“I wish sometimes I could go through the kitchens of amateur cooks everywhere, just throwing knives out from their drawers,” wrote Anthony Bourdain, years ago, in the book that made him famous. “Not one of the damn things could cut a tomato.” In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain rants on about how full sets of cutlery is a wrongheaded con. All a home cook really needs, he says, is one chef’s knife.
Among the chefs that Nick Marino spoke to for this series on knives, many echoed that sentiment. But kitchen knife sets aren’t the problem — it’s bloated, poorly made, and ineptly designed kitchen knife sets. These are the wooden blocks crammed with two dozen knives that you can get on Amazon for $25 — cheap knives with wobbly handles that’ll make you slip and low-grade steel blades that won’t hold an edge.
Instead, think of kitchen knife sets as starter packs, not definitive tool kits. That’s how I’ve built up my current knife collection, which only includes eight pieces, but allows me to tackle pretty much any recipe that comes across my counter. And it started with a knife set: a three-piece set of Global knives that my dad gave me years ago. It came with a hollow-ground seven-inch chef’s knife, a five-inch utility knife (for everyday tasks like cutting sandwiches or slicing strawberries in half), and a paring knife. Four apartments, a couple of jobs in food media, and almost a decade later, I’m still using that same set of Global knives because they’re good, useful knives — though I have made some additions, including a serrated bread knife from Amazon and, this is a slightly next-level addition, a set of kitchen shears, for cutting poultry skin or dicing herbs, that I “borrowed” from my mom.
Here’s a rule for choosing a knife set: Make sure it has those four key knives (chef’s, utility, paring, and serrated) and avoid anything that’s packed with steak knives. You can buy them separately. Don’t buy anything with more than seven knives in it — you’re not really getting more bang for your buck. Then, after a couple of months of use, reassess. See if there’s anything else you need or feel like trying. Maybe you think a meat cleaver or a sashimi blade would be fun. But those are sophomore-level additions, to add to your kit once you’ve mastered the basics of chopping and slicing — not knives you need right away to clutter up your countertop before you’re even sure you’ll use them.
Knife sets we can get behind
This is the basic knife set from Global that my dad gave me, plus the bread knife. It’s a perfect kit for a person who’s starting to learn how to cook, but since it contains the world-class Global G-2 chef’s knife (the very one we crowned our favorite), it can be used for years to come.
This six-piece knife block is for a more intermediate chef, or someone who’s angling at getting the most blades for their money. The slim metal stand holds a serrated bread knife, a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a santoku, and a boning knife, but there’s also an outside-the-block utility knife for those smaller, everyday tasks, like cutting PB&Js in half. This one also comes in a super-clean (and clean-looking) glass block to keep the cutlery organized.
In addition to all four basic knives, this set comes with a sharpening steel and kitchen shears that disassemble, making them easy to clean. Plus, if you’re really wedded to keeping steak knives, there are four open slots in the knife block for your own set.
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