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Best direct-to-consumer kitchen knives in 2021: Made In, Material, Brigade and more

Go ahead, slice out the middleman.

Kitchen knives don't have to be expensive to be good, but quality knives are among the most important purchases a chef will make, right up there with quality cookware. If you're serious about cooking, you should take some time to build a small, deliberate collection or find a preassembled set of sharp and sturdy kitchen knives that will do the job, feel comfortable in your hand and last for years. Direct-to-consumer knives generally give you a bit more bang for your buck, so we've wrapped our fingers around some of the best kitchen knives you can buy online in case you're looking to upgrade your blades. 

Speaking of which, if you're still contemplating whether or not you should spring for a nice set or improve your current kitchen knives, let me save you some trouble. You should. You may use your Dutch oven, cast-iron skillet or pots and pans often but I can almost guarantee you don't use anything as often as your knives, so definitely find some you really love. Personally, I've found that great kitchen knives not only enhance my abilities as a cook but also make the experience of cooking more enjoyable. All of that inspires me to cook more often, which means saving money and eating better, so the butterfly effect from leveling up your kitchen knives may actually be more significant than you'd think. 

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But deciding that you need good knives is the easy part; finding the best kitchen knives in an endless sea of choices takes a bit more work. There are seemingly endless knife brands to choose from, all made in different styles and from different materials and sold at wildly disparate prices. Direct-to-consumer suppliers generally offer quality cutlery at better prices than third-party retailers, even if you're not as familiar with some of these sharp new startups. Even better -- and just our little secret -- you don't really need that 15- or even 10-piece knife set you find in most stores. So instead of plopping down hundreds on a bloated set from the mall, find a few knives or a well-chosen set online that will give your slicing and dicing a serious boost. 

And if you're looking for consumer brands that are more widely available through major retailers, we have you covered with our overall list of best chef's knives

How is direct-to-consumer different?

It's natural to think that less expensive kitchen knives and cookware are somehow inherently lower in quality, but that's not the case with direct-to-consumer knives. Much of the cost of traditional knives and cookware comes by way of distribution and all its inherent costs: marketing, shipping logistics, storefront costs. Products pass through the hands of resellers, distributors and retailers, all of whom add a markup to the base price in order to make money. By the time knives land in a store, the price has increased dramatically and you end up paying a whole lot more than what the knives cost to make. 

The consumer kitchen knife market skips the aforementioned distribution chain, bypassing the middlemen and going straight to the customer. This often means you have to buy the products online (unless the supplier has an outlet or flagship store), but the upside is you're getting the same high-quality goods without added costs.

Types of kitchen knives

As you might imagine, you can buy almost any type of knife directly from these brands, including full knife sets. A more important question you should start with is, What type of knives do I actually need? The answer depends somewhat on the type of cooking you're planning to do. If you are an avid fisherman, for example, who will be preparing your catch regularly, that might require a different set of knives (and skills) than someone who is mostly preparing meal kits from Blue Apron or recipes from a cookbook. That said, there are some knives that you'll absolutely want in your arsenal, and a good chef's knife sits firmly at the top of this list.

Chef's knife: This is the most important and versatile knife you'll own. If you have enough money to buy just one good knife, this is the one to get. Chef's knives are very sharp, with (typically) about an 8-inch blade, but you can find them in bigger and smaller sizes too. A chef's knife can be used for chopping, slicing, mincing, trimming (e.g. fat) and a whole lot more. Chef's knives also generally have a bit of heft but some brands make smaller and lighter versions, as we'll explore in the details below.

Santoku knife: A santoku knife is similar to a chef's knife, with some slight variations. The style is Japanese in origin. While they are usually about the same length as a standard chef's knife or just a little shorter, santoku knives are generally lighter and have a thinner blade with a dull back spine and no sharp tip. The thinner blade aids in more refined slicing and dicing, so if you work with lots of fish or certain types of vegetables, a santoku is nice to have, but you can absolutely get away with just a good chef's knife. Many santoku knives also have what's called a Granton edge -- those small divots or scallops on the blade -- to prevent food from sticking.

Utility knife: These versatile little knives are generally about 4 to 7 inches long, and you can think of a utility knife as being like a mini chef's knife for jobs that require more dexterity. Utility knives are great for getting into tighter spaces and working sharp angles, or for cutting smaller fruits and vegetables with greater precision. You'll want a utility knife if you're looking to make a specific type of cut for aesthetic purposes, too, as with an avocado or tomato for a pretty summer salad. Utility knives can be serrated but are more often not.

Paring knife: Paring knives are similar to utility knives, although generally a bit smaller. They are also great for intricate cuts, as in making garnishes for food or cocktails or taking the seeds out of fruits. You typically don't need both a paring knife and a utility knife, but if a set includes both it's certainly not a bad thing. 

Serrated or bread knife: This one is likely self-explanatory. A long serrated knife is ideal for cutting into soft things like crusty bread or large, ripe tomatoes. You don't need to spend a ton of money on a serrated knife as long as it's functional and feels good in your hand. Chances are you won't need to sharpen it as often either. 

Boning knife: If you don't do a ton of deboning of meats or filleting of fish, this knife may not get a lot of use, but it's nice to have when you need it. The blade is generally a bit more flexible so it can adhere to the curvature of whatever you're working with and get under skin and around bones. Boning knives can also be used to peel fruits and vegetables in a pinch.

Kitchen shears: I have a little secret: After my chef's knife, I probably use kitchen shears more than anything else in my knife block. I love how dexterous they are so you can get right into a stir-fry and cut up any big pieces you missed or trim chicken and other meats safely and in seconds. Though not technically a knife, make sure your new set of blades includes a pair of shears, or buy a pair separately.  

What to look for when buying knives

There are a lot of fancy, flowery adjectives and descriptors floating around when it comes to knife construction, materials and design. Confusing as it may seem, there are really just a few things that are actually important to know and will greatly simplify the knife-buying process.

Blade material: Most knives are made from stainless-steel composite and that's the first thing you should be looking for. Some knives are made from slightly stronger carbon steel but beware: They will rust and stain and if you're not diligent about upkeep they may not be worth it. Ceramic knives are also an option, but they are much more likely to chip or break and prove more difficult to both care for and sharpen -- and a sharp knife blade is essential.

Blade construction: Forged stainless-steel knives are ones that have been crafted from an individual piece of metal and are generally considered to be of better quality and stronger construction. Forged steel knives will also keep their sharp edge for longer (again, no one wants a dull knife). Stamped knives are punched out of a flattened sheet of stainless steel. Stamped knives are generally lighter, weaker and overall lower-quality. They may not hold their edge as well. 

Full tang: This is another construction term to look for when buying knives online or in a store. A full tang means the metal from the blade extends through the length of the handle (you can often see it but if not, be sure to research). A full tang gives you better balance and also more strength and durability against the pressure and torque of daily use.

Handles: The type of handle is more up to your own personal preference with regard to feel, fit and comfort. Wooden handles are beautiful but can wear out faster and might stain or discolor. Metal handles -- often made from aluminum -- are sturdy but not terribly comfortable and can cause your hand to tire and ache faster. I personally like composite handles, which are a mix of synthetic plastics and are the most popular material used by modern knife producers. Composites come in a variety of aesthetics, too, including sheer, matte and bone. They're durable and often comfortable to grip. 

Trying knives you've bought online

There's no substitute for holding a knife in your hand. Most of these direct-to-consumer knife companies are aware of that and so offer risk-free home trials, which we wholly encourage you to take advantage of. We'll call out the specifics in each description, but most allow you to try the knives for at least 30 days and then send them back if they're not to your satisfaction.

So, are you ready? Grab your cutting board and ready the knife block; here are the best direct-to-consumer kitchen knives for 2021. We update this list periodically.

The best direct-to-consumer knives for 2021

Made In

Made In is our favorite direct-to-consumer cookware brand, but it makes some excellent kitchen knives too. The 8-inch chef's knife ($89) is on the heavier side (which I happen to like) and feels solid in your hand while still affording plenty of dexterity for whatever job you've got in front of you. These knives are also sharp -- probably the sharpest on the list, in fact. 

Beyond the sleek chef's knife, Made In sells a 7-inch santoku knife ($99), as well as a paring knife and serrated utility knife duo. Each is made from fully forged, nitrogen-treated steel and sports a full tang through the handle. The full set of four knives, available in red, black and gray, is $275 and can be paid for in installments. You'll have 45 days from delivery to return your knives if you're not satisfied.

Material Kitchen

Material Kitchen is another producer of DTC cookware -- including some frying pans we really dig. The brand also makes sturdy kitchen knives you can order directly and are my top pick for the best affordable 3-piece kitchen knife set with all the essentials. 

Though it's a full 8 inches long, Material Kitchen's chef's knife is a bit slimmer and lighter than those from Made In and a few others in the category. It has a smooth composite handle with a matte finish and is very comfortable to grip. The 8-inch chef's knife clocks in at just $75, while the 6-inch serrated utility knife goes for $60 and the paring knife, which they call the "Almost Knife," sells for $50. You can get the trio of kitchen knives for $155

Beyond the knives, Material offers a pair of sturdy kitchen shears and a sharpener. The knives are available in four colors: black, bone white, blush pink and gray. Material Kitchen will allow you to try the knives for 30 days risk-free. You can also add a knife sharpener ($15) or a handsome blade stand ($75) -- a must for keeping your new knives sharp and available, in walnut or black.

Misen

Misen has a small collection of impressive knives made from a material called Aichi AUS-10 steel, which has a higher carbon content. That means these knives should theoretically be a bit stronger than others in the category. The knives also have a good heft if that's what you're looking for. There is also something about the ergonomic blade and design of Misen's blades and also the soft matte finish of their blue, black or gray handles that we just love. 

Misen's 8-inch chef's knife goes for a reasonable $65, but the brand also makes a santoku (also $65), a larger-than-normal utility knife ($45), a paring knife ($30) and serrated bread knife ($60). The Misen Essentials Set features the chef's knife, paring knife and serrated knife all for just $130, which is a good price for three quality knives. The full set of five Misen kitchen knives will run you $200.

Brigade Kitchen

Brigade Kitchen makes some of our favorite DTC stainless-steel cookware, but it also churns out some pretty solid kitchen knives made from premium steel. Brigade doesn't yet offer a chef's knife, but it has an 8-inch santoku knife with a dimpled blade for easy food release. The santoku runs for $75 and has good heft (8 ounces) with a full tang through the black composite handle. It's definitely heavier than most santoku and chef's knives so if you left some weight, this is a good all-purpose knife. You can also get a paring knife for $45 or a bundle of both for $99. Brigade will let you try its knives risk-free for 60 days.

Aura

The clear splurge knife on our list, an Aura chef's knife is as beautiful as it is strong and sharp and would make a seriously great gift for yourself or a chef you love. The California-based knife brand crafts chef knives and chef knives only, and so has gotten darn good at it -- you'll have to look elsewhere for your bread, utility and boning knives. 

These knives, which double as works of art, feel incredibly strong and sturdy but with a lightness that allows you to operate with extreme precision. This unique combination of strength and lightness comes by way of implanted gemstone counterweights that promote excellent balance. Aura's kitchen knives were also the sharpest of the knives I tried, on par with Made In's very, very sharp chef's knife. 

Aura's chef's knife comes in just one size, the 6.7-inch Chakra, and it retails for $625. You can, however, choose from a number of beautiful handle color schemes, including ones made from redwood, onyx, turquoise and California buckeye burl wood. The brand makes some lofty claims about the blades, most of which checked out when I tested one in real life: A nonlinear blade profile, for example, is supposed to "promote less friction" and easy release, which I found to be true in comparison with the other knives. This is an extremely high-performance chef's knife with a price tag to match.

Potluck

If you're not looking to spend a lot of dough but need some serviceable kitchen knives, these Potlucks will do the trick. This is the only set of stamped knives on our list, meaning they're cut from a sheet of metal and not individually forged. This means they'll almost certainly be a little less sharp and sturdy over time, but they still score solid reviews from online buyers and Potluck has free returns on all orders in case they don't measure up. 

The set of three knives clocks in at just $60: That gets you an 8-inch chef's knife, a 10-inch bread knife and a 3.5-inch paring knife.