Let’s talk about… bread knives

“What’s there to talk about?” you ask? “Aren’t all bread knives the same? Long, serrated blade, their job is to cut breads?”
Yes, kinda, but that’s not all there is, and after my Rugbrød adventure, and the expected challenge of cutting it properly, I feel the urge to explain a few things.

I’ve met people who were experienced bakers, but relatively new to bread baking and stopped doing it after a short time, because their homemade bread always turned out crumbly. They asked about troubleshooting the ingredients, the dough, the baking process, everything under the sun, and in the end it was just the wrong knife or a very dull bread knife.

Not all knives are created equally

You can get many different bread knives, the range goes from the 20€ supermarket knife with a flimsy plastic handle up to the 4.000€ handforged ones with super smooth, handmade (exotic) wood handles. But what you end up buying shouldn’t just depend on your budget, you should also think about the main usage of your future bread knife.

Pick the right tool for the right job

There isn’t a satisfying one for all solution with tools. There are many that are very versatile, but they’ll eventually encounter a job where the result isn’t satisfactory anymore. You wouldn’t use an electric drill to drill holes into important papers, despite its main job being drilling holes into things. You’d use a hole puncher. It’s the same with knives. Different knives have different jobs, and they excel at doing what they’re meant to do. It’s not the serrated knife’s fault if it turns the danish rye bread into a pile of crumbs. It’s not the Grand Moulin’s or the Pano’s fault if you use them to spread butter on a roll and cut your fingers in the process. They are just not the right tool for those jobs!

I have gotten a few bread knives over the years and I’d like to show you the differences. It shouldn’t imply that you need all those, just… if you’re in the market for something new, think before you buy.

This is my very first bread knife, part of a set of 5 kitchen knives I got nearly 30 years ago. It isn’t the cheapest knife, but it’s very obviously industrially made. The cutting edge is short and the angle is wide, which makes it kinda dull in comparison to my favorite, which I’ll show you next. It’s still a very good bread knife, just needs a bit more muscle to use. Seriously, I wouldn’t even notice if I hadn’t bought that other one.
Things you should look for when you buy a bread knife:

  • The knife should be lightweight and well balanced. Especially if you cut a lot of crusty breads, a stainless steel handle can get really heavy very quickly.
  • A stainless steel blade is easy to clean and doesn’t need any special treatment.
  • Your bread knife should have an ergonomic grip that’s comfortable in your hand.
  • A good knife has no gaps between blade, bolster and grip. It should be seamless.
  • Very cheap bread knives have a blade with a bit of a metal “tail” that’s then stuck in a plastic grip. If that handle breaks, you’ll probably have to buy a new knife. You buy cheap, you buy twice.
  • If possible, buy a bread knife that has blade and grip made from one piece of metal and two pieces of wood attached to it with rivets. Those handles can actually be repaired if they get damaged.

My old bread knife cuts nearly everything that’s bread without a problem, but makes a bit of a mess with very crispy crusts like baguette. Makes a very big mess with things like Danish Rye Bread and German Pumpernickel. Definitely not the right tool for those kinds of things.

Downsides: none really, it’s just a normal bread knife, it does what it should do.

The Grand Moulin, my pride and joy and absolute favorite. This is a cutting edge (pun intended) bread knife. It’s made by an old and renowned manufacture here in Germany, one of the few that have masters of the old trade. You can see the thin, hand polished blade. The knife feels huge, is formed like a machete to follow the natural movement of the hand during the cutting process, and it’s the sharpest thing I ever had in the kitchen. It’s lightweight, the blade is super thin stainless steel, and got a special polishing treatment called “blaupließten” that was traditionally used to make carbon knives less susceptible to rust. If you have a carbon knife with a super thin blade that has a blueish or a rainbow like sheen, then you probably have such a high end knife. If a stainless steel knife gets the “blaupließten” polish, it’s like making that knife non-stick. It just slides through everything. With that knife, you can actually achieve a clean cut through cakes with cream filling that’s mixed with fruit, without freezing stuff first! It goes right through. Cuts that blueberry beesting cake like a laser!

I love this knife and it’s as multipurpose as a bread knife can be. It cuts everything bread and cake with very little mess. I wouldn’t use it for rolls or burger buns though, because it makes a really big mess if fingers or palms are in the way. Cuts barely hurt though, it’s that sharp!

The downsides to this knife:
It’s super sharp. I haven’t yet managed to wash or dry it without cutting my kitchen towels, and I’ve had it for nearly 3 years and use it daily. I wouldn’t let a kid use it!
The blade is super thin, so you have to make sure you cut properly through the whole slice without turning your wrist or forcing the knife sideways to get the slice away from the bread before it’s all sliced. Otherwise you could really mess up the blade.
It’s pricey! It’s far away from the 4.000 € range, but 230-260€ depending on the wood for the handle is still something I had to budget for.

This one’s called Pano, made by the same manufacture that made the Grand Moulin and it’s actually part of a set of cheese knives (a very guilty pleasure, my only excuse is that I had a voucher for the shop). This one is for the breads going with a cheese or charcuterie board and its specialty is thin, splintery crusts like french baguette and breads riddled with additions like nuts, seeds or fruit. The blade is equally thin as the Grand Moulin’s one, but has the wave cut upside down and it has both sides ground, so it’s for righties as well as lefties. It doesn’t have the high end polish though, “only” the regular one called “feinpließten” which is way more than any industrial knife ever gets.

Downsides: it’s super sharp and super thin. Same problems as the Grand Moulin, though not quite as hard on my dish towels.

These are the ones I use for rolls, burger buns, and grilled cheese. The bigger ones are actually steak knives from Ikea (bottom blade pic), but they make great bread knives, and the smaller ones are just everyday serrated household knives (top blade pic). They actually came in that pack of six. They have all very finely serrated, sharp blades that are dull enough to cut the rolls and buns in my hand without needing an ambuance, sturdy enough to scrape cold butter, and cheap enough that I don’t care when they fall down. These ones don’t need to be babied at all. They all live in the same drawer compartment and regularly end up in the dishwasher (which is really bad!).
The colored ones are also great for scoring bread dough. I actually prefer them over razor blades.

And this is the last one. Doesn’t look like it, but it’s officially a bread knife. It’s called a Hamburger, (Hamburg Bread Knife), and it has a straight, super thin carbon blade. It’s made to cut breads in your hand, like saw a slice from a loaf in front of your chest. Same manufacture as the others, but “only” got the normal manufacture polishing called “feinpließten” and needs to be oiled after cleaning so it doesn’t attract rust. It works best with soft breads or properly cured rye or rye mix breads. It was the best option for slicing the Rugbrød. It’s not super super sharp, you can actually use it to cut bread towards your chest without having to fear mutilation, but it can very easily be re-sharpened by sliding it over the bottom of a coffee cup.

Downsides: super thin, needs to be babied a bit, can’t cut hard crusts

Treat your tools with respect

If you want to enjoy your knives for a long time and keep them in best working condition, you have to treat them properly. It’s not hard, it’s just a few things you have to keep in mind.

  • Learn proper cutting technique! Use a smooth sawing motion instead of just pressing down, and cut through the whole slice instead of turning your wrist or pressing sideways and kind of breaking the pieces apart before you’re done cutting. That’s a habit that can severely mess with the knife’s edge, and if you’re using a thin bladed carbon knife, you can actually break the blade that way.
  • Use a cutting board, preferably made from wood. Plastic would also be ok for the knife. Sure, glass, marble or sheet rock looks fancy and is often prised for being the more hygienic option. It’s not. Wood contains tannins that have natural antibacterial properties while glass and stone are just too hard and the best way to dull your knife really quickly.
  • Hand wash your knives right after using them. They have no business going into he dishwasher. The detergent used there is aggressive, stains carbon, messes up wooden handles, and dulls the edge of every knife.
  • Carbon steel is slightly porous and rust can get hold pretty quickly when it gets wet. If your carbon knife got the special treatment of “blaupließten”, it’s not as susceptible, but it’ll still rust. So always dry your carbon knives carefully and apply a very thin layer of oil before you store them somewhere dry and safe. Don’t leave them outside in the rain or snow.
  • Store your knives in a place where they don’t get bumped by dozens of other kitchen gadgets all the time. You really don’t want nicks in the cutting edge or scratches all over the blade. Get a knife block or a magnetic knife strip for the wall.
  • Don’t use your bread knife to cut up frozen stuff. It can probably do it, but the blade will definitely suffer.
  • Resharpen your blades before they actually get dull. Keep a bit of a maintenance routine.

If you’re still with me, wow! Thank you for enduring that ramble. I’ll make it shorter next time, promise!

One response to “Let’s talk about… bread knives”

  1. Wow! Thank you, thank you. I’ve needed a good knife for a while, and have been paralyzed by all the information running around out there. This is the most concise and practical information I have found. Now can consider what I am looking for and make a good decision, not a mistake!

    Liked by 1 person

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