The Best Knife Set (Though We Prefer Piecemeal)
If you’re looking to buy nice kitchen knives—and are determined to buy a set—you won’t beat the Wüsthof Classic 8-Piece Deluxe Knife Set ($350) for price, performance and overall presentation. I came to this conclusion after more than 18 hours of research, testing and interviewing experts.
That said, I’m actually not advocating buying a knife set at all. Most chefs, food magazines and experienced home cooks agree that it’s a far better value to purchase individual knives. You actually only need a few essential ones for most kitchen tasks, and the extra knives that come in sets often go unused.
However, there are legitimate reasons people like to buy knife sets. They make great gifts, particularly for weddings, college graduations or for any other occasion when someone might be setting up a new kitchen. Knife sets, which tend to come with a storage block and honing steel, also look nice, whether you’re giving them as a gift or you want a uniform set on your counter. Lastly, sets make buying easy. If you’re not into tracking down the perfect individual knives and just want decent cutting power, a set can definitely be a nice way to go.
Although you could spend thousands on a knife set, in my research I found it’s not worth dropping more than $350 to $400. For any more than that, you should really think about buying individual knives that are exactly what you want and need. In fact, in their review of knife sets, America’s Test Kitchen suggests two a la carte sets comprised of different brands. Their ideal set, including a knife block, would put you out $335, while their budget set only costs $190.
What Do You Really Need?
To gain some insight into which knives the average home cook actually needs, I called up chef Brendan McDermott, who teaches 20 knife skills classes a month for home cooks through the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City.
“I would suggest most home cooks have 3 or 4 knives,” said McDermott. “Most essential is a chef’s knife; that’s the one you really want to focus on.” (See the Sweethome’s top choice in Chef Knives.) “After that, a serrated knife—but not a bread knife. Bread knives tend to be very flat and limiting, whereas a serrated knife with a bit of a heel and belly is more versatile,” McDermott told me. The heel, by the way, is the thicker, rear part of the edge (opposite the knife point) and is used for cutting harder ingredients like nuts and carrots; the belly is the curved section of the edge that extends away from the point. “Third,” said McDermott, “is a 3 to 3½-inch paring knife.” Lastly, if you cut up whole roasted turkey, chicken, or anything else where you’d need to go through bone, McDermott recommended investing in a 6-inch boning knife.
The additional blades that come in sets are often just filler to make these packages seem more valuable. “Ninety percent of people don’t know what to do with all those knives,” says McDermott. “They end up getting a big block and half the knives end up collecting dust.”
According to America’s Test Kitchen, manufacturers often skimp on the knives they include in sets. A classic example of this is that these sets usually offer an 8-inch bread knife, when a 10-inch one would be optimal (an 8-inch knife won’t always cut across a rustic country loaf). Manufacturers do this to keep the overall price of the knife sets affordable.
Although America’s Test Kitchen doesn’t recommend buying knife sets, their editors do have opinions on what to look for in a set. Beyond a chef’s, bread, and paring knife, they also recommend looking for one with a boning knife, as well as a slicing knife (for carving meat) and kitchen shears (preferably ones that come apart for cleaning). Any additions, such as a santoku or utility knife, are gravy.
What to Look For
Regardless of whether you’re buying a knife set or individual knives, there are certain features quality knives should have.
Of course, a good knife will have a sharp blade. Yet, according to McDermott, the knife’s edge should also have a slight curve to it, where the tip and heel of the knife are slightly higher than the middle of the blade. This makes it much easier to rock the blade against a cutting board. (This is more important for a chef’s knife, but, as McDermott mentioned, also comes in handy for a serrated knife.)
A good knife should feel well balanced between the handle and the blade. The handle should also feel comfortable in your hand. Of course, this is a subjective quality, and the reason why experts recommend trying out knives to see which feel best in your hand.
Somewhat less important, to my surprise, is how the blade is actually made. It’s often assumed that a forged knife—which is pounded from a piece of steel, tends to be heavy, and has a bolster (that collar that connects handle and blade)—is better than a stamped knife, which is cut from a sheet of steel, is lightweight and usually doesn’t have a bolster. This assumption holds true if you’re comparing a forged knife to a really cheap stamped knife made with low-quality steel—the kind you’d buy on an emergency run to the grocery store, for example. However, in the past few years, stamped knife technology has gotten very good and some of these lighter-weight knives have been making new converts—even professional chefs.
In his book, An Edge in the Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives — How to Buy Them, Keep Them Razor Sharp, and Use Them Like a Pro, Chad Ward discusses this new class of stamped knives, which are cut and precision ground from high-alloy steel and have an edge finish on par with forged knives. He calls this new class of blades “machined knives,” to distinguish them from those cheapo stamped versions. According to Ward, if you were to compare a $100 forged knife with a high-quality “machined” knife at the same price point, the two knives would be very competitive. Which you prefer may just come down to whether you want a heavier or lighter-weight knife. (In my own experience, I love using a weightier forged chef’s knife, while I usually reach for an inexpensive stamped serrated paring knife over my forged one).
Most good knives are made of high-carbon steel—which is very strong and takes an edge well—mixed with a stain-resistant alloy, such as chromium, to keep the metal from pitting, rusting, or staining. Sometimes, you’ll see this blade material listed as “high-carbon stainless steel.” There are many grades of blade steel, which a true knife geek could spend hours expanding upon (if you’d like to know more, read this article by master knife craftsman Jay Fisher). For your average knife set, just make sure that “high-carbon steel” is listed in the description of the blade material.
You’ll also find ceramic knives on the market, but for overall durability and maintenance they don’t compete with carbon-steel knives. Although ceramic blades tend to be very sharp and will hold an edge for a long time, they can also crack or shatter if you’re too rough with them.
A Few Words on Maintenance
Regardless of how much money you spend on a knife set or individual knives, practicing good knife maintenance will keep them sharper and allow them to last longer.
There’s a lot of debate about the best way to store your knives. Some people say a magnetic strip is best, while others swear by a wood block. However, both methods can be good ways to store knives, as long as you’re doing it properly.
According to McDermott, magnetic strips can be great if you have a small kitchen, but you never want to place the edge of a knife blade against the strip or you may bend the edge (always place the dull spine of the knife against the strip). Likewise, a wood block can keep your knives tidy; just don’t ding the knives’ edges against the wood. McDermott also recommends using simple plastic or wood sheaths. These go directly over the blade, and you can store the knife in a regular cutlery drawer.
When it comes to washing knives, never put them in the dishwasher. According to the TV chef and food scientist Alton Brown, the high heat and chemicals used in a dishwasher can compromise the blade. The dishwasher can also cause wooden handles to loosen over time. (Sharp blades may also cut through the plastic coating of your dish rack, potentially causing rust.) Always hand-wash knives and dry them promptly to avoid rust building up on the blade. This is also why you should never leave a knife in the sink to wash later; not only do you risk dulling the blade this way, but it’s a safety hazard (you’ll get slapped on the wrist for this by the pros).
Get your knives sharpened professionally about once a year (this is what Alton Brown suggests). Unless you’re a super experienced knife sharpener with a whetstone or grinder, you’ll probably just take the edge off your knife. The honing steel that comes with a knife set is really just meant to tune up your knives by taking already sharp blades and straightening out little bends in the edges that develop after regular use.
Of course, the last rule is to never, ever use your nice knives to open boxes, bottles, or other objects—especially if you’re using someone else’s knives! (If you’re looking for an all-purpose knife that you can use to unceremoniously slice through anything and everything, check out the Victorinox paring knife I recommend in the “Also Great” section, below.)
Based on top sets I found in reviews, I decided to test the Wüsthof Classic set against the 7-piece Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Professional set ($329), the 9-piece Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Profection #33049 set ($600) and the 7-piece Wüsthof Classic Ikon #8347 set ($390). Each has a basic 8-inch chef’s knife, a paring knife, an 8-inch bread knife, honing steel, kitchen shears, and a wood storage block.
All of these knives also come with a lifetime warranty; most of the higher-end knives I researched have a similar guarantee. This basically means these companies will replace their knives if there’s a manufacturing fault, not just for regular wear and tear or improper use (so, you know, no knife throwing).
Because these knife sets all look and sound so similar, I headed to my local Williams-Sonoma for some informal testing. The store didn’t have the $600 Henckels Twin Profection set, but the high price tag had already knocked it out of the running.
Presented with the three remaining sets, I immediately found that the knives of both Wüsthof sets felt better balanced than the Henckels Twin Professional “S” ones. The Henckels set, at least on Amazon, also doesn’t come with a bread knife (although the one at Williams-Sonoma did). The Wüsthof sets were very similar, but I found the more rounded Ikon handles more comfortable in my hand. That said, the Ikon set is also $40 more expensive than the Wüsthof Classic set, and comes with one less knife.
Out of the box, the knives were all sharp and made easy work of cutting up herbs, nuts, meat and other ingredients for a variety of meals. Both the chef’s and paring knives performed beautifully, the kitchen shears (which do come apart for cleaning) were nice and weighty, and I really liked using the small santoku knife for chopping lettuce, parsley and other items that didn’t need the full length of a chef’s knife.
I didn’t find much use for the 6-inch utility knife, which looks like a very long paring knife. I’ve seen this knife advertised as a “sandwich” knife, good for cutting the crust off bread and spreading ingredients. Personally, a designated fancy knife seems like overkill for average sandwich-making duties. I think it would ultimately serve as the backup blade if I had a lot of people working in my kitchen at once and we all needed a knife.
The one real weak link of the set was the 8-inch serrated bread knife. America’s Test Kitchen also found this knife wanting, as it just isn’t quite long enough to slice through large rustic loaves. I happen to own a 10-inch Wüsthof Classic bread knife, which I’ve used for years, and the 2 extra inches can make the difference between cutting through in one smooth stroke, and having to double back for a second, rougher cut.
One thing to consider when buying is that the knives included in these sets seem to vary slightly, depending on where you purchase them. For example, the set that Wüsthof sent me has the santoku, while the one offered on Amazon includes a 4.5-inch utility knife instead, and the one reviewed by America’s Test Kitchen included a 5-inch boning knife. In his book, Chad Ward suggests that if you purchase a knife set from a store with a lot of open stock, they might be willing to swap in knives from the same brand. It’s worth a shot, particularly if the knives are of similar value.
There aren’t many conclusive reviews of knife sets, probably for the exact reasons I’ve stated about these not being the best value. In fact, America’s Test Kitchen and Consumer Reports were the only reviews I could find.
As I mentioned before, America’s Test Kitchen isn’t a fan of sets; they recommend putting together a collection of knives a la carte. They do, however, “recommend with reservation” the Wüsthof Classic 8-Piece Deluxe Knife Set, the Victorinox 7-Piece Rosewood Knife Set ($190) and the Shun Classic 9-Piece Knife Set ($740). The Wüsthof set wins for me because the resin handles are more durable than the wood handles of the Victorinox (porous wood can also harbor bacteria), and the price is much more reasonable than the Shun knives (for $740, you really should go a la carte and get exactly what you need).
The Wüsthof Classic set also came in as Consumer Reports’ 4th pick. It was the only set the magazine rated as “excellent” in cutting performance, handle balance, and handle comfort. (I’m actually confused why this set isn’t Consumer Reports’ top pick, given that none of the other sets they tested rated as well in each category.)
Consumer Reports ranked two Henckels sets—the 7-piece Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Professional “S” and the 9-piece Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Profection #33049—and the 7-piece Wüsthof Classic Ikon #8347 set higher than the Wüsthof Classic set.
At first glance, these high-end Henckels and Wüsthof knives seem very similar. They all have forged steel blades, full tangs, 3-rivet synthetic handles, and are presumably made in Solingen, the knife capital of Germany. However, in most tests (for chef’s knives, at least), such as those by Cooking for Engineers and America’s Test Kitchen, Wüsthof knives consistently beat Henckels.
I also read multiple Amazon reviews complaining about the quality of Henckels knives diminishing in the past few years. One cooking instructor told me that he’s also seen a marked difference in the quality of these knives over the past decade. One reason for this may be that Henckels has changed the way they make their knives. Instead of forging them from a single piece of steel, they weld three different types of steel together, so they can maintain blade quality but use a less expensive material in the handle. Henckels says this process actually makes their knives stronger, yet this doesn’t pan out in the reviews I’ve read.
For the Budget Minded
Brendan McDermott, the knife skills teacher at ICE, also told me that these Fibrox handle knives from Victorinox are usually what you find in professional kitchens. They’re the knives that everyone can use, because they’ll take a beating, stay sharp, and they’re not super expensive. Of course, many chefs bring their own good knives to work, which they don’t share. The Victorinox ones are durable enough for anyone and everyone to use.
From my own experience, I can attest to the utility of Victorinox knives. I’ve used their red-handled, serrated paring knives ($3) for years, both in my kitchen and on my dad’s commercial fishing boat in Alaska (these knives are a standard tool for deckhands). I keep three in my kitchen drawer—two of which came from my dad’s boat—and I always reach for them before my forged paring knife. The serrated ones, at least, never dull (or not enough to notice), and because they’re so cheap, I use them for everything in my kitchen—opening UPS boxes and packaged foods, slicing fruit, cutting potatoes—I take them on camping trips, and they do a mean job of cutting rope or slicing open a fish.
I tried the Fibrox set at Williams-Sonoma. I’m not a huge fan of the light handles, which have a strange, grainy texture—they definitely don’t feel as nice as the weighty, smooth Wüsthof Classic handles. Yet the set is inexpensive, gets great reviews on Amazon (4.8 stars) and the bread knife is a really nice length (the blade also has that slight curve that McDermott recommended). All of the Fibrox knives also come with a lifetime warranty, so if you ever break them it’s not a big deal to get a replacement.
This set would be an excellent choice for a high-traffic kitchen, such as in a roommate situation, or if you just don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars for knives.
Wrapping it Up
Overall, the Wüsthof Classic knives performed well and the set looks great on the counter in its wood block. I think most home cooks would be more than happy with this purchase.
If you’re looking for a nice set of knives that come with a storage block and are relatively affordable, go for the Wüsthof Classic 8-Piece Deluxe Knife Set. But if you’re willing to make the investment in time and research, get yourself to a kitchen shop and invest in individual knives.
"Knife Block Sets", America's Test Kitchen"At the same time, we know that there are occasions (particularly during gift-giving season or when you’re outfitting a kitchen from scratch) when an attractive, all-in-one set of cutlery—complete with a block that keeps everything neatly housed and within easy reach—could be a nice convenience. Hoping to find that we’d been a bit hasty in our cynicism, we went shopping and returned to the test kitchen with eight knife block sets that contained anywhere from six to nine pieces and spanned a broad price spectrum: $97 all the way up to nearly $700. We would evaluate these sets against one another as well as against an à la carte selection of our test kitchen favorites. Our criteria would be as follows: how comfortable the pieces were to use and how well each performed; how many pieces in the collection were essential and how many extraneous; and of the extraneous stock, how much of it was actually useful. If the right package was out there, we’d gladly give it our stamp of approval."
"Kitchen Knife Buying Guide", Consumer Reports, March 2012"A well-equipped home kitchen should have at least four types of knives. The chef's knife, usually 8 inches long, is the most important and the workhorse of the kitchen. You'll use it for chopping, slicing, and dicing a variety of foods. A slicer is generally longer and thinner and is used mainly to cut cooked meat. A utility knife is often interchangeable with a chef's knife for cutting and slicing fruits and vegetables, though its smaller size--4 to 6 inches--can make it more convenient. A parer, usually 3 to 4 inches long, is perfect for peeling and coring."
"A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks", The New York Times, 9 May 2007,"I started with an eight-inch, plastic-handle stainless alloy chef’s knife for $10. This is probably the most essential tool in the kitchen. People not only obsess about knives (and write entire articles about them), but you can easily spend over $100 on just one. Yet go into any restaurant kitchen and you will see most of the cooks using this same plastic-handle Dexter-Russell tool. (Go to the wrong store and you’ll spend $20 or even $30 on the same knife.)"
"The Best Chef’s Knife for Most Cooks", The Wirecutter, 18 July 2012,"The Swiss aren’t renowned for their kitchen knives, but based on the $30 Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife., they should be. In head-to-head test, the Victorinox beat out a comparable blade from notable German manufacturer Henckels, which cost three times as much. It’s not the best bar-none, but you won’t find anything that performs this well without spending at least twice as much money."
Originally published: June 21, 2013