Kitchen Knife Set Buying Guide
What is a Kitchen Knife Set?
Purchasing the right kitchen knife set is more important than many consumers realize. You can get inexpensive knife sets anywhere, but what most find is that they don’t do a good job of cutting and slicing the food; they simply mash it or tear through it. A good knife set may cost a couple of hundred dollars but if you look at the fact that you will have this set for decades, the price is an excellent deal.
Anyone who cooks in the kitchen uses knives at some point, whether it’s to cut vegetables for a salad, cut up their steak, or any number of other kitchen tasks. Having the right set of knives will make those cutting jobs easy and even more enjoyable. Many people don’t know how different it feels to use a high quality knife until they use it and compare it with their current one. The differences can be shocking and more than likely you will never want to use a low quality knife again.
This buyer’s guide will provide you with all the information you need to understand what the different knives do as well as what makes one better than another. With this information, you can shop with pleasure and know that the set you purchase is an investment and you’ll have it a long time.
The Parts of a Knife
Knowing knife anatomy can help you understand what the knife descriptions mean and how certain features affect the knife’s performance. Below we have outlined the parts of a knife for you so you will have a better understanding of how a knife is put together.
The edge is the part of the blade that does the cutting. It extends from the tip of the knife to the handle. There are several different types of knife edges.
- Straight edge – A smooth edge that cuts cleanly through whatever you’re cutting. It doesn’t rip the fibers out of any met you’re cutting and slides through vegetables and fruit effortlessly.
- Hollow Ground edge – This is a thinner and lighter blade that provides additional precision. It is ground midway down the blade instead of at the spine of the knife and provides a concave edge that is beveled.
- Granton edge – This type of edge is recognizable by the semicircular scallops that are ground out on alternate sides of the blade. These scalloped edges extend from the edge to the middle of the blade. This type of edge is great for cutting meat and separating cheese, vegetables and meat.
- Serrated – This type of blade is perfect for cutting breads and celery or other foods that are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. The saw like blade stays sharper longer than a straight edge will but they have to be re-sharpened in a special way.
This is the top of the blade or “back” which is opposite of the edge. The spine adds weight and strength to the knife.
The tip of the knife is the first 1/3 of the blade and is used for precise cutting jobs and for making small cuts in foods.
Used for piercing, this part of the knife is the very end of the tip and is very sharp.
The bolster is not on every knife only those that are forged. The bolster can be located between the handle and the blade and is made out of the same material as the blade. The bolster adds weight, stability and balance during use and it is the thickest part of the blade.
This goes along with the bolster and is part of it, keeping the user’s fingers from slipping onto the blade and helps them avoid getting cut.
You’ve more than likely heard this term often in the description of knives. The tang is the part that runs from the blade into the handle. Some knives have a full tang which means this part runs all the way to the end of the handle. The knives that have a full tang are much stronger than those that don’t and this can also prevent the blade from breaking.
The handles of knives can be made from wood, stainless steel, plastic and even fancier materials such as marble, and ivory. Many handles are designed to be ergonomic to give the user lots of comfort. In general the more comfortable a knife handle is to hold, the more control over the cutting the user will have.
This is an indentation or catch on the end of the handle that gives users a more secure grip and keeps the hand from slipping even when they’re wet from working in the kitchen.
The scales are the two sides of the knife handle that are attached to the tang.
Rivets are used to attach the tang to the scales which provides more stability. This prevents the tang from wiggling back and forth inside the scales. The rivets should always be level with the handle.
The heel of the knife is the best part to use to make thick cuts or for when you have to apply pressure to cut through something. It is located on the blade nearest to the handle and is used for the heaviest of cutting tasks.
The butt of the knife is the very end of the handle. Sometimes there may be a ring attached there to hang larger knives but most don’t have anything and are kept in knife bags or blocks.
Types of Knife Blades
How a knife blade is made will determine a lot of things from the ease of use to sharpness to longevity. The material a blade is made of also determines these things. We’ve outlined the common materials that knife blades are made of so you will know what to expect from them.
High Carbon Stainless Steel – This is the Ferrari of knife blade materials and is used on almost every high end knife. High carbon stainless steel is resistant to rust and stains and provides the user with a lot of strength and knife hardness making it a great choice for tougher jobs. It doesn’t dull quickly at all and can be re-sharpened easily without special equipment.
Stainless Steel – Stainless steel is resistant to corrosion, rust, and stains. It is much less expensive than high carbon stainless steel.
Ceramic – This material requires little maintenance and is very lightweight and hard. Ceramic knife blades hold their edge for years. They should only be used with a cutting board since they are so sharp, they could easily cut through plates.
Carbon Steel – Carbon steel is prone to rusting and stains and is very inexpensive. The knife will hold a sharp edge and they can be re-sharpened easily.
Types of Knife Handles
The handle of your knife is almost as important as the blade. Having a comfortable handle that is easy to hold and feels good in your hand affects the way you cut and control the knife. There are many different materials that knives are made of. Since the handle of your knife plays such a large part in the performance you get from it, pay attention to the materials the handles are made of on the knives you are looking to purchase.
Plastic – Plastic handles are easy to clean and don’t absorb odors or stains. The drawback to plastic knives is that they can become extremely slippery when being used and can be too light for good balance.
Composite – Composite handles are made from a combination of laminated wood and plastic resin. It is considered the top choice among many chefs due to their attractive appearance, ease of care, and the weighted, easy grip they provide the user. They are very durable as well.
Stainless Steel- This is the most durable of the handle materials and is also known for its sanitary properties as well. The weight is much greater on a stainless steel handled knife which can affect balance but many cooks swear by them. Because stainless steel can become slippery when it’s wet, many knife manufacturers add indentations and ridges to increase grip during use.
Wood – Although wood is by far the best looking of all the handle materials and it provides a good grip, even when wet, there are some drawbacks to wood handled knives that don’t make them the best choices when they are used often. Wooden handles can crack and wrap when they are exposed to water repeatedly, even if they are not soaked in the sink. They require special cleaning and treatment that many cooks don’t have the time to provide.
Forged vs Stamped
Forged knives are the strongest and sharpest knives, much more so than stamped. There is a definite difference between the two.
Forged – Forged knives are produced mostly by hand. A steel bar is heated to a very high temperature and then it is set into a die and hammered by hand to form the blade. There are sometimes as many as 50 different steps involved in a forged knife which adds to its expense. Most of the steps involved are done by hand. There will always be a tang and bolster in a forged knife which adds weight and balance to it.
Stamped – Punched out from thin steel, you might compare the stamped knife to cutting out cookies as the process is very similar. Once the blades are cut out, they are tempered, sharpened and then finished. Most of the work done to stamped knives is done by a machine. Once the blade is done, it is fitted into the handle. Stamped knives are nowhere near as strong as forged. They are less expensive but require a firmer grip and more pressure due to the lack of strength and weight.
The Different Types of Knives
There are many different types of knives available. When you purchase a knife set, you will have many of these types of knives included in the set. We’ve outlined the many different knife types below for you to reference. Each knife has its strengths in terms of what it is good for.
Chef’s Knife – This is the most versatile and most often used knife in the bunch. It has a slightly curved blade that is perfect for most cooking tasks that include chopping and mincing. The average length of a chef’s knife tends to be around 8”.
Paring Knife – The straight edge of a paring knife helps peel the skins from fruits and vegetables very easily. It’s most often used for peeling, shaping and decorative cuts. Most often the paring knife is about 3” long but can go up to 4”.
Santoku Knife – You may have seen this knife but not known the name. Santoku translates to mean “three uses”. It is perfect for mincing, dicing and slicing. The hollow end of the Santoku knife produces less friction which gives faster and more precise cutting results. It’s great for thin delicate slices.
Bread Knife – The serrated edge of the bread knife makes it perfect for cutting any food that is hard on the outside and soft on the outside. It cuts through the harder, outer edge without crushing or squishing the food. Bread knives are usually 8” or longer although some utility knives are also serrated.
Utility Knife – This knife is between the paring knife and the Chef’s knife in length and is great for mincing vegetables and fruits. It’s also great for cleaning vegetables too. Some designs are serrated but not all utility knives will be serrated.
Cleaver – This is a specialty knife that can handle some heavy duty tasks. The cleaver is designed to cut through joints, bones and other tough areas and is usually used more like an axe than a knife in the motion. The heavier the cleaver is the less force you will need when performing these heavy duty tasks.
Slicing and Carving Knife – Slicing and carving knives are made in both more flexible and more rigid designs. The blade is thinner than that of the Chef’s knife and is great for carving needs such as turkey, ham and roasts.
Boning Knife – Boning knives are for just what their name implies. They have a very narrow blade that can remove bones very easily. The boning knives with flexible blades are the best for boning fish and poultry and the more rigid boning knife blades are best for pork and beef. Most boning knives range from 5-6” long.
Shopping for the Right Knife
Knowing what to look for when it comes to a kitchen knife set will enable you to get the knives that will really make themselves useful in your kitchen. There are a few things that you can look at when comparison shopping.
Safety – If you can get your hands on the knife set you want before you order, this is great but not always possible. Pay attention to the grip of the knife and read what the description says about weight and balance. You want a knife that features a bolster and that is designed to prevent slipping. Ergonomically designed handles are also a plus as they are very comfortable for most people to hold.
Weight – you want a knife that doesn’t feel too light or too heavy. If you’re purchasing online, read the customer reviews to get ideas on the weight of the knives and read the description as well.
Balance – Top heavy or bottom heavy knives are not comfortable to use. Look for knives that mention balance as a priority. Having a well balanced knife can prevent accidental injuries as well.
Craftsmanship – How well made a knife set is determines how happy you will be with it. When the knives are well made without gaps and spaces for bacteria to grow, you will have a set that you love working with.
Edge Retention – How long the knives hold their sharpness is a very important thing to know about the knife set you want to purchase. Some have lifetime warranties that state they will never lose their sharpness, others have sharpening steels or other means of re-sharpening but initially they will hold their edge for a long time.
Resistance to Problems– You want to make sure that the knives set you buy is resistant to rust, corrosion, staining and pitting. These are all problems that can wreck a set of knives and make them more of a pain than a joy to use.
Care and Cleaning
Taking care of your knives properly will ensure that they last a long time. Following the tips below will help keep your knives in excellent shape for decades to come.
- Use the knife for its intended use – Using a paring knife to bone is an example of not using them properly. Each knife has specific tasks that they are designed for and using them for other uses can cause problems, injuries and can even mess up the knife.
- Don’t leave the knives lying on the counter, in the dishwasher or in the sink. They have a block to store them in for a reason, which is to protect the blade and keep it from getting chipped or bent. Always put your knives back in the block when you’re not using them so they stay sharp.
- Over washing or Improper Washing – many chefs know that even if a knife set says its dishwasher safe, washing by hand is better and gentler on the knife itself. Rinse off with warm soapy water and then with clear water and dry thoroughly. This preserves the life of the blade and the handle.
- No Abrasive Cleaners – Don’t ever leave your knives soaking in water and don’t use abrasive cleansers that can scratch and mar them.
- Use that Cutting Board – Cutting on proper surfaces also preserves the blade and prevents chipping or breaking. It also helps you maintain control of the knife and saves your counter tops from getting scratched and cut as well.
- Don’t Use a Dull Knife –If you notice that your knives have gone dull, take the time to re-sharpen them. Using a dull knife will frustrate you, can lead to injuries and can also mess up the food you’re trying to prepare.
- Inspect After Using – Each time you use your knives, check them for pitting, dings, or any other problems. If you notice that they are a bit dull, run them over your sharpening steel a few times after using and cleaning before you put them back into the block. This will keep them sharp and extend the time in between re-sharpening.
Knives are something that every kitchen needs and every cook wants to have. When you have a great knife set and take pains to ensure it stays that way, your food prep time will be more efficient, safer and more enjoyable. The information in this buyer’s guide will help you choose the right set of knives that will fit your needs and enable you to work like the pros do. There’s a reason chefs are so uptight about their knives. Once you find a set you love, take care of it and it could very well be something you can have to pass on to your kids.