread knives that look like a fiddle bow. The blades on these, however, are easier to snap if someone uses the knife for the wrong purpose, and the knife has no real end to finish the slice off with.
You can also get electric, cordless ones.
Bread knives usually never need sharpening. Should you wish to try sharpening one at home, you need a “crock-stick” ceramic sharpening rod. You draw the blade’s serrated side down along the rod. It should take 3 to 4 passes, but test for sharpness after each pass.
Bread knives are also good for many other softer food items such as tomatoes, meatloaf fresh from the oven, etc. Many swear by them as well for cutting melons (including watermelon) and pineapple, too.
Whether or not bread knives are dishwasher safe generally depends on the handle. Some need handwashing if the handle is wood and preserving the look and long-life of the wood is important to you.
One such knife was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago by the Friedrich Dick company (Esslingen, Germany). One design was patented in the United States by Joseph E. Burns of Syracuse, New York.
His knife had sections of grooves or serrations, inclined with respect to the axis of the blade, that form individual small cutting edges which were perpendicular to the blade and thus cut without the excessive normal pressure required of a scalloped blade and without the horizontal force required by positive-raked teeth that would dig into the bread as a wood saw.
There were also sections of grooves with the opposite direction of inclination, separated by a section of the smooth blade, and the knife thus cut cleanly in both directions in both hard and soft bread.
What is a Bread Knife Used For?
This might be obvious, but you can use a bread knife to slice all kinds of bread, from baguettes and brioche to bagels and biscuits. It’s also the perfect tool for shaping and leveling cakes for decorating, along with cutting delicate slices to serve.
Tougher foods are no match for a bread knife either. Melons and squash, which can trap straight-edged knives and pose a cutting hazard to cooks, are easily sliced with a long bread knife.
Prepping other fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes or pineapple, is also a good occasion to break out your bread knife. In a pinch, it can even be used to slice meatloaf and carve roasts!
Why You Need a Bread Knife
Bread knives occupy a niche role in your kitchen blade arsenal. You won’t use a bread knife nearly as often as a chef’s knife, the true workhorse of the kitchen, but for a limited set of tasks, they are necessary. What defines them is their serrated blade, which gives them a saw-toothed edge that can make quick work of some of the most rugged items, and also the most delicate ones.
The primary job of a bread knife is to slice bread. A good bread knife should saw through a tough crust without mangling or compressing the tender crumb within. Other knives are often not a good choice for this, since very hard crusts can damage finely sharpened blade edges, while any blade that isn’t sharp enough may require too much downward pressure, crushing the airy bread in the process. Bread knives are similarly useful for related tasks, such as leveling the delicate and tender layers of a cake.
Unless you keep your other knives extremely sharp, a bread knife is often your best bet for successfully slicing through a ripe tomato without destroying it. Thanks to their teeth, bread knives fly right through tomato skin without requiring you to press down and risk crushing the delicate flesh underneath. Bread knives are also handy for cutting thick-skinned melons and tough winter squash, since their teeth can cruise through sturdy, resistant peels where other knives often get stuck and fail.
A straight-edged slicing knife is great for carving big pieces of meat, like a prime rib or brisket, but most of us don’t carve enough large roasts at home to warrant giving it the extra space in a knife drawer. A bread knife makes a fine stand-in.
Types of Bread Knives
There are a handful of design considerations when you’re choosing a bread knife.
The first is length. The blades I tested ranged from a short seven inches all the way up to a little more than 10 inches. Because some of the foods you’re likely to cut with a bread knife can be quite large, like big loaves of bread and watermelons, I recommend choosing a knife of at least nine inches.
Next is shape: Most bread knives are straight, with the handle in line with the blade, but some are offset so that the blade is positioned lower than the handle.
This is because most bread knife blades are thin, which gives little to no clearance for your fingers when the blade is close to the cutting board. This can sometimes cause your knuckles to grind against the board for the last few strokes when you’re slicing through a loaf.
In my tests, though, the performance of the offset knives wasn’t good enough to recommend them, even though I otherwise like that design. (That said, if you find one you like, go for it.)
The good news is that my two top picks performed so well that I never had an issue with my knuckles hitting the board. It helps that they both have long blades, which allows you to position your hand off the board while the blade reaches whatever you’re cutting with ease.
The third consideration is the shape of the serrated edge itself. All of the knives I tested had the much more common pointy-toothed edge, but some people are fans of the less common wavy-shaped design.
I have a couple of wavy serrated knives at home, and they’ve always been fine, but not special enough to convince me that it’s an inherently superior shape.
What amazed me the most was how big a gap in performance I observed, even between pointy-tipped serrated knives that seemed nearly indistinguishable to my eye.
Two knives with serrations that looked almost exactly alike could perform wildly differently, one doing an amazing job and the other a terrible one.
Cook’s Illustrated analyzed the serration shape in their tests (warning: paywall) and found that knives with more widely spaced teeth tended to perform better.
That may be, though I held all my knife blades side by side and could hardly see an obvious spacing difference in most cases.
Another important consideration, especially if you’re thinking about cost, is maintenance: A bread knife can be honed by running each scallop up and down along honing steel (a laborious task!), but its serrated edge is much more difficult to actually sharpen than those of other knives.
This is as true for a $200 knife as it is for a $30 one. You could send it off to be professionally sharpened, or possibly attempt to do it yourself, but I tend to think that’s more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, my advice for most people is simply to replace their bread knife when they notice that its edge has started to wear out.
Because I know I’ll be replacing my bread knife from time to time, I never spend too much on one.
What To Look For in a Bread Knife?
Not only will bread knives slice through soft yeast bread and crusty artisan loaves, they’re also the blade of choice for delicate cakes, pastries, and biscotti, slicing tomatoes and soft fruits, trimming a pineapple or melons, cutting cheese, slicing salami, shredding lettuce and cabbage, and for carving up roast meats and poultry. A resourceful performer indeed!
So if you’re in the market for a new loaf knife, read along as we delve into the details of this handy slicer..
Why a Serrated Edge?
Serrated knives, with their scalloped, jagged edge, are ideal for cutting through foods with a hard exterior and soft interior – like a loaf of crusty bread.
The principle behind a serrated knife is similar to that of a saw – the teeth of the blade sink into the surface, then slice smoothly as the knife is pushed and pulled through food.
Serrated blades are effective on foods that are hard, slippery, or squishy because of their ability to pierce into surfaces that a straight edge can’t make a proper purchase on.
As the tips pierce the food, the gullets (the space between the teeth) reduce friction as the blade is moved in a back and forth motion.
The gullets are what give the serrated edge the ability to cut without ripping or tearing. Less friction means a faster cut, less drag, and it also keeps the blade slicing on the intended plane – not traveling off at an oblique angle.
Types Of Serration
When considering a loaf knife, you’ll want to have a good look at the tooth line because the shape and number of teeth will produce somewhat different results.
The design of the serrations will vary from brand to brand as well. Some will have a gentle, scalloped edge with rounded tips, while others will have a more aggressive profile with sharper, almost hook-like points.
Sharp, aggressive teeth usually require a bit less pressure from the user, and they’ll often pierce a hard crust better than rounded ones; however, they also create more crumbs.
The number of teeth will have an impact as well. Some will be tightly packed along the tooth line, while others will have the teeth spaced further apart.
The number of serrations is determined by the number of teeth per inch or TPI – and basically, the lower the number, the rougher the cut will be.
With fewer teeth, the space between them – or the gullet – is greater. This detail is important because the size of the gullet is what determines how smoothly the knife will travel while cutting. The bigger the gullet, the greater the cut, and the easier the blade moves.
Blade Shape & Length
The overall shape of the blade is another consideration. Some will be curved, with the tip and/or handle lifting up slightly from the blade heel, while others will be straight and true.
Because of the back and forth cutting action, a curved blade gives better knuckle clearance as you reach the final strokes of a cut – which should always be finished with a pull, not a push. This is a nice feature for those with large hands, as it helps to prevent rapping fingers against the cutting board.
A curved blade also makes it easier to see what you’re doing, which gives better control and results in fewer slicing mishaps.
The length of the blade is another consideration. Blade length will usually fall into a range of between 8 and 11 inches. And naturally, the longer the blade, the fewer times you’ll need to saw back and forth to finish a cut.
Longer blades also allow for easier cutting of artisan loaves and baguettes, and greater length also makes them more effective for carving roasted proteins.
Sharpening Serrated Blades
Knives with a serrated edge are typically ground on one side only with a single bevel, like a chisel. This gives a very sharp edge and a more precise cut for thin, even slices.
There’s a lot of talk online about serrated knives being difficult to sharpen – to the point where many websites and forums advocate tossing them when they get dull. Nonsense!
A simple and affordable tool like a DMT Diafold Serrated Knife Sharpener will easily sharpen the teeth. This one is diamond coated so it’ll tackle both hard Japanese steel and the softer European alloys.
Easy to use, a cone sharpener will fit all types of serrations as it’s tapered from a broader base to a fine tip. Just find the spot on the cone that fits your gullet, lay it on the blade and pull towards you, away from the knife edge. This does a fine job of restoring a keen edge.
True, it does take a bit of patience to sharpen a sawtooth edge, but it’s better than buying a cheap, ineffective model just to dispose of it when it becomes dull.
If you take care of your blades before they get completely dull, you can get away with just purchasing the extra-fine model shown above.. However, if you do let them start to get dull, you may want to look into also purchasing the fine sharpener.
They are also available in coarse for those whose tools are more prone to wear and tear, with kids or for those who may use their blades as gardening tools.
Okay, now that we know a bit about serrated bread knives, let’s move into the reviews.
When To Use It?
Whether freshly baked or several days old the bread knife can handle cutting straight and smooth with ease. Soft white bread or crusty artisan bread poses no problems for a bread knife.
Bread is not the only use for this knife – it is great for cutting through both soft cakes (sponge) and dense cakes (pound cakes) even when freshly baked.
Hard skin fruit like pineapple or vegetables like pumpkin can also be peeled with the bread knife so long as one is careful not to flex the blade.
Best Bread Knife
In addition to slicing bread, bagels, and rolls, your bread knife can also slice through tough-skinned bell peppers and tomatoes.
The serrated blade will gently cut through a tougher skin without crushing the juicy interior. It is also great for cutting away the rind of watermelons, honeydew. And it’s perfect for slicing other baked goods, such as cakes.
Bread knife was designed with a straight blade section on the front and back end of the blade. The idea behind it its that the straight edge easily cuts through hard crusts while the serrated center section grips and smoothly slices the bread.
The result is that the Bread knife makes a very clean cut, creating beautifully thin slices with minimal crumbs.