Choosing the best set of knives for your kitchen can be a tricky problem. You can save time and money by simply purchasing a premade knife set. The potential downside to this is that you can end up with a cheap collection of knives that serve better as a decoration than for cutting.
Your knives are the backbone of your kitchen, and they deserve careful consideration, especially since a good knife should basically last forever. Good knives are more comfortable, work better, and are safer — it’s easy to forget that you’ve got a potentially dangerous blade in your hand when you use it every day, but a well-maintained knife helps keep the blood on the right side of your fingers. It’s easier to count how many recipes in your library don’t start with you picking up a knife than the ones that do.
In this article, we’ll look at knives, premade knife sets, and how to build your own collection.
|1. Wusthof Classic||8||See|
|2. Victorinox Swiss Army||7||See|
|3. Shun Classic||9||See|
|4. Chicago Cutlery||18||See|
|5. Messermeister Park Plaza||9||See|
|6. Mercer Culinary Genesis||6||See|
|7. Zwilling J.A. Henckels||19||See|
Types of Knives Typically Included in Knife Sets
There are zillions of knife styles found the world over. Here, we’re mostly looking at knives in the European tradition that are commonly found in American homes.
The chef’s knife is your #1 workhorse knife, and can be used for pretty much anything. An 8” blade is normal for home cooks, though chef’s knives come in a wide range of sizes up to comically gigantic. The key feature of the chef’s knife is the slight curve of the blade that allows the continuous rocking motion for easy chopping. Your chef’s knife should have some weight to it so it can do the work when slicing, but look for good balance to keep the weight under control.
The chef’s knife is your big knife for big jobs; the paring knife is your small knife for small jobs. Usually carrying a 3‒4” blade, the paring knife is for fine work like peeling and shaping vegetables. It’ll have a thin, light blade compared to your chef’s knife.
There are very few things that you need a serrated knife for, assuming you keep your regular knives sharp, but bread is cut much better with a serrated edge. The teeth grab onto a crusty loaf and saw open a clean cut. Soft interiors get cut continuously by the small blades of the serrations instead of getting pulled by a smooth knife. Bread knives have a couple of different blade shapes — toothy or scalloped. I prefer toothy.
This one isn’t important for the vegetarians, but a boning knife is a great tool to help your meat prep. A boning knife is usually about 6” long, very thin, and with a very sharp point. The goal is to separate meat from bone and connective tissue, and you want a thin sharp blade to get all of the meat off of anything. I prefer a straight blade with some flex to it, but they’re also available with a curved blade, a rigid blade, or both.
In the kitchen, a utility knife is a knife intermediate in size between your chef’s knife and paring knife, and usually looks like a cross between them. They’re theoretically good for intermediate-sized jobs, but your chef’s knife and paring knife can handle pretty much anything with a little practice. Unfortunately, a lot of these knives feel like throw-ins to bulk up the size of a knife set, and often have the quality to match.
I said at the top that this article that we were looking at European-style knives, but the Americanized version of the santoku is common enough to be the exception. The santoku is a general-purpose Japanese knife that plays a similar role to the chef’s knife as an all-purpose chopping and slicing knife. The edge is flat (or very slightly curved), so you use a different cutting motion, and the tip is more rounded off. American santokus will usually use the same handle as other European-style knives. So why did the santoku get popular? My guess: it’s your best route to getting an extremely high-quality 6” knife. If you don’t like the size of a chef’s knife, the santoku might become your first choice of knives.
A slicer is a long thin knife for cutting perfect slices in a single stroke. I pull mine out when I’ve got a roast because it carves perfect thin slices. I also grab it when I want to cut a cake into layers because it’s long enough to go through the whole cake in one cut. A good slicing knife is not an essential, but it’s very useful to pull out from time to time.
A cleaver is a large heavy knife for hacking through bone. Cleavers are usually big and rectangular to put as much metal as possible out at the far end so the weight of the knife can do the work. A cleaver is mostly for meat, but it can be good to have one around for heavy jobs like splitting a big butternut squash.
Not Knives, but Often Found in Your Knife Block
Heavy-duty scissors do more around the kitchen than open packages and cut twine. A good pair of kitchen shears will go through chicken bones with ease and accuracy. They’re also surprisingly good at cutting pizza. When you’ve got an odd job around the kitchen where it’s hard to brace the food against something, pull out the shears since they cut against themselves instead of a cutting board.
A carving fork is a long two-pronged fork used to steady a roast during carving. You can use an ordinary fork, but you get a better grip by driving the prongs of a carving fork deeper into the meat, and have an easier time repositioning the sharpened tines. A carving fork also lets you keep your off hand farther away from the slicing knife’s blade. It also looks cooler when carving tableside.
You need to keep your knives sharp for safety and comfort, but a honing steel is not that. In between sharpenings, a honing steel realigns the edge of your knives to maintain your sharpness.
Is your knife block often found in your knife block? I say yes. Where else would it be?
You need a place to put your knives, and a knife block is far better than a drawer. The edges stay safe from getting bashed around, which keeps them sharper for longer. The other things in the drawer, including your fingers, stay safer when they don’t come in contact with the knife edges. Finally, a block keeps your knives up on the counter in view so it’s easy to grab the right one.
Knife Set Buyer’s Guide
You want good knives.
Not enough info? OK. Aside from the overall quality of the knives, go through the list of knives in the set and tag each knife as something you use all the time, something you might use now and then, or something that’ll basically never come out of the block. The more stuff in those last two categories, the less useful that set is.
Key question: will it fit on your countertop? Some blocks sit at a 45° angle so you can pull a knife out under wall cabinets. Others are vertical to save space, but need enough vertical room to pull a 13” knife (including the handle) out.
You might not be a cookware junkie like me with four chef’s knives, but everybody eventually expands their knife collection. I like to see a block with room for more knives than just what comes with the set. It gives you room to grow over time.
What We Like
It has a very useful assortment of knives. This set includes a classic 8” Chef’s Knife, a 3.5” paring knife, 5″ Boning knife, an 8″ bread knife, 8″ carving knife, and kitchen shears, as well as a sharpening steel – in addition to the wooden block. All the useful tools and nothing else, except maybe the carving knife.
The high-carbon stainless steel blades are sharp and corrosion-resistant. They’re easy to sharpen and forged – tough and high-quality enough to last years of use (with proper care). They’re also well-balanced, with good heft and chopping power – while the more-precision knives are still wieldy. They’re pretty beautiful, too.
The synthetic handles are solid. While smooth, they’re easy to grip and wield…and the “tight molecular structure” means they resist fading and discoloration. They are also supposed to be dishwasher safe.
What We Don’t Like
The shears could be better. The handle material on these shears isn’t great, and they don’t create enough sheer “cutting power.”
A smaller knife set that hits all the main points and doesn’t have too many unnecessary knives, this 7-piece set from classic Swiss Army Knife-maker Victorinox comes with an attractive oak block and Rosewood handles.
What We Like
All The Essentials: This knife set includes an 8-inch chef’s, 8-inch bread, 6-inch boning, 3-1/4” paring knife, 10-inch slicing knives, and the 10-inch sharpening steel for keeping those blades honed.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel Blades. They are tough, corrosion-resistant and extremely sharp, and they do an excellent job at holding their edge. And yes – they look great, too.
Well-Balanced. You want your knives to be hefty enough to chop and cut with ease, but also light enough to be wieldy and nimble (and not tire out your wrists). This Victorinox set hits that nail on the head.
What We Don’t
The Handles Could Be Better. They’re made from rosewood, and they look great – but they feel light and cheap. Not super confidence inspiring.
The Block Feels a lil’ Cheap. The wood finish on the oak knife block isn’t very good and wears off and chips when you’re sliding the knives in and out. The knives don’t always fit into the slots perfectly.
This 9-piece set is pricey, but it’s also one of the finest knive sets out there – with everything you could possibly need and a little bit more. It includes a 9” bread knife, 9” slicing knife, 8” chef’s knife, 6” chef’s knife, 6” utility knife, 3.5” paring knife, a sharpening steel and kitchen shears. If this 9-piece set is out of stock take a look at the 7-piece set.
What We Like
The Top-Notch Construction. These knives are solid and well-built, and you can feel it when you pick them up. The stainless-steel blades are hefty and perfectly crafted, with VG-10 cores surrounded by 16 layers of SUS410 high-carbon stainless steel on each side. This gives it the look of beautiful Damascus Steel, and means they are amply corrosion resistant. Single-piece bolsters mean solid heft and durability.
The Solid Bamboo Block. A lot of the wooden knife blocks on this list are kind of cheap and tend to flake or chip when hit with a knife edge. Not this one; it’s rock solid and hefty. It kind of has to be, at this price.
The Taskmaster Shears. Shun’s Taskmaster Shears are some of the best out there already, and worth buying all on their own. Putting them into this set was a good idea.
What We Don’t
It’s expensive. Buying this knife set is a real investment, and while Shun’s quality is top-notch, we think you could put together your own kit – with all the important tools and none of the unneeded ones – in a lot less time.
Want to make sure you have absolutely everything you need…and are never missing anything from your kit? Check out this 18-piece block set from Chicago Cutlery. It has a 3.25″ parer, 3″ peeler, 5″ utility knife, an 8” chef’s kife, 8″ slicer, 7.75″ serrated bread knife, 5″ partoku, 7″ santoku, 8″ stainless sharpening steel…and 8 4.25″ steak knives bringing the total to 17 stainless steels tools and one wooden block.
What We Like
The Forged High-Carbon Blades. They are super strong, professional-grade and very corrosion-resistant. They’re also super sharp, cutting through paper with ease, and hold their edge well. Chicago Cutlery knife sets use what they call their “Taper Grind edge technology,” which is supposed to provide “optimum sharpness” and easy sharpening.
The Rubberized Handles. They provide much better grip and confidence in your hand than regular smooth plastic or composite handles, and we appreciate that.
What We Don’t
They’re Not Very Durable. Many people have reported the handles and blades snapping when used with a lot of force, or even when dropped directly onto the floor. That’s especially a concern with the steak knives. They are also not dish-washer safe and will chip or crack in there.
The Steak Knives Don’t Have Rubberized Handles. They are just one solid piece of metal. They look great and are still useable, but we’d love to have some kind of handle grip to go off of.
A mid-priced option that doesn’t carry the high price tags of Victorinox or Shun sets – but isn’t a basement bargain, either – this 9-piece set from German-inspired, California-based Messermesister packs all the essentials and a few extra goodies as well. The Park Plaza Collection, as it’s called, uses stamped German stainless steel to create a classic European style.
What We Like
Super-Sharp Stainless-Steel Blades. Messermeister used German krupp stainless steel for this knife set, giving in a hardness rating of 56 – so it can hold an edge longer – while remaining light and flexible. It’s high-carbon and rust and corrosion-resistant, and each knife uses a full-tang construction. They make quick work of pretty much any food, too.
The Rock-Solid Handles. Made from triple riveted composite, these handles are solid and securely fastened to the full-tang. Everything comes together into a well-balanced piece, and we’re comfortable that these will last a very long time.
What We Don’t
The Blades are Stamped. While good quality overall, and well-balanced, we’d like to see forged blades – which are more durable and dependable and often hold their edge better.
The Blades Could Be Thicker. Not sure if this the result of the stamped construction or just Messermesiter’s design, but a thicker blade would be more durable and would hold its edge longer.
Some Knives Aren’t Worth The Cost. We’re referring to the Santoku and the Utility knife, for instance; they’re too heavy for the nimble tasks they’re designed for.
The Mercer Genesis 6-piece set is a very affordable, very simple knife set that’s streamlined and sticks with just the basics. It’s got a very clean, streamlined modern look, too – and a cool transparent glass block that lets you show off the fancy blades around your kitchen.
What We Like
High-Carbon Stainless Steel. These blades use real German metal, and the high carbon content means they are strong but light, razor-sharp and corrosion-resistant.
The Blades Are Forged. Forged means thicker metal, more durable build, and thick bolsters. The full-tang construction runs the whole handle, and the edges are taper-ground and hand-polished.
The Black Santoprene Handles. Santoprene is like a hybrid of vulcanized rubber and thermoplastic, so these have a perfect grip and secure, balanced feel. It’s resistant to food oils, too.
The Glass Block is Sleek. If your kitchen has more of a modern look, you’ll like this one more.
What We Don’t
Some People Report Rust. With proper care, these shouldn’t rust – they are stainless steel. But there have been reports, so be sure to keep them properly cleaned and dried.
Block Doesn’t Fit Under Cabinets. The knives must be pulled straight up, and it won’t fit under short kitchen cabinets.
When it comes to sheer bang-for-the-buck, you can’t go wrong with this 19-piece set from J.A. Henckels. It has everything you could possibly need in a kitchen knife set…and a whole lot more, too.
What We Like
The High-Carbon Zwilling Formula Steel Blades. They are sharp and razor honed by hand with “laser-precision,” and even ice-hardened to a Rockwell 57 hardness.
The Ergonomic Polymer Handles. They are durable, tough and grippy – even when wet. A solid and well-balanced handle all-round. They’re even Dishwasher-Safe (even if handwashing is recommended).
What We Don’t
The Blades are Stamped. They use “laser cutting” to ensure perfect edges, but they are super thin and we’d still rather have forged blades. Some users have even had blades snap.
They Could Be Easier To Use. Some of these knives – including the bread knife and the chef’s knife, are very thick and heavy…and crush food more than slice right through it.
Lots of Extra, Unneccesary Pieces. The eight steak knives are great, but we don’t really have use for the tiny boning knife or the utility knife (which is pretty much just another steak knife).
Looking for something sleek and modern, as well as dirt cheap? Grab the Cuisinart 15-Piece Stainless Steel Knife. It’s dirt cheap, durable and gorgeous. For this reason we have selected this Cuisinart knife set as our Best Kitchen Knife Set for the Money.
What We Love
One-Piece High-Carbon Stainless Build. These knives are light but strong, well-balanced and corrosion resistant. They are precision-tapered and ground and hold their edge extremely well.
Dishwasher-Resistant. Many knives on this list claim to be dishwasher ready, but don’t hold up well. These fare quite well in the dishwasher, however, and come out spotless.
Ergonomic Handles. They may not have any kind of rubber or grip, but the metal itself is easy enough to hold onto – even when wet – and they fit comfortably in the hand.
Great Steak Knives. These compact, serrated blades
Super Affordable. Really, at this kind of price tag…how could you complain?
What We Don’t
Rust Problems. This is mainly the case for handles and knives that weren’t properly dried or taken care of. The bolts and hinges on the shears are another place likely to get some rust problems.
Thin Blades. Especially on some of the smaller, thinner knives – like the utility knife and the steak knives. Some reviewers complained of bending and chipping.
The knives in this DALSTRONG German 8-piece set are razor-sharp and top-notch quality. Pick one up…and you will instantly feel the craftsmanship and precision handiwork. It includes a chef’s knife, santoku, carving / slicing, bread, utility knife, serrated utility knife, paring knives and honing rod.
What We Like
Top-Notch Quality Blades. Made from high-carbon German steel, these blades are strong, well-balanced and precision-made. They go through paper like its butter.
The Pakkawood Handles Rock. Laminated pakkawood is tough and strong. The handles are easy to grip and the ergonomic shape fits in your hand perfectly; receivers have noted that they can chop comfortably with these things for long periods without their hands hurting. And they use a full-tang with triple rivets for an all-around solid build.
Gorgeous Knife Block. It’s solid, dark-stained, real acacia wood.
The knives are handcrafted with attention to detail with perfect finish and no cornered edges to get painful when chopping or slicing a bunch of food and cause fatigue. It has got solid grip and light weight.
What We Don’t
Blades Could Hold Edge Longer. Reviewers find these knives dulling quite quickly and need to hone and sharpen them quite often.
The Block Could Be Better Quality. It may look beautiful, but many users have noticed it splits and cracks after a while – especially if moisture gets in. Make sure all blades are 100% dry before putting away!
Some Extra Pieces. The serrated utility knife, for example, doesn’t have a lot of specific uses…and we could do without the 9” carving knife.
Don’t want to deal with sharpening your knives? Just get this self-sharpening knife set from Calphalon. It has ceramic sharpeners built right into the block, eliminating the sharpening rod found in most other sets.
What We Like
Fully-Forged, High-Carbon Steel Blades. Reviewers say they have some good heft, are thick and solid, and hold their edge well.
Balanced, Labeled Handles. They are ergonomically shaped and have a solid full-tang construction. People say the composite material is grippy enough when wet – and all the knives are labeled on their handles for easy identification when they’re in the block!
The Self-Sharpening Block. Combining the sharpening rod and the knife block saves space, and it’s very easy to use. The block’s compact footprint occupies little space on the counter, and it’s a gorgeous walnut-stained hardwood.
Streamlined Essentials. No unnecessary pieces here. There’s the requisite Chef’s Knife, a Santoku knife, paring knife and serrated utility knife – as well 4 steak knives and kitchen shears. No useless bread knives or carving knives.
What We Don’t
Blades Rust. Even the best stainless steel has some problems with corrosion, apparently, and reviewers have seen rust in just a few weeks of work.
Steaks Knives Are Stamped. The regular knives are forged, but the steak knives are stamped…and can’t be used in the self-sharpening slots.
Recommended with Reservations
Stone Boomer Knives – 14 Piece Knife Block Set
At this price point we couldn’t leave this affordable set out of our review. It’s not all upside though, but with it’s sleek modern appearance it’s almost worth it’s price tag if purchased for nothing more than just a decoration. The knives arrive sharp, but hold onto the sharpening stone as the poor blade design will require sharpening sooner than later.
Knife Buyer’s Guide
Material – Carbon Steel VS. Stainless Steel
Most knives are made of steel, although there are some intriguing ceramic options out there too. Exactly what kind of steel makes a difference, though the language here can be pretty impenetrable. Steel is an alloy of mostly iron with a little bit of carbon.
Knives advertised as carbon steel are pretty much just that, possibly with a few other additions. Carbon steel knives can be sharpened to an amazing degree, but lose their sharpness relatively quickly, and so need frequent sharpening. They also rust if they’re left wet, so they need to be carefully and religiously cleaned, dried, and oiled. In short, they need a lot of regular maintenance. Professional chefs love them for their excellent performance, but home cooks will probably spend more time cleaning them than cutting with them.
Stainless steel adds chromium to the mix to keep the iron from rusting. Go back in time thirty or forty years, and stainless steel knives were pretty bad. They didn’t rust, but couldn’t be sharpened all that well, and were considered a knife for amateurs. Over time, though, materials have continually improved, both through better production techniques and adding a third of the periodic table to the recipe, to the point where modern stainless steel knives are really good.
High-carbon stainless steel knives are made from a relatively modern alloy that tries to make stainless steel as sharpenable as possible. It’s probably your best choice for a home cook, but it will cost a couple of dollars.
I’m not a metallurgist, and the details of nickel percentage go over my head, but I can give a few tips on materials. First, sharpness is usually proportional to the need to sharpen a knife. If you get a knife that can take a great edge, you need to maintain it, while a lesser edge will take less of your time. Second, you usually get what you pay for. Better quality steel costs more, and cheap knives don’t have it.
Finally, there is no magic bullet out there. If an ad claims that their knives stay razor-sharp forever, clean other dishes by their mere presence, and cook dinner all by themselves, don’t believe it.
Construction Method – Forged VS. Stamped
Metal knives are either forged or stamped.
Forged knives start with a chunk of steel that’s hammered into shape while hot. Stamped knives are cut from a sheet of steel. In general, forged knives are stronger, heavier, and more expensive than stamped knives. The extra money is worth it for a chef’s knife that needs that extra strength to hold up to heavy chopping jobs, but a stamped blade can do a fine job as, say, a boning knife where the goal is to be thin and light.
On a forged knife, look for the presence of a bolster, a thick part at the handle-end of the knife. It helps the grip and balance of the blade.
Weight and Balance
The weight of your knife should be appropriate to the job it needs to do. A cleaver needs to be heavy to chop through bone, but a paring knife needs to glide weightlessly around a potato. Beyond that, it’s your preference. Do you like a heavier blade that guides itself a little more, or a lighter one for greater control? Try a few friends’ knives before you buy.
A good knife needs to put that weight in the right place. Normally, that’s right on your index finger and thumb when you’re gripping it, but that can change a little bit with different knives. The cleaver, for example, should be blade-heavy because that’s where the work happens. Balance is something you notice more when it’s bad than when it’s good.
You need a good grip. The handle on your knife is very much a personal choice, and needs to fit your hand comfortably. You need to be able to keep your handle clean, so watch out for bits where crud can get lodged and be hard to wash. Most knives now have synthetic handles with no gaps at all.
The back end of the blade, called the tang, is encased in the handle in some way. A good knife should have a full-through tang that extends the length of the handle for strength and stability.
If you’re just starting out in the kitchen or looking for a wholesale change, a knife set could be for you. They also make great gifts for weddings and graduations. Replacing a bunch of second-rate knives with matching quality ones is always appreciated.
The best thing you get in a knife set is uniformity. When everything matches, you get fewer surprises and can move from knife to knife without recalibrating your feel as much. The handles feel the same in your hand, so if you like one, you’ll like them all (if you don’t like that handle style, you’re screwed).
But, what if you don’t want uniformity? Building your own set gets you exactly what you want, knife by knife. You can also allocate your cash exactly the way you want to, buying expensive for knives that are important to you and going cheap on the ones that just need to get by.
Our DIY Knife Set: An All-Star Lineup
The best bang for your buck is to put together your own kitchen knife set. We’ve got two lineups here.
- The first is our recommended set that’ll give you great knives for the vast majority of jobs around the kitchen.
- The second is our value set, suitable for starting off a new apartment on the cheap.
The real value of choosing your own set is that you can mix and match. Maybe take the value set, but upgrade the chef’s knife since it’s your #1 knife.
Before we jump into our two lineups, here’s our recommendation for the knife block.
A knife block is important for maintaining your knives. It keeps their edges from banging into things in a drawer and it keeps you from having to reach into sharp edges to grab things around them. We’ve got two choices of block here, and it’s just down to personal preference which style you like.
The J.A. Henckels block is a traditional block with individual slots for each knife. It’s got plenty of room to expand your set over time, and the slots are big enough to fit large knives, unlike some sets.
The Mantello block is a universal block with a bundle of plastic rods in an open box. You put your knives wherever you want and the friction of the rods holds them in. This is easily reconfigurable if you’re thinking you might change up your collection, plus it’s easy to clean.
THE RECOMMENDED DIY SET
The chef’s knife is the most important knife in your kitchen. The Wüsthof 8” Classic is a forged knife with a nice solid spine, full bolster, and great handle.
Lots of paring knives try to be mini chef’s knives, but they’ve got a different job to do. The Henckels Kudamono has a wonderful shape and great balance for all your precise jobs.
If you keep your chef’s knife good and sharp, you don’t need a serrated knife too much, but there’s nothing better for cutting a crusty loaf of bread. The F. Dick 10” Prodynamic has a good shape and enough length to cleanly slice a large loaf.
Boning knives come in several styles: curved or straight? Flex or no flex? I prefer a flexible straight blade myself, but all of the variations of the Wüsthof Gourmet 6” are first rate. The foot is especially good on these knives, and very useful for scraping.
THE VALUE DIY SET
It’s a stamped blade and the balance is a little odd, but it’s got a great handle and a nice shape. You won’t find anything better than the Victorinox Fibrox 8” without spending twice as much.
The Victorinox Fibrox is a little razor blade on a handle. It’ll handle most anything, and the price looks like a misprint.
For your serrated knife, you need length and grabby teeth. The Mercer 10” delivers on all counts.
Choose your stiffness and shape, they’re all pretty good. If you don’t know what shape you like, a Victorinox Fibrox is a cheap way to find out. The handle is good, but the foot is lacking.
Those four knives plus the block are your baseline set, but here are some bonus knives worth adding.
When it comes to cutting up bones, like when spatchcocking a chicken, kitchen shears are precise and powerful. The Messermeister 8.5” do that and many other small jobs very well, and are easy to clean.
It’s not a knife, but it’s often included with knife sets. A steel is no substitute for sharpening, but will touch up your edges in between sharpenings. The Henckels 9″ has enough length to be worthwhile at a reasonable price.
I pull this one out maybe half a dozen times a year, but it’s amazing for gliding through a pork roast or separating cake layers. The Victorinox 12” is definitely an extra, but extremely good. Note: it doesn’t fit anywhere. Get a knife guard that fits it before you cut yourself on it.
Taking your knives on the road? Whether you’re headed to an Airbnb for a weekend or cooking at your folks’ place, it’s good to use your own knives. A roll is much better for your knives and your hands than rolling them in a towel.