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Even for those who spend little time cooking, the most valuable tool in the kitchen is a good knife. And because no single knife can perform all the necessary tasks needed, a knife set is a sound investment. The right set of knives can make the difference between properly diced carrots and a disastrous-looking salad. But that’s not all. Properly sharpened, a good set of knives can provide a measure of safety that keeps home cooks out of the emergency room.
When selecting the right knife set, you must take into account a number of issues, not the least of which is your skill level. A chef with CIA training requires a different set of kitchen knives than a home cook whose biggest chore is preparing Sunday dinner for the family.
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If you’re in the market for a kitchen knife set, we invite you to take a look at our five recommendations in the matrix above. To learn more about selecting the right knife set for your needs, please read on.
Manufacturers of kitchen knife sets are a competitive lot. For this reason, there is no standard number of pieces you can expect in a knife set. Knives come in sets of as few as four and as many as 19. Larger knife sets may include a knife block and a tool for sharpening your blades, such as a stone or even an electric honer.
As you evaluate your options, keep in mind that most kitchen knife sets include the following.
This is a do-it-all knife with a blade that is typically about five inches long. A utility knife does a little bit of everything, including basic chopping and dicing.
Born and raised in Paris, the land of unapologetic butter, Francois has spent the last 20 years shaping the American culinary world behind the scenes. He was a buyer at Williams-Sonoma, built the Food Network online store, managed product assortments for Rachael Ray's site, started two meal delivery businesses and runs a successful baking blog. When he's not baking a cake or eating his way through Europe, Francois enjoys sharing cooking skills with cooks of all levels. Rules he lives by: "Use real butter" and "Nothing beats a sharp knife."
With a blade of nine inches or slightly less, a chef’s knife is used for chopping, dicing, and mincing.
A helpful addition to any kitchen, this knife with a three-inch blade is used for peeling, cutting, and trimming handheld foods such as potatoes.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Chicago Cutlery Fusion Forged, 18-Piece
Eight of the knives featured in the Chicago Cutlery set are steak knives, and there's a sharpening steel (which we think is a vital piece of equipment), leaving eight other knives as follows: a 3-inch peeler, 3.25-inch parer, 5-inch utility knife, 5-inch partoku, 7-inch Santoku, 7.75-inch bread knife, 7.75-inch chef's knife, and 8-inch slicer. For those who haven't come across Santoku knives before, they're an Asian design with a flat cutting profile and scalloped surfaces, intended for cutting very thin slices.
Bread knives come in various lengths, but all bread knives have serrated blades that make it easy to slice even the densest of breads.
With a very sharp blade, a fillet knife is useful if you are cutting an entire fish into serving sizes.
The metal that a knife is made from impacts how long it lasts and stays sharp. This is a product for which brand matters. Mosts knife sets also come with a steel sharpener for honing the knives.
While primarily used to cut and trim various meats and poultry items, a cleaver can be used to finely mince herbs.
A carving knife is used for slicing meat and poultry into serving-sized portions.
Aimed at experienced cooks, there are some additional specialty knives to consider. You could buy one of these in addition to your set, or you could look for a set that includes them.
Originated in Japan, the Santoku knife is an all-purpose knife that is often between 13 and 20 inches in length. A Santoku knife is designed to work in harmony with a variety of foods and is used to slice, cut, and mince.
Cheese, Fruit, and Tomato Knives
These task-oriented knives come with special features that make the cutting or peeling of a given food item easier. For example, fruit and tomato knives may have slightly curved, serrated blades that gently cut through skin or peels.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Mercer Culinary Renaissance, 6-Piece
Many of the world's top cutlery manufacturers use high-carbon German steel (regardless of where the knives are actually made), and it's the main component of each Mercer Culinary Renaissance kitchen knife. Blade and tang are of a one-piece construction; this is a true forging, which you can see if you look at the backs of the blades. The steel runs in a continuous line all the way to the end of the handle. The two halves are sandwiched around the steel and then riveted in place. Mercer's attention to detail is underlined by NSF certification, a food hygiene standard that isn't just granted once but is regularly reassessed. The handles are made of POM (polyoxymethylene), a particularly durable thermoplastic often used in precision engineering.
Grip is very important when it comes to selecting the right kitchen knife set. You may wish to visit a retail store where you can hold a knife in your hands to gauge the feel of it. The right fit enhances chopping/cutting efficiency and reduces your chance of injury during food prep.
In addition to grip, here are some other things to look for in a knife set.
The hilt is the point where the handle and blade come together. Chefs often grip this part of the knife to aid their precision, so the hilt should feel comfortable in the hand. It should be thick and solid with no gaps where food can get trapped, and it should also be easy to clean.
The santoku knife has scallops called granton edges, which add air between the blade and the food being cut. This makes it easier for the food to fall from the blade.
A knife used for chopping will either feel light or heavy in your hands. Lightweight knives are right for chopping lightweight ingredients such as tomatoes and garlic. Heavy knifes are better-suited for chopping meats, nuts, and ginger.
The best knives are made of a single piece of steel. Knives in which the steel blade has been welded into the handle can become weak. As the knife wears down or is exposed to water during cleaning, this weakness could lead to injury.
The weight of a knife should feel equal, or balanced, throughout. A balanced knife is easier to manipulate and requires less effort overall.
The best knives have handles made of a hard material such as hardwood, strong plastic, or tough resin. Handles made of bone or other soft materials may look attractive, but they are brittle and can break easily.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
Zwillings J.A. Henckels Twin Signature 19-Piece Knife Block Set
The Zwilling J.A. Henckels receives raves for its Twin Signature blades. Manufactured from premium carbon and steel materials, the blades are Friodur ice-hardened. They are lighter than many other premium knives, as they are stamped rather than forged. The knives are covered by a lifetime warranty and are deemed to be dishwasher safe, although that is not the best way to keep them clean. The manufacturer recommends that the knives be washed and dried by hand immediately after use.
Which blade material is best?
One school of thought supports the use of ceramic blades, as they can be easily sharpened and will hold their sharpness for a long time. Also, ceramic blades do not rust.
However, ceramic blades have been known to break, and top-quality ceramic blades are very expensive. They also must be sent to the manufacturer for periodic sharpening.
Options other than ceramic include carbon steel, stainless steel, high-carbon stainless steel, and forged blades.
Carbon steel blades are known for maintaining sharpness, but they can rust.
Stainless steel blades vary in quality, with cheaper ones becoming dull rather easily.
High-carbon stainless steel blades are a good option. You can get a good high-carbon stainless steel knife at a reasonable price.
Forged blades (made from a single piece of steel) are better than stamped blades, because the forging renders the metal stronger.
Even though certain manufacturers say their knives are dishwasher safe, professionals agree that washing your knives in the dishwasher will drastically reduce their lifespan. If, for the sake of convenience, you absolutely must clean your knives in the dishwasher, buy affordable models you'll be willing to replace every few years.
To maintain the blades of your knives, it is smart to buy both a honing steel and a sharpening stone. Steel helps maintain a good edge, but if the edge goes blunt, a stone will bring it back to life.
Always slice away from your hands, and never use any part of your hand – especially the palm – as a cutting surface.
The best way to clean your kitchen knives is by hand-washing them with soap and water. Cleaning your knives right after usage minimizes the amount of food that will stick to the blades.
When cleaning your knives, keep the blade pointed away from you (and your hands). After washing the knives with a sponge or dishcloth, lay them flat on a countertop and gently dry each side.
You’re more likely to find knives with lifetime warranties in the $200+ price range.
Are you hoping to shed fewer tears the next time you slice an onion? One trick is to use a very sharp knife. A sharp knife slices cleaner through the cell walls of the onion, minimizing your chance of having a reaction.
If you see food stuck to a knife blade, soak it in a small amount of water to loosen the particles. Then, holding the knife away from you, scrub the food lightly until it comes off.
Never use a kitchen knife on a glass, steel, or ceramic cutting board. Not only will this practice harm the knife, but it will put small pieces of the board into your food. For best results, select a cutting board made of wood or strong, food-safe plastic.
When mincing, keep the tip of the blade on the cutting board. Move your hands in a pumping motion while watching your fingers to keep them out of the way.
Never use a steak knife for kitchen prep work.
Never slice anything over the sink while holding it in your hands.
A common mistake is to use the blade edge of a knife to sweep food off the cutting board. It’s better to turn the knife over and use the spine to move things around, as this action will not ruin the blade.
One key factor in picking the right knife set is knowing how long you intend the set to last. A more expensive set will last a lifetime if properly taken care of.
For those who are just beginning to equip their kitchens, there are many high-quality stainless steel kitchen knife sets in this price range to choose from. Some will come with as many as 14 pieces plus a sharpening stone and holder. While these sets may look good and perform fairly well, stainless steel blades require a lot of care. Many owners complain about their tendency to rust.
Never put a high-quality knife in the dishwasher. This will erode the knife’s durability and diminish the value of your investment.
As we move up in price, we move up in quality. Knife sets in this price range tend to be forged steel with high-quality carbon and steel.
However, in this category, you are unlikely to get more than six knives in a set plus a holder.
Using a honing tool on your knives can extend their longevity. What’s more, if you use a honing tool before or after each use, you’ll find yourself needing to get your knives professionally sharpened less often than if you were to skip the honing tool.
You’ll find knives with blades and handles made of premium materials in this price range. The blades tend to be made of forged steel, and the handles generally have three rivets to ensure strength and durability.
Products from well-known knife manufacturers like Henckels and Zwilling are found in this price range.
Q. Where should I store my knives if they don’t come with a knife block? Can I place them in a drawer?
A. It’s not a good idea to store sharp knives loose in a drawer. First and foremost, you or someone else could inadvertently reach inside and sustain an injury. In addition, the knives may become dull via inadvertent contact with other items in the drawer.
If a knife block isn’t included with your knife set purchase, it’s possible to buy a knife block separately. Knife block storage is one of the best ways to safely store your knives.
Q. What is an electric knife?
A. Powered by a small motor, an electric knife is made up of two serrated blades that are hooked together. When the appliance is turned on, the blades move back and forth to provide the sawing action. Electric knives are not typically sold in sets.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.