Knife Block Sets

From America's Test Kitchen Season 13: Meat and Potatoes à la Francaise

Overview:

We can’t help but be skeptical about knife block sets. As with cookware sets, their biggest selling point has always been the number of pieces the manufacturer can cram into the package, not the usefulness or quality of the blades themselves. Most collections are loaded not only with superfluous pieces but also with ones that are impractical or even useless. In the test kitchen, we’ve always maintained that there are just three truly essential knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. Beyond that, a boning knife, a slicing knife (for carving meat), and a good pair of kitchen shears can make certain tasks easier. But anything other than these six pieces is filler.

At the same time, we know that there are occasions (particularly during gift-giving season or when you’re outfitting a kitchen from scratch) when an attractive, all-in-one set of cutlery—complete with a block that keeps everything neatly housed and within easy reach—could be a nice convenience. Hoping to find that we’d been a bit hasty in our… read more

We can’t help but be skeptical about knife block sets. As with cookware sets, their biggest selling point has always been the number of pieces the manufacturer can cram into the package, not the usefulness or quality of the blades themselves. Most collections are loaded not only with superfluous pieces but also with ones that are impractical or even useless. In the test kitchen, we’ve always maintained that there are just three truly essential knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. Beyond that, a boning knife, a slicing knife (for carving meat), and a good pair of kitchen shears can make certain tasks easier. But anything other than these six pieces is filler.

At the same time, we know that there are occasions (particularly during gift-giving season or when you’re outfitting a kitchen from scratch) when an attractive, all-in-one set of cutlery—complete with a block that keeps everything neatly housed and within easy reach—could be a nice convenience. Hoping to find that we’d been a bit hasty in our cynicism, we went shopping and returned to the test kitchen with eight knife block sets that contained anywhere from six to nine pieces and spanned a broad price spectrum: $97 all the way up to nearly $700. We would evaluate these sets against one another as well as against an à la carte selection of our test kitchen favorites. Our criteria would be as follows: how comfortable the pieces were to use and how well each performed; how many pieces in the collection were essential and how many extraneous; and of the extraneous stock, how much of it was actually useful. If the right package was out there, we’d gladly give it our stamp of approval.

The Big Three

The only way to assess the efficacy of a set was to put each piece through the paces. First, we singled out the core blades from each set—the chef’s, bread, and paring knives—and went about our everyday tasks. We diced onions, minced herbs, and broke down a whole chicken with each of the chef’s knives. We sliced large, crusty loaves and then diced soft Wonder bread with the serrated bread knives (the latter test would reveal the knives’ ability to make clean, precise cuts without squishing the food). We peeled, quartered, and cored apples with the paring knives. Later, we’d examine the other pieces to see if they offered any additional value to the set or if they simply took up space. 

The good news was that all but one of the chef’s knives in the sets boasted our preferred length of 8 inches, and five out of the eight scored well. They were easy to handle and slipped effortlessly through food as we worked. The poorly performing specimens had a common flaw: Their blades were a little thicker than was ideal, and they tended to crush—rather than cleanly slice—onions and to bruise parsley as we minced.

The quality of the paring knives, however, was less impressive. Half of the blades were too wide or ungainly, which made the meticulous task of apple paring feel dicey. When we’d singled out the two we liked best, they turned out to be none other than our reigning favorite and our Best Buy, respectively. Two similar blades also fit our criteria, with slim, pointed, slightly flexible blades that measured 4 inches or less, providing added precision and control.

Meanwhile, blade length turned out to be the single most important—and detrimental—factor for the serrated bread knives. All were too short (8 or 9 inches) to saw a 10-inch-wide bread loaf into even slices. We wondered if manufacturers were including models shorter than the standard 10-inch size because a longer blade would stick out of the wooden block’s slots, but we were wrong: When we slid our favorite 10-inch model into the hole vacated by the 8-inch version included in the brand’s set, it fit completely. We figured—and more than one knife company executive admitted—that there was another reason for including shorter models: price. Smaller knives cost less to produce. Block sets are not compiled strictly according to their usefulness to consumers, they told us, but to meet price ceilings set by retailers, who want the maximum number of “pieces” in a block at an attractive price. (And by the way, the block itself always counts as one of the “pieces.”)

The Best (and Worst) of the Rest

Then came the other half of the equation: sorting through the extra pieces, the most common of which was a “utility” knife. “Utility” is a seemingly generic industry term for any blade bigger than a paring knife and smaller than a chef’s knife (usually measuring between 4½ and 6½ inches). We also found “sandwich,” “tomato,” and “citrus” knives and other single-task blades, all about the same size as the utility models. Some were serrated and some weren’t, but all were too short to cut across larger pieces of fruit without sawing. What’s more, those with saw-toothed edges ripped delicate tomato skin and tore lemon skin so that fragrant oil spritzed out in the process. Clearly, these models were expendable, but just to confirm that they really were useless, we repeated the tomato- and lemon-slicing tests with each set’s corresponding chef’s knife. No surprises: In every case, the all-purpose chef’s knife outperformed the specialty tool.

In fact, we found very few extra knives in any of the sets that weren’t rendered redundant by one of these core knives. Though the pointed-tipped carving knives included in two of the sets were perfectly functional, neither one did a better job cutting up roast beef or roast chicken than the chef’s knife already in these sets. It was the same story with the 5½- to 7-inch santoku or nakiri blades that came in many of the sets. These Asian-inspired knives were nice to have around for vegetable prep, but did they do anything the chef’s knife couldn’t? Not really. 

Most of the sets included honing or so-called sharpening steels. Though these metal rods don’t actually sharpen at all—they simply realign a bent cutting edge to make it straight again and more effective at cutting—they are useful tune-up devices. The only problem? With the exception of professional chefs, most people don’t know how to properly use the rods. (We didn’t deduct points for including steels, however.)

The only examples of truly useful extras in the sets were slicing knives, kitchen shears, and boning knives. In all but one set, the boning knives made removing small bones from raw meat and peeling away strips of tough silverskin easy. But most of the collections included flawed models of slicing knives and shears. One set came with a slightly too-short (10-inch) version of our favorite (12-inch) round-tipped slicing blade that peels off thinner, more uniform slices than a bulkier chef’s blade—and all the other models were way too short at 9 inches or less. One model was also disadvantageously sharp-tipped. (Pointed tips wedge into the meat, forcing you to saw back and forth to finish the task.) Four of the eight sets came with shears, but only one pair sported the long, super-sharp blades and comfortable handles that made cutting the backbone from a chicken feel effortless.

Not a Great Deal

In the end, our testing confirmed our suspicion that you are much better off shopping for knives à la carte; that way, you get only what you really need. If you must have a knife set, two sets contained well-constructed knives and more of the types that we found most useful. Because they also contain some knives that we didn’t find to be the best length or style, or that we found nonessential, we recommend them with reservations.

Methodology:

Performance

We compared each component (or the closest equivalents) with its counterparts in other sets on a variety of tasks consistent with its intended purpose. We diced onions, minced parsley, and cut up whole chickens with chef's knives; sliced large, crusty loaves and cubed a stack of Wonder bread slices with bread knives; and peeled, quartered, and cored apples with paring knives. When they were included, we used kitchen shears to cut the backbone from a whole chicken; boned a whole chicken and removed silverskin from short ribs with boning knives; sliced lemons and tomatoes with "utility," citrus, or tomato knives; and carved and sliced roast chicken and roast beef with carving and slicing knives.

Ease of Use

Block design and knife shape, size, weight, and balance were assessed on how comfortable they felt and how easy they were to use.

Usefulness

Ratings of good, fair, or poor were assigned based on how useful we found each included item. If another knife would be used instead and/or performed the task better, points were deducted. Sets that included several nonessential blades were downgraded.

Weaklinks

We tallied the number of poor-quality versions of essential pieces as well as redundant or unnecessary pieces.

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