It’s a common trope that knives are an extension of a cook’s hand — but while they are arguably the most important tool you can wield in the kitchen, you need only a few reliable ones to perform most cutting, chopping, slicing, deboning, and carving tasks. So that raises the question: Should you buy each individually or together as a set? Obviously, the answer is not the latter if you’re just missing one or two specific types. But other than that, sets are fair game.
You can, in fact, find curated groups of many different compositions — three pieces all the way up to 20-something pieces, all chef’s knives or mixed kinds, ones that include sharpening tools and blocks and ones that don’t. If you’ve ever browsed the kitchen section of any home-goods store, you know that a deal with a lot of pieces in it might seem initially appealing, but if you look closely, there are unnecessary parts that will inevitably go to die in your cutlery drawer. The key is to make sure you don’t end up with a ton of blades and accessories you won’t use.
When talking to experts about their favorite knife sets, I went with the assumption that you’re starting completely from scratch or redoing the basic makeup of your collection. But, of course, if you like the sound of any of these brands, you can browse all the other groupings they have to offer.
What we’re looking for
Number of pieces: As I said before, knife sets can come with anywhere from three pieces to more than 20. For this story, I (and the experts I spoke to) leaned significantly toward the smaller end of that spectrum. I’m of the opinion that, most of the time, it makes sense to buy a smaller core group — a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife — and then assess. Are you always wishing you had a second chef’s knife so you don’t have to clean in between tasks? Does it turn out you’d benefit from a boning knife because you eat fish and chicken multiple days a week? From your core group, you can always add on as you see what your real needs are.
European- or Japanese-style: This classification is a bit of a tricky one because not every knife falls distinctly into one category or the other (and some knives don’t fall into either). And yet these terms are still commonly used, the distinctions notable enough that it’s good to have a sense of the main characteristics of each — especially when it comes to the chef’s knife in each of these sets. European-style is kind of a catchall term that is also referred to as German-, French-, and Western-style. These are generally heavier with a thicker, more curved blade to facilitate rocking back and forth with the tip down on your cutting board. On the other hand, Japanese-style knives tend to be lighter with a thinner blade and a straighter edge to facilitate extreme precision. To make things even more confusing, some Japanese companies make European-style knives and some European and American companies make Japanese-style knives. But here I’ve denoted the style of each to the best of my ability and then gone into more detail in the descriptions.
Best overall knife set
Six pieces | European-style
Wüsthof is a classic company. It’s the one that cook and Top Chef Canada host Eden Grinshpan was told to buy when she was in culinary school, the one cookbook author Erin Gleeson registered for when she got married a decade ago and still uses, and the one preferred by multiple celebrity chefs with varying cooking styles (a quick Google search will tell you that both Ina Garten and Gordon Ramsay swear by them). “They’re just superhigh quality, and they really stand the test of time,” Grinshpan says. “I still have some of the pieces in my kitchen.” This particular set comes with a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a serrated knife — the only three you really need when it comes down to performing most cooking tasks, as I explained before. It also includes some helpful (not superfluous) accessories: a wooden block to hold your blades safely, a honing steel to sharpen the edges, and a pair of “come-apart” kitchen shears (the “come-apart” makes them easy to clean). “I use the scissors all the time,” Gleeson says, “for cutting everything from pizza and flatbreads to scallions.”
Best less expensive knife set
Six pieces | European-style
This more affordable set from Wüsthof has a similar setup. The paring knife is a half-inch smaller (which shouldn’t make any noticeable difference), the serrated knife is three inches smaller (a utility knife intended to cut things like tomatoes as opposed to crusty bread), and the block is made from a different variety of wood (beechwood instead of acacia). Most notably, the knives are stamped (cut from one large sheet of steel) instead of forged (made from a single bar of steel that is heated and then pounded into shape by hand or machine). This makes them not quite as durable but much cheaper — and they can totally do the trick (and do it well), especially if you aren’t particularly hard on your knives.
Best simple knife set
Three or five pieces | Combination Japanese- and European-style
“I really like these knives as value buys,” says Jeff Strauss, owner and chef of Jeff’s Table in Los Angeles. “One of the things knife nerds talk about is steel hardness, and these are on the harder end of bendy, which is a sweet spot.” As he explains it, they’re hard enough to sharpen easily and they hold an edge very well. But they’re not so hard that they move in a funky way that can take some getting used to — you can feel the difference with a superhard blade and sometimes even break it if you make the wrong movements. “I know a bunch of pro chefs who use these,” he says.
The price is a selling point for Strategist editor Maxine Builder too. A few years ago, she tested a bunch of DTC cookware and named Misen the best knife set. “To me, Misen’s three-piece Essential Set is the Platonic ideal of a knife set, and if you’re looking for a Wüsthof dupe, this is it,” she wrote. “They’re heavier than my Global knives, as most European-style knives are … and the edges have held as sharp as the first day, even after a few months of use.” The biggest downside to Builder was the handles have a bit of a boxy shape (what Strauss says is somewhat of a French style), but she did say that with a price comparable to one of those “big knife-block sets you can get at Target or Amazon,” they’re a “significant upgrade.”
You can go with three pieces (a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife), or five pieces (an additional utility knife and a Japanese-style santoku knife with a straight edge).
Best four-piece knife set
Four pieces | European-style
Made In makes a relatively uncommon combination of knives — the three essentials plus a Nakiri knife, which I think is a smart addition. It looks a bit like a small cleaver with an entirely straight edge, but it is meant for cutting vegetables. While not strictly necessary, it’s a joy to use — chopping onions and cutting through squash effortlessly and thinly slicing root vegetables. Culinary producer Kiano Moju agrees. She first bought this set when she was stocking her culinary creative studio, a kitchen she needed to outfit from scratch. “They hold really nicely,” she says. “When I was working at Sur La Table years ago, someone taught me how to cut with your thumb on the top of the spine, and it balances nicely if that’s how you use your knives. They’re not too heavy at all. Plus they’re really cute. They come in red, which is my favorite.”
Best high-level knife set
Up to nine pieces | Japanese- and European-style
If you really want to go all out, this set is a real beauty. The design, as you can plainly see, is eye-catching from the blade down to the handle. The pieces also work incredibly well, with ultra-sharp edges and a comfortable grip. For many months now, I’ve regularly used several of them and haven’t had a need to do any upkeep as of yet. I’m a particular fan of the nakiri knife (seriously, I’ve never had as much ease cutting vegetables) and the boning knife (specific, yes, but comes in so handy when I’m cooking meat and fish).
You can choose anywhere from three to nine pieces, and while this is a Japanese brand and some pieces are designed as such (like the santoku knife), there are others with European-style influence (like the chef’s knives, which have that more curved shape).
Editor’s note: Santoku Knives lists all prices in euros, so the price shown is an approximate conversion in U.S. dollars.
Best knife set for camping
Six pieces | European-style
This recommendation from recipe developer and cookbook author Louisa Shafia isn’t strictly a knife set with only knives included, but it comes from the knife company Messermeister, which she has been using since she went to culinary school a couple of decades ago. It’s a compact camping set with two particularly good knives — a foldable six-inch chef’s knife and a foldable six-inch fillet knife (yes, those are full-size, made from the same steel as their regular ones). “It’s everything you would need to go camping and make really nice food,” Shafia says. “You can even handle things if you catch a fish. Plus you need something to cut against that’s not gonna ruin the knives, so it’s nice that it comes with a cutting board.”
• Eden Grinshpan, cook and Top Chef Canada host
• Erin Gleeson, cookbook author
• Jessie Sheehan, recipe developer
• Jeff Strauss, owner and chef of Jeff’s Table
• Maxine Builder, Strategist editor
• Kiano Moju, culinary producer
• Louisa Shafia, recipe developer
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