These are the knife sets that make the cut for home cooks.
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By Sharon Franke for Food Network Kitchen
Nothing is more essential for a cook than a good set of knives. Whether you’re prepping for dinner, grabbing a snack or carving a roast, you’ll need a sharp tool to get the job done quickly and neatly. When you go to shop, you’ll be confronted with a variety of knife styles and a wide range of prices. To help you cut through all the choices and find the one that’s best for you, we explain the differences and what to look for, and make knife recommendations for all kinds of cooks with all kinds of budgets.
This article has been updated with new picks since its original publish date.
What to Look for In a Set
Look for a set that contains what we consider the three essentials: a chef’s knife, utility knife and serrated bread knife. A chef’s knife is the workhorse you’ll use for chopping onions and celery, slicing tomatoes or eggplant, and mincing garlic and parsley. The curvier its blade, the better it will be at rocking back and forth for tasks like mincing herbs. Although paring knives were once considered must-haves, today we recommend a slightly longer one called a utility knife, which in addition to paring an apple, can be used for slicing small blocks of cheese or segmenting an orange. All good sets will include a long, serrated bread knife. A long thin slicing or carving knife is another good tool to have in your kitchen and we like sets that include one.
Many sets will come will many other pieces that increase the price. Don’t pay more for additional tools unless you know you’ll use them. For example, if you already have a set of steak knives you love, you don’t need more in a knife set. Keep in mind, the block itself is considered one of the pieces. It is a useful tool for storing your knives where they’re easy to access, their blades don’t get nicked or damaged, and you can’t accidentally cut yourself. A block will take up space on your countertop, though, so aim to choose one that fits your needs and space.
To select our best knife sets, we relied on our years of experience testing knives and using them both in the test kitchen and in our own homes for a wide array of tasks from dicing veggies, to hacking up chickens, to carving roasts. We scoured review sites to see what recommendations were made by other sources and also pored over user comments to find out what home cooks have to say.
In addition to considering how comfortable the knives felt in the hand and how well they cut, we considered what pieces were included in the set. Our picks contain a selection of knives that we think you will use often in everyday cooking.
What to Know Before Buying Knives
A good knife should feel like an extension of your hand. It should be comfortable to grip and easy to control. Neither the handle nor the blade should feel exceptionally heavier than the other. Before you make a purchase, or make the first cut in your own kitchen, it’s a good idea to simulate slicing and see how a knife feels to you.
Virtually all high-quality knives today are made from high-carbon stainless steel. Although carbon blades are easy to sharpen and maintain their edge longer, they also discolor and can even rust so they need special attention. The addition of stainless steel makes blades easy to keep looking good with minimal upkeep.
Knife blades are either forged or stamped from steel. Forged blades are formed from a single piece of molten metal while stamped blades are punched out of a large sheet of steel. In general, forged blades are sturdier and hold an edge longer. They have comfortable handles with a bolster, or a band of metal, to ease the transition to the blade and provide protection to your hand. In addition, they have a full tang, which means the blade runs all the way through the handle to give you good control. However, forged knives are also pricier, heavier and less flexible. Some people prefer lighter weight stamped blades which are easier to maneuver, especially around bones or a small item like a mushroom cap.
Knives Come in Two Styles
Most knives in American kitchens are based on Western-style. They tend to be thick and heavy as they’re intended to cut through root vegetables and large cuts of meat. On a German knife, there’s a bolster and a curved blade to make it easy to glide and rock when you’re cutting and mincing. French knives have a straighter edge, which is better for slicing.
In the past decade or so, Asian knives have also become popular. Designed to prep delicate foods like fish and tender vegetables with an up and down motion, they’re lighter and thinner and have blades with less of an angle. While this makes them comfortable to use and helps them to make precise cuts, it also means they have to be handled more carefully and shouldn’t be used for tasks like cutting up butternut squash or through bones.
The most popular Asian shape in American kitchens is the santoku, which has a long wide blade. It’s designed primarily for slicing and can do pretty much whatever a chef’s knife can. However, because it has a straight blade, it’s harder to use for rocking back and forth or scoring vegetables.
Why You Still Have to Sharpen Your Knives – Even In a Set
When it comes to a knife, there’s one thing that’s more important than anything else, and that’s how sharp it is. The most well balanced, comfortable to hold, expensive knife in the world is pretty much useless if it doesn’t have a sharp blade. In addition to just doing the job for which it was intended faster and more precisely, a sharp knife is safer. With a well-honed blade, you are less likely to cut yourself than with a dull one. A dull blade can slip off of a tomato instead of slicing down. To test your knife for sharpness, try to cut a single sheet of paper vertically. A sharp blade will cut right through the paper leaving a clean edge on either side.
Inevitably, you will have to resharpen the blades of your knives. You can bring or send them to a sharpening service once a year or you can buy a countertop or electric model and do it yourself. Check out some of our favorite knife sharpeners here.
Sharon Franke has been testing and writing about kitchen equipment for over 30 years. Before becoming a cooking tools expert, she spent seven years working as a professional chef in New York City restaurants. In her free time, she’s busy baking sourdough bread and rustling pots and pans on her own stove.