An Expert Guide to Knife Sets: How to Find the Best Knife Set for YouPublished on 07/18/2023 · 10 min readMaster the art of slicing and dicing with our expert guide to knife sets. Find the perfect set to elevate your cooking experience and conquer any recipe.
Photo by Fiz Kes
TL;DR: When buying a kitchen knife set, consider that forged steel knives provide the best value and, with proper maintenance, will last for many years. The best set for you will have only knives you know you will use and none you won’t.
I’m Jake, a Curated Kitchen Expert with over 20 years of experience in professional kitchens. My knife collection includes five prep knives. None of them are particularly high-end, but I keep them very sharp with a whetstone. In this article, I’ll lend a hand to help you understand the key features of knife sets.
What Is a Knife Set?
Cooking knives come in all qualities, blade count, and aesthetics. The most fundamental sets have three to eight essential prep knives for the versatility of chopping and slicing a variety of ingredients while also handling some specialty tasks like fileting fish or carving roasts. Most knife sets come with a storage block, magnet bar, or a travel case for safekeeping. Sets with five to 12 pieces will have prep knives, and sets with 15+ pieces will add steak knives.
What Are the Essential Knives in a Knife Set?
- Chef's Knife: This all-purpose knife is typically six to 10 inches long and excels at slicing and chopping onions. A traditional European chef knife comes to a point at the end of the blade and is less safe to use than other options like the Santoku.
- Paring Knife: A two to four-inch blade that is best used for gently trimming, cleaning, peeling carrots, or slicing small handheld fruits and vegetables. Many chefs do not use paring knives on cutting boards.
- Bread Knife: The long serrated blade of a bread knife is designed to slice the thick bread crust. They are so great for splitting squash. Typically, a bread knife uses a single-bevel edge which can be difficult for beginners to perform even cuts. Double-bevel bread knives are more commonly available on higher-end options and cut evenly.
- Utility Knife: Utility knives come in many shapes and sizes but are usually four to seven inches long with either a serrated or fine edge. These are great for sandwiches, cheese, apples, and medium-sized ingredients that don’t require much chopping. Skilled home cooks can use a utility knife in place of a boning or filet knife.
- Boning Knife: Often sold separately, the thin, flexible blade of the boning knife is excellent for deboning animal products. A boning knife is five to seven inches long. Less common, the Japanese Honesuki boning knife is perfectly designed for poultry.
- Santoku Knife: Compact, the Santoku is a Japanese chef knife designed for slicing, chopping, and dicing. They are great for quartering potatoes or mincing garlic and herbs. Usually between five to seven inches in length, the end of the blade comes to a rounded “sheepsfoot,” which is typically considered safer to use compared to the European chef’s knife.
While there are many other knives to consider (most notably the Nakiri, Carving, Butcher, Fillet, Tomato, and Peeling knives), these are the knives most commonly found in sets.
What to Consider When Buying a Knife Set
1. What Types of Cooking Do You Frequently Do?
There is a knife set that will best suit your favorite ingredients! Typically, Japanese knives will be better suited for vegetables and delicate ingredients, while European blades are more durable for meats (of course, there are exceptions for both.)
2. How Comfortable is the Knife in Your Hand?
I encourage a “pinch grip” as it stabilizes the blade while cutting, but not all knives are best suited for it. For example, full-bolster knives might be less comfortable. Knife handles are made from a variety of materials, including resin, wood, plastic, and metal. The handles should feel balanced in your hand.
3. How Many Knives Do You Need?
Many folks only need a few knives, but others want options. Get a set that suits your needs, and it’ll empower your ideas in the kitchen. Investing in fewer high-quality knives will serve you much better than a large set of low-quality knives.
4. How Much Should a Knife Set Cost?
Low-cost knives use stamped metals. They can be kept sharp but will dull quickly, creating extra effort. The best value of performance and durability begins around $50-100 per knife and have forged stainless steel. High-end sets are $150-300+ per knife and might feature carbon steel or Damascus steel construction.
5. How Easy Is It to Care for a Knife Set?
All knives need regular maintenance and sharpening. Forged stainless steel is the lowest effort and most durable. Some sets include a sharpener in the block or honing steel (a sharpening steel rod can easily damage your knives). While auto-sharpeners are better than nothing, I encourage you to learn how to use a whetstone. It’s affordable, easy to learn, satisfying, and will provide the best results. Knives are hand-wash only, and leaving them in water will ruin the edge — no dishwashers!
What Are the Different Types of Knife Sets?
Listed below are the common types of knife sets and some benefits and drawbacks.
1. Basic Knife Sets
An essential for any kitchen, a basic knife set usually includes a chef knife, paring, utility, and bread knife (two to five pieces). These sets are great for minimalists and beginners.
- Can complete almost any task in the kitchen
- Simpler workflow and less cleanup
- Smaller required storage space
- More affordable than larger sets
- Lack of specialty knives can limit nuance
- As skills and interests expand, some chefs might want additional knives to fill the gaps
- Simple chopping and slicing and perfect for beginners
- Suitable for households that don’t cook often but still need options
2. Full Knife Sets
These basic knife sets include extra prep knives like a Santoku, carving, or boning knife (eight to 12 pieces). A full knife set often includes a honing rod, kitchen shears, or steak knives, offering more variety than a basic set.
- The variety of knives is suitable for dynamic cooking styles
- A better value-per-knife when compared to buying individually
- Enough knives to share meal prep with guests or helpers
- Requires more storage space
- Might include knives you don’t need
- Experienced chefs who know what they want or anyone who’s open to explore
3. Steak Knife Sets
Most often, these sets are 15 to 20 pieces, including a full list of prep blades and four to eight steak knives. A steak knife set is perfect for chefs who regularly serve meat to a small crowd. Low-cost steak knives will be stamped metal with a serrated edge, while higher-end options will present a fine edge and be made with forged or Damascus steel. Benefits:
- Matching knives provide a consistent aesthetic
- Perfect for cutting through cooked meats
- Steak knives can be used like paring knives
- Takes up more space and might not get used often enough to warrant the required storage
- Low-cost options use a serrated knife made with stamped metal that is difficult to maintain
- Households that regularly serve meat to four to eight people.
Features to Look for in a Knife Set
Here are common features to look out for that will ensure you’re satisfied with the quality and handling of each blade. Let’s take a look:
- High-Quality Material and Design and Warranty: Most knives have a lifetime warranty, but some don’t. As for handles and construction, look for high-carbon full-tang knives with composite or resin handles. Wooden handles are great but might require extra care.
- Comfortable Grip: Knives that fit the shape of your hand are key. The knife should feel balanced as you grip it. A good knife for your ergonomic needs won’t add extra strain to your wrist.
- Ease of Maintenance: Forged stainless is the most durable and easiest to maintain. Carbon steel knives have the highest potential for sharpness but require frequent touch-up sharpening and might develop rust if left in damp areas. Damascus steel knives are eye-catching and can be extremely sharp, but the material is brittle (prone to chips and cracks) and difficult to sharpen. Stamped metal knives can be fine and easy to maintain, but as a rule, they should be avoided.
- Storage: The cost of a knife set includes the storage block, case, or magnetic bar. It’s worth making sure that the included storage option is what you want and that it will suit your kitchen. Magnetic knife bars are my first choice because they allow you to see the knives and limit wear to the blade (unlike most wooden blocks, the slots can dull the blade).
Features to Avoid or Be Aware Of in a Knife Set
Some features could potentially compromise the functionality, safety, or durability of a knife set. Here are some things to consider:
- Plastic Handles: Budget knife sets save cost with cheap handles. This material will easily crack and, in the worst cases, fall off the knife entirely.
- Full-Bolster Design: Knife bolsters exist to balance the weight of the blade with the handle and add blade strength. Bolsters increase safety by buffering between the hand and the knife’s edge. They’re perfect for beginners. I personally enjoy using knives with a full bolster. However, they aren’t my first choice for a couple of reasons: They’re more difficult to sharpen compared to half-bolster knives, and they often don’t suit a “pinch-grip” cutting style because the extra material at the heel of the blade is less ergonomic between the thumb and index finger.
How to Choose the Best Knife Set for You
Here are a few examples of people I’ve helped find the perfect set of knives for their household or professional use.
Needs: Professional chef who’s upgrading the knives at home. He wants high-quality forged or Damascus steel with a decent variety but doesn’t need steak knives.
Features to look for: Half-bolster, magnetic bar preferred but not required
Products to consider:
- Cangshan Thomas Keller Signature Set: This set has longer-than-average knives perfect for slicing and increased versatility. One of the very best kitchen knife sets, built for professionals and enthusiasts.
- Wusthof Ikon Classic Set: These knives are handmade in Solingen, Germany, and prioritize ergonomics and precision. These knives showcase excellent craftsmanship and are built to last for decades.
- Miyabi Kaizen II Set: These Japanese-style knives use Damascus steel construction which presents a beautiful pattern and extremely sharp blades. However, this set might not have all the desired knives.
Needs: A full set of prep and steak knives with a good storage block.
Features to look for: Durability, ease of maintenance, and affordability
Products to consider:
- Schmidt Brothers Carbon Set: The best aesthetics without compromising the durability of forged steel.
- Zwilling Twin Self-Sharpening Block Set: High-quality stamped steel means these knives are durable, affordable, and easy to maintain.
- Anolon Always Sharp Japanese Set: This is a well-made, affordable, and basic knife set that includes a wide variety of prep tools.
Needs: A good and affordable knife block set — doesn’t need a sharpener.
Features to look for: Aesthetics, durability, and cost
Products to consider:
- Cangshan Helena Set: My top pick for quality forged knives, the Helena is simple to maintain with a modern design and ergonomics.
- Schmidt Brothers Jet Black Set: Affordable and durable, these knives have a particular style and an open-faced wood block for easy viewing.
- Henckels Modernist Set: The lowest-cost option, these knives are perfectly acceptable if cared for properly. The all-metal construction means you could accidentally put them through the dishwasher without worrying about damaging the handles.
Selecting the Perfect Knife Set
Shopping for knife sets can be daunting. Do you want a heavy-duty German knife or a lightweight and delicate Japanese set? It’s common for me to talk with the same people for months before they decide what set is perfect for their needs. Don’t fret. If you want feedback on your search and a list of options based on your needs, please know you’re always invited to chat with me or another Kitchen Expert here on Curated.