Published October 1, 2006.
Do any knife sets make the cut?
In the test kitchen, we've always advocated purchasing knives individually rather than in sets. That's because many sets include knives you'll never use—why pay for something you don't need? But when it comes to gift giving, a knife set (complete with a storage block) begins to make some sense. Could we find something we liked for $100 or less?
Knives are either stamped (cut from a sheet of metal) or forged (molded from molten metal). Forged knives are generally heavier and more expensive and were for many years the standard of quality. In the past decade, however, stamped knives have gotten so much better that the test kitchen doesn't exclusively recommend forged over stamped. Four of the six sets we tested—including the top-rated set—were stamped; the forged sets finished second and fourth.
We selected sets that contained 8-inch chef's knives, knowing from experience that anything shorter will not handle heavy jobs. We had testers with various hand sizes and levels of kitchen skills chop carrots, mince parsley, and quarter butternut squash with each chef's knife. The test kitchen prefers 3 1/2-inch paring knives, which offer the most dexterity and can cut, peel, and pare with great precision. Our testers peeled apples and peeled and minced ginger with the paring knives. Bread knives should be long enough (ideally, 10 inches) to get through big loaves, and their serrated edge should glide through bread, making it almost effortless to cut thin slices. Our testers cut through both soft and crusty bread and also sliced tomatoes.
The elements common to every set we tested were the block itself (which manufacturers count as one piece), along with a chef's knife and at least one paring knife. Most sets included a slicing (also called carving) knife and kitchen shears, and every set except one came with a sharpening steel. Many sets included a utility knife (basically an oversized paring knife); we didn't find this knife very useful, except for slicing tomatoes. Remarkably, two sets did not include a bread knife.
These knives ranged from mediocre to just plain awful. Flimsy blades, clumsy handles, and dull edges were recurring complaints from testers. We did find a few good knives in these blocks, but each one came from a different set. In the end, we don't recommend any of these knife sets.