Choosing Kitchen Knives
Professional chefs who need professional-grade kitchen knives rely on internationally acclaimed knives that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But if you're a regular home cook shopping for the best knives to use in your kitchen, there's no reason to spend big on a cutlery set. According to scores of reviews by consumers, the best cheap kitchen knives feel good in the hand and cut cleanly and easily.
One money-saving tip when shopping for kitchen knives: Don't sacrifice quality for quantity. Indeed, some cooking mavens argue that one top-quality 8-inch chef's knife is all you need for most tasks. Experts at Consumer Reports say four knives in particular -- a chef's knife, slicing knife, utility knife, and paring knife -- are necessary tools for a well-equipped kitchen.
The impact on your wallet will be about the same whether you opt for one high-quality chef's knife or a good cheap set containing a variety of knives. If you decide to spring for a cutlery set, choose one that includes knives you'll actually use. Don't assume a set is a good value simply because it comes with a ton of extra knives. The smarter approach is to buy fewer knives that will perform better over a longer stretch of time.
A knife is essentially an extension of a cook's hand, so experts recommend picking up and holding knives to see if they're a good fit for your hands before buying. A knife can be superbly crafted and receive rave reviews, but if it feels too small, too large, or in some way uncomfortable in your hand, it won't be very useful, regardless of other cooks' experience.
Knife Brands.Many reviewers insist that the best knives are made by German and Japanese companies such as Wüsthof, Zwilling J. A. Henckels, and Shun. Generally speaking, German knives have thicker and slightly curved blades. They have greater flexibility than more rigid Japanese knives, which is welcome when cutting through hard vegetables or bones but doesn't offer the same degree of precision.
Henckels makes more affordable knives in addition to its high-end offerings. Frugal home cooks can also be assured of a good selection of cheap cutlery from well-known, well-regarded manufacturers such as Cuisinart, Farberware, Chicago Cutlery, and Ginsu, to name just a few.
Pricey vs. Cheap Kitchen Knives.Most good knife sets contain pretty much the same basic items, no matter what the cost. Nevertheless, there's a pretty big difference between cheap knives and expensive ones. As consumers attest, even the cheapest knife is sharp when new. But it's not liable to stay that way for long. Knives that hold their edge over time are usually made from more solid metal and have been carefully honed to a precise bevel angle. For instance, the Shun 8" Classic Chef's Knife (starting at $150) is made from 68 layers of high carbon steel (34 layers on each side). The blade is extremely hard and honed to a razor-sharp 16-degree bevel. Cheaper knives are made of weaker metals and more prone to breakage. Regardless of brand, from French to American, they're frequently manufactured in China. As a rule, knives made with more expensive metal take an edge better and keep it longer. Pricier knives tend to be heavier and better balanced, so that the knife feels like an extension of the user's hand. That said, some people prefer a lighter knife.
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Kitchen Knife Reviews: What We Considered
There aren't a lot of expert reviews of cheap knife sets, so it's important to understand the features that generally make for a decent set of knives. Feedback from owners on retail sites such as Amazon, Walmart, Target, Wayfair, and Bed Bath & Beyond is also helpful to get a sense of how particular knives actually perform -- and hold up -- if you don't have the option of testing them out in your own kitchen. Just take consumer reviews with a grain of salt. Although there's consensus among home cooks about the value and usefulness of the best cheap cutlery sets, there's also some divergence in kitchen knife reviews. For any given set of knives, a majority of consumers may rave about sharp edges and ease of cutting, while a few find the knives dull and hard to work with -- or the reverse. Likewise with other performance characteristics, such as durability and tendency to rust. Overall, users are satisfied with the variety offered in the best cheap knife sets and the high quality-to-price ratio.
Blade Material.A knife is only as good as its blade. The blades on most cheaper kitchen knives are made of stainless steel. Stainless steel is a compound metal composed of elements including chromium, nickel, iron, and carbon. Chromium gives it the resistance to corrosion (rust) that most people want. Often a stainless steel knife will boast a high carbon content of at least 0.6 percent. Carbon gives the knife its hardness and ability to take an edge when sharpened. Stainless steel blades are tough and known for maintaining their shiny good looks and keeping their edge longer, but they're on the softer side and it's difficult to get them extremely sharp.
Some cooks, particularly more serious home chefs, prefer carbon steel to stainless steel. Carbon steel knives, which do not incorporate chromium, often proclaim to be made of 1095 carbon. This means the steel contains 0.95 percent carbon, making it harder and reducing wear over time. Carbon steel knives tend to be sharper than their stainless steel counterparts -- cutting paper-thin slices of onions, for example, with little effort -- and they're easier to hone. On the downside, high humidity and foods high in acid can cause carbon steel blades to rust and discolor, respectively. Also, carbon steel knives require more care. They need to be cleaned and sharpened frequently and oiled with some regularity, to form a moisture barrier.
A newer addition to the knife repertoire is ceramic blades. Ceramic kitchen knives do not replace steel knives, but they serve a purpose and certainly have their pros and cons. Ceramic blades are super-sharp and hardly ever need sharpening; when they do, they require a special sharpener. Ceramic knives are lightweight, thin, non-corrosive, and very hard. However, ceramic is also brittle, which makes it prone to chipping. Ceramic knives cannot be used to cut through bones or frozen foods. They are terrific for slicing vegetables, however, and generally quite inexpensive.
Forged vs. Stamped Knives.Another distinction to consider among blades is whether they are "forged" or "stamped." Traditionally, forged knives have been considered higher quality, but one is not necessarily better than the other. Forged knives are molded by hand using intense heat. They are made from one piece of steel and usually have a "bolster" -- a thick piece of metal between the blade and the handle -- that helps balance the knife's weight. They tend to be hard, dense, heavy, and strong -- and also more expensive. Forged knives have a cutting edge that stays sharp a long time and takes an edge well. Because of their weight, not as much pressure needs to be applied when hacking through thicker foods like squashes with very tough skins.
Stamped knives are made by machine from a template cutter. They are cheaper to produce, lighter, and more flexible than forged knives. This can be an advantage in certain situations: Thinner knives are much better at slicing. Stamped knives need to be sharpened more often than forged ones, although sharpening may be a bit easier, because they don't have a bolster. The blades in cheap knives are usually stamped. Some sets contain forged knives, but one must assume that corners have been cut somewhere to keep costs low, as forging is a much more expensive process.
Handle.Ideally, the knives you buy will be "full tang," which means the metal of the blade extends into the handle (this is typical with forged blades). This mode of construction prevents bending and breakage, makes the knife easier to work with, and is likely to lengthen the lifespan of a cheap knife. Some knife handles are made of Bakelite, a hard, heat-resistant, and electrically non-conductive plastic used in a lot of kitchenware.
Weight.The weight of a kitchen knife affects its feel in your hand, how you work with it, and how it performs. You'll want a heavier knife for meats and thinner, lightweight knives for slicing and chopping vegetables. Experts say metal handles make knives significantly heavier, so if you're eyeing a knife with such a handle, make sure it won't place unnecessary strain on your wrist or impair your control as you whisk the blade across the cutting board. Excessive weight is rarely a concern with cheap cutlery sets; you may have to step up a few notches in price if you're partial to knives with some heft.
Knife Variety.Despite what some experts say about the joy of cooking with only one all-purpose knife, having a choice of knives is an affordable luxury. Cheap cutlery sets typically come with a dozen or more different knives, ranging from a delicate boning knife to a hefty cleaver to steak knives intended for place settings. If you cut up lots of fruits and vegetables, you'll appreciate a paring knife, which is particularly useful for peeling skins. Some cheap cutlery sets include a santoku knife, which is a bit like a small, thin-bladed cleaver and has recently gained favor among home cooks for its usefulness in chopping, dicing, and mincing. For cooks whose recipe repertoire includes meat, steak knives as well as knives like a cleaver and boning knife are important. Soft foods, particularly breads and tomatoes, call out for serrated knives.
Extras.It may be hard to believe, but even cheap knife sets often feature a few useful extras, such as a knife sharpener. High-end sets can be sent back to the manufacturer for sharpening, but with budget cutlery, you either sharpen the knives yourself, work with dull blades, or buy a new set. Be wary of claims in product descriptions boasting that knives "never need sharpening." Experts say all knives dull and need to be sharpened eventually (although serrated edges aren't cut out for this type of ongoing maintenance). Kitchen scissors/shears are another welcome component of some cheap cutlery sets. They're handy for quickly cutting open packaging and completing other tasks that aren't easily or safely handled with a knife. Most cheap knife sets come with a storage block that sits on the countertop.
Durability.The longevity of kitchen knives largely depends on how you clean them. Most experts and many home cooks urge consumers to hand-wash knives and dry them right away rather than put them in the dishwasher. Almost every cheap cutlery set has at least one review complaining about rusting, often due to dishwasher cleaning, which can also leave unsightly splotching and dull the edges. It's probably a good idea to avoid the dishwasher altogether, no matter which knives you choose.
It's impossible to predict how long a cheap blade will hold its edge. Obviously the more you use it, the faster it will dull (although ceramic knives' claim to fame is that they retain their edge for years). The cutting surface also matters: Hard glass and granite, for example, quickly take their toll on knives while softer surfaces, such as bamboo and some of the newer synthetic and recycled materials, are more forgiving. We looked for cheap knife sets that are reported to be cutting cleanly and easily after years of usage.