Top Chefs Recommend Skipping the Expensive Knife Set — Here’s Why

the Wustof Classic Series Uber Cook's Knife on an Acacia Concave Grilling and Carving Board
The Wustof Classic Series Uber Cook's Knife takes the traditional features of an 8-inch chef’s knife and adds a bigger "belly" to create a smoother motion for all chopping, mincing and dicing tasks. AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Maybe you’ve decided to kick your expensive restaurant habit and make more affordable meals at home… only to realize you’re lacking some kitchen essentials.

Maybe you’re an avid home chef with aspirations of having your own special on Food Network, looking to upgrade your set of tools.

Or maybe — just maybe — you’re looking for an easy, but thoughtful, holiday or birthday gift.

But no matter what brings you to the knife set market, we have some important news for you.

The Best Knife Set… is Probably Not a Set at All

Everyone knows a cook’s knives are her most prized possession. Professionals chefs have been known to tote their own to every new kitchen they grace.

So if you’re hoping to explore the wide world of kitchen creativity, it’s undeniable: You’ve gotta get you some blades.

It’s easy to see why purchasing a knife set is tempting, especially if you’re just starting out. You (ostensibly) get everything you need all in one convenient bundle, usually including the knife block and even a sharpener. And lots of them are super affordable, too, starting as low as $25.

What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, quite a lot, especially if you’re looking for a genuine bargain. It’s been confirmed over and over again by all sorts of kitchen experts: Knife sets are, almost universally, a rip-off.

Celebrity chef and professional nerd Alton Brown, in his list of 10 knife-buying tips, lays it out clearly: “Steer clear of sets … period. No exceptions. Ever.”

And Lisa McManus, executive editor of equipment testing and ingredient tasting stories at America’s Test Kitchen, dismisses them, too. She and her team tested eight sets ranging in price from $97 all the way up to almost $700, putting them through their paces dicing vegetables, mincing herbs, peeling fruit and even deconstructing a chicken. Grading the knives on performance and comfort, they found that none of the sets stood up to the a la carte assemblage of America’s Test Kitchen’s favorite tools.

Of course, some of the knives were decent; they were at least sharp and well-shaped enough to get the job done. “If you must” buy a block set, as McManus put it, the Wusthof Classic 8-piece collection performed fairly well — but also retails for just under $400.

But when you buy a set, you’re essentially paying a convenience tax — and trading quality in the bargain.

“Block sets are not compiled according to usefulness,” McManus says. Instead, they’re designed to make it seem like you’re getting a great deal on a huge number of knives… while in reality, those knives are largely low-quality, and many have little or no use in the average home chef’s kitchen.

“[Knife sets’] biggest selling point has always been the number of pieces manufacturers manage to cram into the package,” McManus adds, “not the quality or the usefulness of the actual knives.”

Furthermore, both McManus and Brown mention that you really only need three knives or so for a fully-functional kitchen — that shows exactly how much those 18-piece sets are padded out.

So when you buy a knife set hoping for a perfectly assembled collection of useful blades that’ll last a lifetime, you instead end up with a bunch of middling quality edges, the majority of which are bound to collect dust.

Even if it’s super-cheap, that’s anything but a bargain.

The Best Knife Set is the One You Buy a la Carte

So now you know that knife sets are garbage… but you still need a set of knives. What to do?

Why, you get to put together your very own set from scratch.

Sounds like fun… except you might not know anything about how to choose a quality knife, or even which knives you really need in the first place. (That’s why those sets are so darn tempting, after all.)

So we put together some advice from professional chefs and kitchen experts to help you create an actually useful knife set, all on your own.

What Kind of Knives Do You Need?

The jury’s sort of out on this one — different chefs make different suggestions based on their personal cooking styles.

But it seems almost everyone agrees the bare-bones knife set includes these three items:

  • A chef’s knife, 8 to 10 inches, which can be used for big, heavy jobs like chopping up watermelon
  • An all-purpose utility knife, 4 to 6 inches, used for, well, pretty much anything else — dicing onions, mincing herbs, you name it
  • A large, serrated knife for slicing delicate foods like breads, cakes and tomatoes

Popular suggestions beyond these include a decent pair of kitchen shears (which disassembles into two parts for ease of cleaning), a paring knife, and, depending on how adventurous you get in the kitchen, a cleaver or boning knife.

How Do You Identify High-Quality Knives?

Now that you’ve got a sense of which knives you’re after, how do you know if they’re high quality or not?

Well, price is certainly one indicator — and many of the finest knives are quite pricy.

For instance, this 8-inch chef’s knife from cherished Japanese blademaker Miyabi costs almost $200… on sale.

That might sound insane, but it’s a lot better than paying the same amount for a junky set of knives you’ll never use.

But no matter where on the price spectrum you’re aiming, the best way to determine whether or not the knife is a good one is to hold and handle it. That way, you can test the sharpness, weight, width and handle comfort for yourself. (Here are some more quality indicators to look out for.)

You’ll also want to aim for a blade made of carbon or other high-grade steel instead of simple stainless, as these metals generally take a sharper edge and hold it longer. They also sharpen more easily when necessary. (Here’s a guide to a variety of different types and quality levels of steel.)

How Much Should You Expect to Pay?

Like everything else in the world of personal finance, it’s all about priorities.

If cooking is your life’s passion, it might make sense to buy the highest quality blades in the industry —  even if you have to amass your collection slowly, one knife at a time. (When a single blade costs $200 or more, it might take a while. Unless you get married and put them on the registry. Just sayin’.)

On the other hand, if you just want to be able to feed yourself, a couple of decent-quality blades — less than $200, total — might work just fine.

In short: Buy the best you can afford, but don’t freak out if it’s not top of the line unless you’re trying to get on the next edition of “Chopped.”

And, hey — if you really, really, really want a pre-built knife set, you can always base your purchase decision on Amazon reviews. (That’s what we do with everything else these days, right?)

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.