As a professionally trained Bladesmith I’m often asked for my opinion on affordable, commercially available cutlery that can be purchased locally. Since I’ve answered this question many times for friends and family I thought it might be useful to share here on the Blog.
Before we get started let me just say that there are a lot of different factors that go into the selection of a good set of knives, and if done properly there is no reason that a high quality kitchen knife can’t be put to service for 20 years or more.
Some of the factors that influenced my recommendations include steel composition, durability, “feel” or balance, aesthetics, and sanitary considerations.
I should note that I am focusing on sets of knives here because a matched set is always best. They’ll all fit in the same block together, they require similar care, they’ll have similar balance and feel, and they look best this way. I highly recommend purchasing a matched set and using the right knife for each particular job.
For the Extremely Cost Conscious
I’m sorry to report, but there is no set of knives that I can recommend below about $150. The main reason is that in order to make a good knife you have to start with high quality steel, then go through extremely high quality processes and frankly this is all quite expensive. The fact that we can purchase cheap knives today is amazing considering that just a couple hundred years ago it would have cost a pretty penny due to all the manual labor and specialized knowledge required of a Bladesmith.
So, if you’re on a tight budget the best option is to just get one or two knives at the moment then save up to purchase a block set. Here are the top three knives I recommend if I was only going to own one really good knife:
- Calphalon Katana Stainless-Steel 6-Inch Utility Knife ($60) – Although not ideal for all tasks, a 6″ utility knife would slice meat, dice veggies or help debone and skin a chicken.
- Calphalon Katana Stainless-Steel 7-Inch Santoku Knife ($80) – If I was slicing lots of beef or tomatoes or things that generally tend to stick to a blade, I’d choose a Santoku because the grooves on the side help the blade slide through. However, anything below a 7″ Santoku is just not going to be functional.
- Henckels Professional “S” 6″ Utility Knife ($70) – Again, this is the competitor for the Calphalon utility knife. If you prefer something more stain resistant this would be the choice (read below to see what I mean).
For the Average Household
Actually, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you’re a little more selective than the “average consumer”, but I digress. A good “value” set of knives is the Henckels 10-piece Forged Set from had at Costco for $188. I’m 90% certain this set is assembled from the TWIN Gourmet series of knives.
Features of the Henckels 10 piece set:
- 9 German forged blades plus a block for about $20 each. That’s a good value.
- Hygenic construction.
- Decent steel holds an OK edge. It’s easy to sharpen, and you’ll want to do it fairly often.
- Costco’s excellent return policy.
Drawbacks of the Henckels 10 piece set:
- No steak knives.
- A little “cheap” feeling compared to the ones that follow (still way better than less expensive sets).
- Don’t particularly care of the “balance”.
- Handles a little too narrow for larger hands.
- “Dishwasher safe” though not recommended.
For the Enthusiast
I personally own, and love, the entire Calphalon Katana 8-Piece Knife Set with Block (I’ve got all the other pieces too, not just this set). For the money I think this represents the best value of any commercially available set – currently $220.79 for the 8 piece set (6 knives plus 1 block and 1 steel)!
The Katana series has the following benefits:
- In my opinion it is the second most beautiful set here (behind the William Henry for 10x the price).
- The core VG Steel in this blade is about the hardest you can get, so it will retain an edge longer than any other blade here.
- They come from Calphalon with a fantastically sharp edge straight out of the box. Be very careful with these blades!
- There are no rivets, pores or openings on these knives for bacteria to collect in. This keep them sanitary.
- They feel good in my rather large hands (I’m 6’1″) yet my wife (she’s > 5′) has indicated that they work for her as well.
- Here is a little more info from Calphalon
The Katana series has the following drawbacks:
- Although the steel is very hard, high carbon stainless is “stain resistant” not rust proof. This means it will rust if left in water for say 1 hour. These knives need to be cleaned and put away immediately after use. Don’t leave them laying in the sink!
- Because the blades are so hard the edge could chip if abused. You need to choose a thick blade for heavy work like chicken bones. Of course, this is the same thing I’d say about any high quality knife.
- They do not offer matching steak knives.
This set is available from Amazon.com
For the Professional Chef
If I had to rely on a set of knives for my profession I’d choose the Henckels Pro “S” knives, available at Amazon.com for $559.00.
You can see a great video on how these knives are produced on the Henckel Web site. Also, you may wish to peruse their other videos that cover things like use, safety and tips.
The Pro S Series has the following features:
- A huge selection of blade types will satisfy virtually any kitchen need.
- A good steel blend that holds an edge reasonably well and hones and sharpens quickly.
- No fears of potential rust if it remains perpetually wet (within reason).
- Sanitary and well sealed handles and construction.
- Reasonably non-slip handles.
- German quality and consistency.
- You aren’t going to cry if one walks off in a busy kitchen.
The Pro S Series has the following drawbacks:
- You’re not going to “wow” your fellow chefs.
- Fairly sharp out of the box, but need a little work before they could match the Calphalon Katanas.
- They feel a bit cold and soulless to me.
- Personally I’d still take the Katanas and just baby them as I worked.
If Price is of Little Concern
Without a doubt the finest commercially available set of cutlery (if you can find one) is the William Henry Maestro Collection – $3,000 for 5 piece set:
A name befitting its stature â€œthe Maestro Collection from William Henry. Called ‘the finest cutlery ever produced,’ this collection offers superb performance, timeless elegance, and a study in contrasts.
The blades are crafted from our Wave Damascus (patents pending) featuring a core of ZDP-189 surrounded by 44 layers of alternating stainless alloys. The 45 layers combine together to create a blade that is very sharp, exceptionally strong, and of incomparable beauty.
The handles are built from hand-selected cocobolo wood hand-finished to a beautiful luster. They join sculptural stainless steel bolsters that feature hidden weight reduction pockets for heft and balance.
Each knife features our engraved logo, a unique serial number, and a certificate of authenticity.
Although if you have the money to drop on the Maestro you could probably also afford a hand made set of cutlery from a professional Bladesmith. There would be a number of differences, not the least of which is the chance to own a one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted, highly customized and signed set made by a famous Master.
If you are interested in acquiring an heirloom quality set of knives you may contact me, and for a fee I’ll help design and either construct the set or introduce you to one of the Master Bladesmiths I trained under.
Please be aware that the cost will be more than those William Henrys and the wait could be 6 months for a hand forged matched set. But hey, if price is truly not the issue then is there really any option?