Buying Guide to Cutlery

Go Back To Guides

Any way you slice it, culinary experts depend on their knives - and with good reason. Well-made cutlery makes a difference in everything from preparation and presentation to the outcome of the food itself. Knowing which knives you need, however, can leave a cook feeling less than sharp. Whether you are looking to begin a cutlery collection or enhancing what you already have, this guide will help you choose the best knives for your needs.

Knife set

Knives are designed with specific jobs in mind and matching the right knife to the task makes the process of prep and cooking easier and more efficient. Investing in a proper set of knives is essential for kitchen safety

You can start your knife collection with a simple solution of buying a set, or you can choose to buy your cutlery individually, and gradually build a comprehensive set. The following are guidelines for every stage:

How do you decide which is best: a set versus a couple of key knives?

Ask yourself how much prep work you tend to do when cooking. If you spend quite a bit of time preparing meals, then having the right set of knives for each type of task is essential. However if your cooking style tends towards simple slicing and dicing, one or two versatile knives should suffice.

If you tend to use the same knife for most food prep chores, which should you own?

Versatility is the key, and there are two great knife styles to choose from; the 8"chef knife or the 7" Santoku knife. Both knives offer excellent slicing, dicing and mincing capabilities, with the curved edge of the chef's knife has a more fluid motion while mincing. On the other hand, the Santoku style is about an inch shorter than the chef's knife and designed with a thinner blade and more rounded tip which offers better control for beginners. The decision between the two will be a personal choice. If possible, hold both styles in your hand (and use a pretend cutting grip or motion) prior to purchase to determine what feels right for you.

You may also find a starter set works best. Starter sets usually consist of three basic knives: a 3" paring knife, a 5" utility, and an 8" chef's knife. This will cover you for most basic food prep work.

You are comfortable using different cutlery knives, but don't consider yourself a gourmet chef, what should you own?

You'll want more than a starter set and should consider anywhere from an 8-piece set on upwards to a 22-piece set. An 8-piece set generally includes these extended basics: 4" paring knife, 6" utility knife, 5" serrated knife, 8" chef's knife, 8" bread knife, kitchen shears, a sharpening steel and a block to store them in. Larger sets will include a variety of serrated knives, steak knives, carving, boning plus other sizes.

You have the basics and are ready for an extended collection:

Once you own the basics, you can begin to specialize and add on to your cutlery collection by buying open stock (individual) pieces. At this point, consider adding: a carving knife; a cleaver; a boning/fillet knife; a tomato knife; cheese knives and a set of good steak knives.

Now that the quantity question is settled, what should you know about quality?

After determining the number and types of knives you are looking for, it's time to address issues of quality and design. You may have noticed that the quality of knives varies greatly, this is due to differences in construction (i.e., forged vs. stamped), design and materials. A quality set of knives is viewed as a lifelong investment.

A well-made knife is expected to last a lifetime, and in many instances, manufacturers stand by their products with warranties that promise exactly that.

What are the different methods of knife construction?

Construction Name Construction Method Used
Forged Construction A forged knife is one that has been created from a single sheet of steel or metal. It is heated and hammered into shape.
Defining features of a forged knife include a "bolster" or wide lip of metal where the knife meets the handle; as well as a full tang or partial tang.
The tang is the metal shank of the blade that extends fully or partially inside the handle. The tang gives the knife a well-balanced feel when in use and provides excellent durability. Often times you can look at the side or spine of the knife and see that the metal continues through the handle.
The process of forging is more labor intensive than other types of construction and therefore more expensive to produce.
Stamped Construction Stamped knives are made with blades that have been pressed from sheets of steel or other metals in a cookie-cutter fashion.
Stamped knives are not created in one, continuous piece of metal (i.e., no "tang"), and therefore lack the balance of a forged knife.
These knives feature thin, light blades, fitted into the handle and they require a firmer grip and more pressure (than forged knives) when in use.
Stamped construction is a less expensive process.
Laser Cut Computer designed knives that feature a serrated edge; also referred to as "Never Needs Sharpening" knives.
While that may be true, the blades will eventually dull and because they cannot be sharpened, they will need to be replaced.
Clad Construction In this construction, multiple layers of softer steel are clad to the outside of a super hard, VG Steel core.
The blade is tapered so that the edge of the knife reveals the VG Steel. Think of it as you would sharpening a pencil so that the lead is exposed.

Knife blades are typically made from steel, but other materials may be added.

Materials Pros/Cons
Carbon Steel A strong metal that sharpens to a fine edge.
This metal tends to discolor when used with acidic foods such as tomatoes or citrus fruit.
Carbon steel also runs the risk of rusting if not completely dried after usage.
Stainless Steel An excellent metal, but it does not keep a sharp edge as well as carbon steel. This metal requires more frequent sharpening.
Stainless steel will not rust, which means caring for this knife will require less effort.
High Carbon Stainless Steel This composite metal offers the best of both worlds: a strong metal that will hold a sharp edge, while resisting rust and discoloration.
These are higher-end knives.
VG10 Steel The "G" in VG stands for Gold, meaning the metal that sets the "Gold Standard" for cutlery.
This steel is produced in Japan and prized for its ability to maintain a very sharp edge and withstand rust.
VG10 Steel is different than VG Stainless Steel and VG1 Steel. VG10 is the higher quality in this category.

What are the two different blade styles and which do you prefer?

Blade design varies slightly between European designs and traditional Eastern styling mainly because of the different culinary histories and cultures of the two regions.

European blades feature a curved edge, often paired with a thick bolster of metal between the handle and the blade. This slightly heavier, solid design is meant for mincing, dicing and chopping food using a rocking motion.

Asian knives, however, are designed with a slimmer, straight-edged blade and either a very small or nonexistent bolster. These knives are used in a straight up and down chopping motion in which the knife leaves the surface of the cutting board.

Ultimately, the right style for you will be the one that fits most comfortably in your hand.

You've seen the terms used to describe the anatomy of cutlery. What do they mean?

The Anatomy of Cutlery

What is the most common type of knives and what is it meant to cut?

Type of Knife What the Knife Does
Trimming
Trimming knife
Prefect for trimming fat an sinews from various meats. Tapered point is a necessity for intricate work with garnishes.
Peeling
Peeling knife
Ideally suited for peeling, cleaning or shaping any fruit or vegetable with a rounded surface.
Paring
Paring knife
Ideal for close control of the blades, trimming, coring, peeling, dicing fruits and vegetables.
Scalloped Paring
Scalloped Paring knife
Perfect little bar knife. The short scalloped edge is great for lemons, limes, and small vegetables. This paring knife remains sharp longer, compared to a fine edge.
Utility/Paring
Utility/Paring knife
Versatile for larger paring tasks when coring, peeling, dicing and trimming.
Utility/Slicer
Utility/Slicer knife
Great all-purpose size and shape. Slicing of sandwiches, fruits and vegetables and smaller pieces of meat.
Boning
Boning knife
Great all-purpose size and shape. Ideally intended for boning chickens or de-breasting turkeys.
Fillet
Fillet knife
Extremely sharp and very flexible. The perfect solution for filleting most any fish species. The blade is hallow and tapers nicely to glide around fish bones and to remove the fillet from the skin.
Tomato/Brunch
Tomato/Brunch knife
Serrated utility for fruits and vegetables with skins like tomatoes. Fork for coring and serving. Excellent on bagels and baguettes.
Santoku
Santoku knife
The hollow edge knife reduces drag and makes chopping, dicing and mincing effortless. Extremely sharp edge allows for slicing too.
Bread
Bread knife
Serrated edge for slicing thick-crusted European breads, crispy baguettes, soft breads and pastries, as well as large fruits and vegetables with skins.
Deli
Deli knife
Scalloped edge for slicing anything with a thick crust, such as breads, fruits and vegetables. Perfect for carving cooked meats without shredding.
Carving/Slicer
Carving/Slicer knife
Long Blade for easily slicing thin pieces of roasts, ham or fowl.
Ham Slicer
Ham Slicer knife
The hollow edge has dimples on the face for juice and air to flow while slicing down, creating less friction. Intended for making thin and easy slices of roasts, ham or turkey. The perfect carving knife.
Cook's
Cook's knife
The work knife. The most important knife in the kitchen. Ideal for chopping, dicing, and mincing.
Cleaver
Cleaver knife
A heavy knife with a thicker edge for chopping through large cuts of meat and bones

You've invested in a quality set of cutlery so here's how to take care of them.

Cutting boards:
Use a wooden cutting board with fine cutlery since its soft surface dulls blades the least. Plastic boards are considered second choice, while cutting against marble or ceramic tile is discouraged.
Washing and Storage:

There are a number of reasons to avoid putting fine cutlery in the dishwasher. Sharp blades may slice through the plastic coating on the interior rack exposing the washer to rust; while the knives themselves risk nicks from knocking against other items during washing. In addition, wooden knife handles can be damaged from soaking, while light colored handle casements may become discolored.

Fine cutlery should always be washed by hand in warm soapy water and towel dried.

Once dried, the knives should be immediately stored in a wooden block or similar, dedicated storage container. Not only do these containers provide a level of safety, they also serve to keep blades sharp. Storage tip: insert knives blade-side up into vertical storage slots to prevent gravity from unnecessary dulling.

Sharpening:

Using a honing steel is your first defense in keeping knife blades sharp. Sliding the blade edge at a 20 degree angle against the honing rod will smooth the edges of your blade after use. Although the naked eye cannot see the "frayed" edge after cutting, the metal fibers will maintain a super sharp surface if the metal is maintained.

In spite of your best efforts, your straight edge blade will eventually dull. When this happens, you may choose to have your knives professionally sharpened or do it yourself. Most manufacturers design sharpeners to match the composition of the metal used in their blades. It is very important to use the correct sharpener and follow best practices for sharpening your brand of knives.