The readers of the November 1976 issue of Woman’s Day had a problem: No matter how well their kitchens were stocked, with appliances and cookbooks and finicky tools, something was missing. They didn’t have enough knives.
“A good knife is like a third hand to a good cook,” intoned the Taste Of Britain ad in Woman’s Day. “But no matter how good a knife is, it cannot cope with the hundred and one cutting jobs that need to be done.”
Readers couldn’t expect a bread knife to carve meat, or a meat knife to slice grapefruit. Nor should they stand for a hodgepodge of knives from different retailers with clashing designs, all stashed in a drawer. Instead, for just $9.95, the readers could purchase a matching knife set with a different blade “for every need”: bread knife, carving knife, carving fork, butcher’s knife, two cooks’ knives, two paring knives, utility knife, meat cleaver, grapefruit knife, honing steel, and a hanging rack to organize it all. “The kitchen knife set you’ve always needed,” it declared.
Readers of Redbook or the New Yorker or Essence were offered the same solution to their knife woes. Magazine and newspaper ads selling sets of five or 12 or 17 blades issued warnings like “what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the green beans.” A knife set would equip cooks to confidently handle anything, from a spiral-cut ham to tomato aspic.
Knife sets have remained popular for decades since, and a wooden knife block takes pride of place on many a kitchen countertop. But as more adults rent instead of buy, homeowners seek to downsize, and minimalism becomes the shopping ethos du jour, kitchen space is at a premium. At the same time, direct-to-consumer cookware companies are cropping up to cater to the new reality: Knife sets are not an indispensable item every home cook needs. They never have been.
You only need three knives.
While retailers have long encouraged American shoppers to stock up, chefs and food world professionals have been preaching a different gospel.
“You don’t need 15 knives,” says Ellen Bennett of Hedley & Bennett. “You need a bread knife, a chef’s knife, and a paring knife. Everything else is just sort of unnecessary.”
A chef’s knife, with a broad, sharp blade, is your versatile, multipurpose tool. “That’s the basic knife that everyone should start with, because it’s used for everything,” says Frank Proto, director of culinary operations at the Institute of Culinary Education. “You can carve with it, chop with it, and you can do some boning with it.” This was Anthony Bourdain’s advice as well, in his memorable screed against knife sets in Kitchen Confidential:
You need, for God’s sake, a decent chef’s knife. No con foisted on the general public is so atrocious, so wrongheaded, or so widely believed as the one that tells you you need a full set of specialized cutlery in various sizes. I wish sometimes I could go through the kitchens of amateur cooks everywhere just throwing knives out from their drawers — all those medium-size “utility” knives, those useless serrated things you see advertised on TV, all that hard-to-sharpen stainless-steel garbage, those ineptly designed slicers — not one of the damn things could cut a tomato. Please believe me, here’s all you will ever need in the knife department: ONE good chef’s knife, as large as is comfortable for your hand.
Beyond a chef’s knife, as far as basics go, most chefs recommend a small paring knife, great for shaving, peeling, and cutting anything small, and a serrated knife, like a bread knife. This is your go-to for cutting through anything with a hard edge and a softer interior. Aside from bread, you can use a serrated blade to cut juicy tomatoes, pastries, or “anything you don’t want to crush,” Proto says.
And that’s it.
“Big knife sets often make you feel like there’s things you should be doing, or tasks you should know how to do, because each of those knives is supposed to correspond to something,” says Julia Turshen, author of Feed the Resistance and other books. “They give you a false idea that [without the knife block], you don’t have the right tool for the job, which is kind of bogus.”
Beyond a chef’s knife, serrated knife, and a paring knife, knife sets can include a peeling knife, a meat cleaver, a boning knife, or a carving fork, or kitchen shears, or a set of identical steak knives (likely unnecessary unless you’re serving up steak for eight people every night). But most home cooks probably aren’t doing the kinds of cooking tasks that correspond to those tools, or at least not all of them.
“A lot of people don’t butcher things at home; [most] people don’t break down whole chickens,” says Camilla Marcus, founder of West~bourne in NYC. “So a lot of speciality knives, for those home cooks, won’t be used.”
Eater Young Gun Irene Li (’16) of Mei Lin echoes the point, saying she often buys knives as wedding gifts, since “anything I can do to prevent them from buying a knife block full of mediocre knives they’ll never use is a positive.”
When it comes to buying your essential knives…
If you do have cooking interests that correspond to a particular knife, purchase it as needed. Proto says an advanced home cook might investigate a stiff boning knife, or someone getting into butchery might regularly use a meat cleaver. Eater Young Gun Chelsea Gregoire (’18), founder and owner of Drinkable Genius, swears by a good bar knife — something five to six inches long, like a much smaller chef’s knife. “When you’re bartending and cutting garnishes, they are so good for stylized peels and getting really beautiful, even slices of fruit.” But if you don’t tend bar a lot at home? Don’t bother.
Buying knives a la carte rather than in sets is a strategy that’s catching on. Respondents to the HomeWorld Forecast 2019 survey were much more likely to buy an individual chef’s knife, paring knife, or utility knife than a knife set with a block.
Product trends reflect the reality. There are now smaller sets out there, like Global Classic Ludo Essential Four-Piece Knife Set or the Wusthof Three-Piece Starter Set. And direct-to-consumer companies aiming to “disrupt” the cookware scene are eschewing blocks: Newer brands like Material and Misen sell knives individually or as small sets consisting of a chef’s knife, serrated knife, and paring knife (Material’s the Knives or Misen’s Essentials Knife Set).
You also don’t need to go pricey for the sake of it. “For a home cook, it is not always necessary to buy the most expensive cooks’ knives, as they often are made with the thickest and hardest steel that make it challenging to keep sharp,” says Bruce Mattel, senior associate dean of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America.
Rather, think of the material, shape, and size. Focus on the grip and the heft, says Proto. “It should not be too big or too small… Make sure it feels good in your hands.”
Marcus recommends ceramic knives for beginner cooks or people who might be a little lax with maintenance, since ceramic blades keep their edge for much longer. “A chef’s knife and a paring knife that are both ceramic is a solid starter kit,” she says. (Just know that ceramic knives are more brittle than their steel counterparts, so they can chip.)
And importantly, buy them in person or test them out. “You should go out and pick out [knives and pans] yourself,” says chef Elise Kornack. “Picking them out online is not the best move, because you want to feel, touch, and hold them. It’s very personal.” To that end, both Misen and Material offer a 60-day trial, allowing you to test them out at home and return them if they don’t suit.
And maybe don’t store them in wooden block.
Optimal knife storage depends on your kitchen setup. “A block is nice if you have one,” says Anita Lo, author of cookbook of the year Solo: A Modern Cookbook Party for One. “If you’re going to put it into a drawer or something, where it’s loose, you should have a [knife] cover.”
But opinions vary. “The preferred ways to store knives are on a magnet, or just in a drawer. In restaurants people will keep them in drawers on towels, just flat,” says Karen Leibowitz, co-founder of the Perennial, Mission Chinese Food, and Commonwealth. “If you have a mechanism where you’re pulling the knife in and out of a wooden groove, you’re just going to be dulling it.”
However you store your knives, maintaining their sharp edge is necessary for both efficacy and safety. “A sharp knife, no matter what price or quality, will work better than an expensive one that is dull,” Mattel says. There’s no one-size-fits-all method or cadence for knife sharpening, but a sharp blade should easily cut through a tomato without crushing it.
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