The majority of knife block sets are a big ole waste of your money. There, I said it.
I’ve worked as a private chef and culinary instructor for almost a decade, so I’ve had the rare and unusual anthropological experience of seeing how hundreds of people buy kitchen equipment and behave with it. Spoiler alert: most people own too much and treat their tools badly.
I know this is a controversial claim, but I’m thoroughly of the mind that less is more in the kitchen tool department. And that has made me a staunch anti-knife block evangelist.
Most of the time you think you’re getting a good bang for your buck, but in reality you are just spending on those four steak knives that no one ever uses, and settling for a less luxe chef’s knife, which should really be the star of the show.
Plus, there are better ways to store your knives than in that block. Most people treat it like an all-purpose protective vehicle and shove their knives in and out of it, damaging the delicate teeth of the blade.
So what knives should you buy to build the ideal set? Read on for where I advise putting your money, the best brands to invest in, the types of knives that allow you to go with a more affordable option, and how to store them (not in a block) so they will last you a lifetime.
Oh, and if you’re looking to learn how to use your knives properly (which is the best way to maintain them!), I’d highly recommend checking out my New Year, New Knife Skills virtual cooking class! You’ll learn how to work your way through a mountain of different veggies and save lots of time in the kitchen as a result.
With health and hedonism,
WHAT KNIVES DO YOU NEED IN YOUR KNIFE BLOCK SET?
One of the drawbacks of knife block sets is that you end up getting weird shapes that offer no real purpose. The reality of cooking is that most chefs use just one main knife for the vast majority of tasks. Really, there are very few things a standard chef’s knife cannot do.
So let’s talk about what exactly that knife looks like and what other types can play a supporting role. Here’s the cast of knife characters in order of importance:
1. A bad-ass 8-inch chef’s knife. This is what I use for 95% of everything I do in the kitchen. I own several at this point, but the first knife I invested in is still my favorite. If you share the kitchen with a partner and tend to cook together, I would advise having two great quality chef’s knives (there are relatively NO knife sets that will provide this for you, which is why I recommend building your own a la carte).
Different people have different sized hands, so if you can, test it out in a store. Sadly with the death of mom and pop kitchen stores, this experience is not as easy to come by anymore. But you might already know whether you prefer a larger or smaller knife. The larger the knife, the more safe it is to handle, as your hands are further away from the blade. This feels counterintuitive, but I’d urge you in the 8-inch direction for this reason. That said, there are plenty of 7 or 6-inch options if this feels more comfortable.
A good chef’s knife has a bowed curve to it that allows you to quickly work through vegetable. Flat straight-across chopping knives are not as versatile. Read on for my favorite brands.
Lastly, you can opt for a chef’s knife that is also a santoku knife, which is a Japanese style that includes vertical grooves along the side of the blade that makes sliding in and out of vegetables that much easier. Whereas most chef’s knives are meant to be used with a wheel-like rocking motion, sontokus allows you to go straight up and down in a chopping motion more easily. I’ve included some chef’s knife recommendations that fit the bill below.
2. A cheap 4-inch paring knife. There are a few tasks that I prefer a smaller knife for, namely de-seeding a jalapeno, halving cherry tomatoes and peeling potatoes or apples. It doesn’t have to be fancy – any small knife will do.
3. A utility 9-inch serrated knife. This is what you use for bread or chocolate. Any serrated option will do, but if you buy a utility knife, which has a slight bend to it (similar to your chef’s knife), you can also use it to dice tough-skinned veggies like tomatoes and peppers.
The following specialty knives are ensemble characters. They are not necessary for most people, but if you cook a lot, you might find certain options useful.
4. A cheap filet or boning knife. If you butcher your own meats or do a lot of whole chicken carving, a cheap filet knife is nice to have too. It’s much more useful than a carving knife. The blade is thin and flimsy, which allows you to easily move around bones. It may look small, but I’ve seen butchers take down whole cows with nothing more than this thin little guy.
5. Meat cleaver. I don’t personally own one, but I know many people who prep their own cuts of meat are very passionate about a heavy, flat-bladed meat cleaver for any heavy duty prep.
6. Shucking knife. If you love oysters, you’ll definitely need a shucking knife. There isn’t another tool in your kit that can substitute. The blade is similar in length to a paring knife, but double sided and not as sharp. More importantly, unlike a filet knife, it is very sturdy, allowing you to put pressure and easily pop open a shell.
I’m sure there are other players that someone will argue with me about in the comments. But you own them because you like them, not out of necessity!
THE BEST KITCHEN KNIFE BRANDS TO PUT IN YOUR SET
Shun ($$$) – These Japanese knives are top notch quality and they have a lovely heft in your hand while also being nimble and lightweight. I’ve had my Shun Premiere 8” chef knife for over a decade and haven’t met another knife whose craftsmanship I like more. It is worth the price tag for one really good knife from them, though of course you can splurge and get a whole set! I love their utility serrated knife too.
Zwilling J.A. Henckels ($$) – For a smaller, more affordable option, I love this 7″ Hollow Edge Santoku Knife from ZWILLING. It has everything you need to easily work through vegetables in a smaller package than a traditional chef’s knife.
Wustoff ($$) – This brand is the gold standard for no frills good quality knives. It’s what I use for my every day knives like the paring, serrated utility and filet knife. I know they will last me forever.
Five Two by Food52 ($) – This is a newer brand that’s a great affordable option for a knife set. They come in fun colors and are sturdy and chic. The set of three is a great deal ($139). My only complaint is that the serrated bread knife is not a utility knife (straight across versus having a curve to it) so it’s not as useful.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP WITHOUT SHARPENING THEM
The best way to make your knives last a lifetime is to treat them with respect. Sure, honing them before every use with a honing steel is great. Sharpening them on a stone every few months, even better. But the biggest way most people can maintain their knives is to simply NOT ABUSE THEM.
The blade of a knife is set at a specific angle (European and Japanese knives differ in their angle). The teeth of the blade come together in this precise spot and if you bang it around, that angle and the integrity of those teeth can become bent out of shape. That is difficult damage to repair as you will have to grind down the knife a significant ways to regain the correct angle.
Dulling is natural – that comes with use. Chips and snaggles (that you might not even see) come from that angle getting tampered with.
So, let’s prevent this from happening, shall we? Here’s what NOT to do:
DON’T store your knife loose in a drawer with nothing protecting it.
DON’T put your knives in the dishwasher. The jets will cause it to bang around. If it has a wooden handle, the heat will warp it.
DON’T use a glass cutting board. This is hard and harsh and so damaging for the teeth of the knife.
DON’T use the sharp edge of the knife to scrape food off your cutting board. You can damage the angle of the blade just by using it carelessly. If you hear a scrapping noise, that is bad. Use the dull edge of the knife to brush things to the side and clear your workspace.
THE BEST KNIFE STORAGE SOLUTIONS (IT’S NOT A BLOCK!)
So now that you’re aware of how knives get damaged, think about how you put them into a knife block teeth side down first. It doesn’t make much sense, right?
If you do use a knife block, turn it away from you so that you can place the knives on their dull-side as you slide them into it.
Blocks aside, here are my preferred methods:
1. A cork block in a drawer. This is my favorite storage and organization system. The cork prevents any damage – it is much gentler than anything made out of wood with slats.
2. Covered with a sheath in a drawer. So long as the knife is covered, you don’t risk them rattling around and damaging each other. You can buy a cheap set of plastic sheaths or simply take old corks from wine bottles and fashion your own knife covers.
3. A magnetic wall strip. There are plenty of affordable wood options that look attractive in your kitchen. So long as you place the dull side against the magnet and carefully slide it onto its side, this is a great way to store knives for those who do not have room in a drawer.
What are your favorite brands for knife sets and how do you store them at home safely? Would love to know any additional tips and tricks in the comments!