Best Knife Set Buyer’s Guide
Finding the Best Kitchen Knives
You don’t need to be a professional chef to enjoy the benefits of owning the best kitchen knives. Even a person who only cooks meals on the weekend needs a set of kitchen cutlery that can make short work of any cutting task it is asked to do.
Prior to starting your search, it’s important that you assess the types of cooking you will do most, then use that assessment to determine the blade types that will best help you do that type of cooking. A person who cooks a lot of vegetables won’t see much use out of a cleaver, while a person who cooks a lot of meats will see it as an indispensable tool. For this reason, the best kitchen knives for one person aren’t necessarily going to be the best for someone else.
A lot of the things we’re going to discuss are going to come down to personal preference. It’s up to you to decide what you prefer. There is no magical blade that’s going to be able to handle every task you ask of it with ease. However, if you get the right set, it can feel magical in the kitchen, making cutting chores more fun than they are work.
One warning–when you make the switch from your old, dull knives, be very careful the first few times you use them. Unless you’re cooking a recipe that calls for fingertips, you need to go slow until you get used to the speed at which they will slice through food items. What used to require significant force is going to be a heck of a lot easier, and applying the same amount of force you’re used to applying in order to get your old blades to cut will often result in injury. Especially if you’re one of those people who use their fingers or thumbs to stop the blade.
Having said that, once you get used to your new set, you’ll actually be safer. Slicing right through foods instead of fighting your way through requires significantly less force and the best kitchen knives are less prone to slippage. They are also less prone to breakage as long as you follow the advice set forth in this guide and buy the right set for you. Using the proper cutlery in the proper situation goes a long way towards ensuring you and your set lasts as long as possible.
While I could easily bury this section at the end of the guide like most sites do, I decided to put it front and center. The reason why I did this is because even the best kitchen knives won’t last very long if they aren’t properly cared for. That’s the main reason you see a few complaints about discolored or dull blades on sites like Amazon that allow reviews. If you see that the majority of reviewers have given positive reviews and there are a few complaints about discoloration, take those complaints with a grain of salt. There isn’t a metal blade on the planet that won’t discolor or start to rust if left wet and dirty for long enough.
If you aren’t willing to take proper care of your cutlery, it’s probably best that you stick to the cheaper sets. A good set may be able to endure marginally more abuse, but the return on your investment will be minimal. Abuse them, and you’ll find your high-end set is every bit as dull and unusable as your old knives were. If you want something you can throw in a dishwasher then dump in a drawer, you’re not going to get the most out of a high-end set.
On the other hand, if you do take good care of them, a good set will last a long time. In fact, your knife set may outlive you and be something you can proudly pass on to your children. Here are the things you need to do to ensure a long life for your knives:
1. Keep them clean and dry. Wash them, dry them and return them to the block immediately after every use. Don’t leave them sitting in the kitchen sink where they are sure to get wet and bang up against other objects that can damage the edged. One common misconception amongst consumers is that stainless steel is bulletproof. Strangely enough, stainless steel isn’t truly stainless and one sure way to ruin your knives is to leave them wet and dirty. More than one unknowing consumer has woke up in the morning to find discoloration on the knives they thought were stainless.
2. Store them separately. Buy them as a set that comes with a nice block or buy a block of your own. If a block just isn’t your style, you can buy a magnetic strip and hang them somewhere they’ll be easy for you to reach, but out of the reach of children. Throwing them haphazardly into a box or a drawer will damage the edges.
3. While some of the best kitchen knives are advertised as being dishwasher-safe, it’s a bad idea to actually wash them in the dishwasher. The combination of heat and detergents is not a conducive environment for the sharp edges you want to maintain. Couple that with the potential of being banged around like they’re in a mosh pit and you have a place where many a good set of knives have died a slow death. Even if you have a special tray meant for cutlery, you’re still better off hand-washing your blades and handles and immediately returning them to the block.
4. Use them for what they are intended for. Do not use the tip to poke holes in plastic or metal, don’t use them as a screwdriver and don’t use them to pry up lids that are stuck. These are just a few of the misuses I’ve seen personally, but should be enough for you to get the picture. Your knives should be used to cut foods, and that’s it. Don’t use them to cut things they weren’t made to cut.
5. Keep them sharp and steel them regularly. Some blades only need to be sharpened once every few uses, while others require that you sharpen them after every use. In order to get maximum life from your blades, don’t wait until they are noticeably dull. Following the manufacturer’s sharpening recommendations will ensure you get the maximum life out of each blade. You should also regularly steel your blade with a butcher’s steel.
6. Only cut on the cutting board. Wood and soft plastic cutting boards are the easiest on cutting edges, since there is some give as the blade slides across the surface. If you can run your knife over the surface and cut a small groove into the board, you’re using a material that is soft enough. Glass, marble and other hard surfaces should be avoided at all costs, as they will damage the blade each time it comes in contact with the surface.
Set a Budget and Buy the Best Kitchen Knives You Can Afford
There are a couple divergent trains of thought when it comes to buying knives. One is to buy the biggest set you can possibly afford, since you’ll get a wide variety of blade configurations. The benefit of going with this train of thought is that you’ll have every piece you’ll ever need in the kitchen, should the need ever arise. The downside is that you’ll have every piece you’ll ever need in the kitchen, should the need arise. Let me explain…
Buying the biggest set you can afford will get you a large number of specialty blades, ensuring you’ll almost never go without the right knife for the job. This is great as long as you have an unlimited budget and can afford to buy the biggest set of the best kitchen knives you can find. You’ll have every piece you’ll ever need, and the quality of each piece isn’t compromised.
Where people tend to get in trouble is in the fact that most of us don’t have an unlimited budget. We set a budget somewhere between $50 and $300 and then try to find the biggest set we can that falls within that price range. This forces us to choose quantity over quality, because we tend to value getting more knives over getting better ones.
The smaller your budget is the better off you’ll be if you adhere to the second train of thought, which says to buy the best set you can afford, even if you have to buy only a couple pieces to get you started. You’ll be better served by buying a starter set or a paring knife and chef’s knife from a high-end manufacturer than you will be if you buy an entire set of throwaway blades. Buy a couple pieces and a block and add to it as the need arises.
Unless you have a good reason for needing a specialty blade, there is really only one material you should choose for your knife blades. That material, of course, is steel. Knife blades have been made of steel for thousands of years, and whoever originally thought it up got it right. There is no better alternative to steel when it comes to durability, cost-efficiency and stain-resistance. In fact, the only two alternatives that have gained any ground on steel are titanium and ceramic, and both have traits that make them a less than ideal material to make knives from.
Let’s start with titanium. It’s a great material to use in areas where you need an item that is extremely resistant to corrosion, and that’s about it. It doesn’t hold an edge well and is too soft for daily use in the kitchen. Unless you’re cooking up batches of chemicals in laboratory, you don’t need the corrosion-resistance of titanium.
Ceramic knives are extremely sharp, but aren’t able to withstand much abuse, a trait that keeps them from being more than a novelty in the kitchen. We’ve all seen the commercials showing someone sawing on a piece of metal with a ceramic blade, then cutting through veggies or fruits with ease. What the commercial fails to show is what happens if you drop the blade on its cutting edge. Ceramic is an extremely hard material and is prone to chipping and cracking if dropped. The only time I’d be comfortable recommending ceramic blades would be for the rare person who’s palate is so refined they can taste the metal on foods that are cut with regular knives.
When it comes to the variations of steel, stainless steel is good. High-carbon stainless is better. Regular stainless steel is softer than high-carbon stainless, which means that high-carbon stainless has better edge retention and can be sharpened to a finer edge before rolling becomes a concern. Chromium and Nickel are added to steel to make it stainless, and steel with larger amounts of Chromium will be more resistant to stains. The downside is that added Chromium affects the steels ability to take and hold an edge.
I mentioned that stainless steel isn’t truly stainless by any stretch of the imagination in a previous section, but this is something I think bears repeating. Leaving acidic foods on your blade or leaving it wet for any extended period of time will cause the so-called “stainless” metal to stain, pit and even start to rust. “Stainless” steel is more resistant to stains but it’s as close to being truly stainless as Britney Spears is to being truly sane.
There are high-carbon steel blades on the market that are not stainless. While these knives are durable and can hold an edge, what they can’t hold up against is rust. If proper care isn’t taken to clean them and dry them immediately after use, they will start to rust and are prone to rapid deterioration once rust starts to set it. High-carbon steel will outperform most other knives on the market, but you have to be willing to wipe it down after each and every use. This means that even if you plan on setting it down for a few minutes, the blade should be cleaned and dried.
For this reason, most people have turned to high-carbon stainless steel. You get the stain-resistance of stainless steel along with the most of the strength and durability of high-carbon steel. You sacrifice a little on both sides, but the sacrifice is small and is an acceptable compromise in order to get a strong blade that is stainless to boot. Other alloys are sometimes added to the steel to further increase strength or stain-resistance. This is one of the reasons why you generally get what you pay for when it comes to kitchen cutlery, as some of the better blends of steel and other alloys will cost you a pretty penny.
While there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of proprietary blends of steel, there are a few you should be aware of because they are commonly used. First and foremost, if you see “surgical” or “stainless surgical” used to describe it, chances are it’s sub-par and should be avoided at all costs. Remember that surgeons typically throw away their cutting tools after each use, so this is the same metal used for throw-away tools. This means you may be getting a blade that can be sharpened to an extreme edge, but chance are it isn’t going to last. Japanese blends usually start with two to three letters followed by a number. Popular Japanese steels include SG-2, SRS-15 and VG-10. All three of these blends are used to create great knives.
Western vs. Japanese
Not too long ago, there was only one game in town. If you wanted to buy the best kitchen knives, you had to buy from one of a handful of Western manufacturers. There were only a few choices, and they were all heavy, forged blades that did a good job in the kitchen but were nothing fancy to look at. Fast forward a few years, and the Japanese manufacturers arrived on the scene to much fanfare. Their cutlery was everything the Western knives weren’t; they were lightweight, thin and razor-sharp–and they had the looks to match. They took the industry by storm and they are still gaining ground on the Western knives.
Aside from the weight and the more modern looks, there are a number of other differences between the two styles of knifemaking. So much so, in fact, that one could write an entire book about it. I’ll save you the boring details and just give you the information you need to know. Consider this the Reader’s Digest style condensed version of the facts…
The first and foremost difference is that the Japanese knives are typically harder than their Western counterparts. The average steel in a Japanese blade is over 60 on the Rockwell Hardness Scale (HRC), while U.S. and European steel measures in much lower on the scale, averaging out somewhere around 55HRC. You can find Western cutlery that measures higher on the scale, we’re just talking averages here. Blades that are lower in hardness are easier to sharpen and less prone to chipping and breakage, but the trade-off is that the softer edges dull faster and are more prone to rolling and denting.
No knives should be tossed into the kitchen sink or dropped, but it’s a fact that blades made from the harder Japanese steel is more prone to breakage if this happens. As long as you’re careful, you’ll get better edge retention and you can sharpen the harder steel to a finer edge. Cutlery made from the harder steel will last longer, since less material has to be removed to keep it sharp. To me, this trade-off makes buying the harder steel the better option. I personally prefer the blades that are around 60-61 on the Rockwell scale, as anything higher than that tends to be too brittle.
Another key difference between the two schools of knifemaking is in regards to weight. Western knives tend to be heavier. Whether or not you like the feel of a heavier blade comes down to personal preference. Some people like the way a heavier blade feels in their hand, while other prefer a light one. The only time I can truly see it boiling down to more than personal preference is when cutting through heavy meats and bone. A heavier cleaver will provide more downward force than a light one, cutting through gristle and bone with ease.
If you tire easily during long days in the kitchen, the lighter Japanese steel may be of benifit. There is less strain placed on your arms and shoulders when you use an extremely sharp Japanese blade, so switching over may provide some relief.
One area that is rarely discussed is the fact that there is a big difference between Western and Japanese knives when it comes to the angles the cutting edge is ground to. The harder Japanese steel is ground to a finer angle, with edges averaging between 10° and 15°. When you consider the fact that the Western knives are typically ground to somewhere around 20° per side, it’s obvious which blades are sharper right out the box. You can sharpen the Western blades down to about 15°, but that’s the smallest angle you can safely grind them to, and is the point at which you’re risking rolling the edges of the softer steel.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Stamped Vs. Forged
There is a huge contingent of people that will argue ’til the cows come home that the only good knife is one that is forged. My argument is that, while it’s true that most cheap sets of kitchen cutlery are stamped, some of the best kitchen knives are also stamped. I think a lot of the confusion in regards to the forged vs. stamped debate boils down to the fact that most people don’t really understand the difference between the two.
Forged knives are made via a manufacturing process through which a steel blank is pounded into the shape of the blade, then honed to the desired sharpness. People tend to equate this with the methods used by knife-makers in the old days, when blades were heated, pounded into shape, then reheated and pounded again and again until the desired size and shape is attained. While there are still a select few companies that forge cutlery by hand, most of it is now done by machine, and the entire forging process is done by one or two machines that heat the metal and deliver a blow or two to it to shape it. Not exactly what you envisioned, eh?
Stamping, on the other hand, is a manufacturing method through which blades are made by punching the shape of the blade from a roll of steel that is running down a manufacturing line. The reason this method is used to make cheaper knives is that it is cost efficient and fast, as multiple blades can be cut at once from a single sheet of steel. What fans of forged knives fail to realize is that very good knives can be stamped too; it’s all a matter of the steel being used. Some of the best kitchen knives from Japanese manufacturers are stamped, making the argument that stamping is better than forging somewhat of a null point.
The biggest difference between forging and stamping is weight. Forged blades tend to be heavier. Stamped blades can be cut from a thinner sheet of steel and are therefore lighter in weight. Which one is better is a matter of choice. The only thing I recommend is that you steer clear of the cheaper stamped blades. This isn’t because they are stamped; it’s because they are stamped from a lower grade of steel. The cheaper forged knives are generally of better quality than the stamped ones. When you get into the more expensive stuff, it’s a matter of taste.
While the title of this section sounds like the title of a dirty movie from the 80’s, the tang is actually an important part of the knife. It is the piece of metal that extends from the blade into the handle. Generally, full tang construction is considered to be better than partial tang, but there are some very high-end Japanese knives that use partial-tang construction to good effect. The benefit of partial tang is that the tang is usually hidden so you don’t have as many open spaces where food residue can get stuck.
With full-tang cutlery, the handle is generally 2 symmetrical pieces, with one piece attached to each side of the tang. Rivets are shot through the handle and tang to hold all three pieces together. At least three rivets should be used to ensure a tight fit. Any less than that and there will likely be gaps where food and debris can get stuck.
Partial tang blades are attached to the handle using epoxy or some sort of polymer resin. There is quite a bit of discussion online regarding whether or not the glues that are used are as strong as using rivets, but the truth of the matter is that some of the best kitchen knives have partial tang blades and I’ve never heard any complaints about the quality of the handles. When it comes to the cheap stuff, I’d definitely look for full-tang construction, but when you get into the high-end sets this becomes much less of a concern.
If I were forced to pick one over the other, I’d choose full-tang construction just because of the added strength and durability, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from buying a high-end set of knives just because it had a partial tang. This is another aspect of knife-buying that comes down to personal preference. It’s up to you to decide whether you want the strength and rigidity of full-tang construction or the more sanitary and lightweight partial tang.
Buy a Set and Save
When it comes to buying the best kitchen knives, it’s a fact that you’ll save money by buying a set as opposed to buying individual pieces. Getting a set usually gives you a significant discount in comparison to how much the same pieces would cost if bought individually. You also get a nice block to store them in and sometimes get a sharpening steel and other utensils.
One thing to keep in mind when buying a set is that many of the larger sets have a bunch of filler blades that you’ll probably never use. Instead of buying a large set full of filler knives, instead opt for a smaller set that you can add to with the money saved. Figure out what blade types would work best for you and add those to the set. You can also mix and match using this method as there is some benefit to buying a good set of Japanese knives that are light and then adding a couple heavier Western blades to the set to complement it.
Many of the high-end knife-makers offer small starter sets that feature their most popular knives. These starter sets usually come with two to three of their most popular blade types. If you can’t afford a bigger set, this is the way to go. You’ll get much more mileage out of 3 great knives in the kitchen than you will from an entire set of junk. Buy a nice looking block to store them in them add to the set as needed.