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Piping Sets

By Cook's Illustrated Published February 2016

How we tested

Whether decorating an elaborate wedding cake, swirling frosting atop cupcakes, filling deviled eggs, or piping pâte à choux for churros, the best way to instantly upgrade your game is to use a piping bag outfitted with a decorating tip. But unless you’re a professional, it’s hard to know what to buy: There are hundreds of bags and tips sold in all different sizes, materials, and designs. We wondered if decorating sets—kits that come with pastry bags and a selection of decorating tips—make getting started any easier.

We tried five sets, priced from $11.63 to $29.95, each containing between nine and 12 pastry tips and either cloth or plastic bags. Most sets also came with a large threaded plastic nozzle called a coupler, which adheres the tip to the bag and makes it easier to switch tips in the middle of a project.

Professional and novice testers sampled every tip in each set, piping lines, flowers, leaves, swirls, stars, and borders with colorful buttercream. We also decorated cakes (including a three-tier wedding cake), piped out stiff pâte à choux for churros, swirled mounds of hot duchess potatoes, and filled curried deviled eggs.

By the end of testing, it was clear that reusable cloth bags weren’t worth the fuss. No matter how many times we washed them, reusable bags either clung to smells or looked tie-dyed from food stains—spotted pink from frosting and yellow from curried deviled egg filling (though these smells and stains didn’t leach into other fillings). Most were too floppy and drooped uncomfortably over testers’ arms as they piped. One canvas bag was too stiff and took extra effort to squeeze. We preferred disposable plastic bags, which were less floppy, easier to handle, and effortless to clean. (Gallon-sized freezer bags can be outfitted with a pastry tip in a pinch, though their wider angle makes them prone to ripping when used with thick or heavy fillings like pâte à choux and duchess potatoes.) 

Unfortunately, the only set with disposable bags was also the only set lacking a coupler. While not necessary for most tasks, a coupler was helpful for decorating cakes, where we frequently switched between tips with different designs.

We asked our pro testers to sort each set’s decorating tips into three categories: essentials, nice-to-have, and weak links—tips that were too similar, weren’t sized properly, or were designs they’d never use. We were left with six essential tips: a small round writing tip, a larger round tip for bigger designs, a large open star tip, a large closed star tip, a leaf tip, and a petal tip. Surprisingly, none of the sets had all the essentials—every product was bogged down by duplicate or superfluous designs. It was also clear that the openings on most tips were either too small or too big. We preferred tips with openings between ¼ and ½ inch wide. Smaller tips clogged easily and took an expert hand to wield well. Larger tips made gloppy, messy decorations. Properly sized tips were versatile and easy to work with—perfect for cupcake swirls, fillings, and cake decorating.

While the Wilton 20-piece Beginning Buttercream Decorating Set ($12.20) made a good starter set and came close to having everything we wanted—with five of the six essential tips and a plethora of disposable plastic bags—some testers complained that its 12-inch bags were too snug, and the set still lacked a large closed star tip and a coupler. We knew we could assemble something better à la carte, so we took a trip to the craft store and bought six individual Wilton tips in the correct sizes, a twelve-pack of 16-inch bags, and a set of couplers. For just over $15.00, the test kitchen’s do-it-yourself decorating set provides everything you need for perfectly decorated pastry, with no redundant tips or extras.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*