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Chef Knives - Buying a Kitchen Knife Set

Posted: Saturday April 4, 2009
by Patricia Wilcox
Most knife experts will tell you to never buy a knife set. I am here to say that a proper knife set is a cooks best friend and kitchens best asset. Here is how to decide if a knife block is right for you, find the perfect knife set, and maintain it for a lifetime.

Who is a knife set really for?
The sort of person who really gets the best out of a knife set is someone who loves to prepare nice meals from fresh ingredients, who has a kitchen that they adore and who really basks in how homey and comfortable or sleek and stylish it is. A knife block works great for someone who is very busy, and who does not mind making dinner, but knows that in order to make it more enjoyable, they need to make the prep work run smoother. If they had more time, or if it were easier to prepare it, they would use fresh produce in every meal. A knife set is best for someone who does not have very much time to do research and wants to find a their new tools efficiently.

Why are so many people against knife blocks then?
If you have asked around about buying a knife set, you probably were told - do not do it! Why is that? Well, most knife experts are severe knife enthusiasts. In most cases they are knife collectors. They know all about steel types and edge geometry and patinas and forging techniques and, well, everything you could possibly know about a knife. While this is all very useful information, it is much more than even the greatest chef bothers to know.

These knife experts have sampled hundreds of knives, and they all have very set opinions on what the best knife in each category of knives is. Someone with the time to read hundreds of reviews of each type of knife that they will need will have a non-matching set of the best knives in the world. If you do not have much time though, and if you want your knives to match, it is really in your best interest to purchase a set.
The other argument that most knife experts make is that sets are loaded with "filler knives that you will never use," or that "all you ever need is a chef knife." I am going to say it once and for all. Yes, you can eek by with just a chef knife, and yes, you will use your chef knife more than any other knife that you have. But try to use your chef knife to carve a pumpkin, remove the scales from a fish, or slice a loaf of freshly baked Italian bread and you will see that while you do not do those jobs very often, when you do them you want the proper knife for the job. It is like your stand mixer. While the paddle attachment gets 95% of the action, you still need the whisk attachment for whipped cream and the dough hook for dough.

How to choose your knife set?
The chef knife will be getting the most usage, so you will want to select your set predominantly on it. You can find streams and streams of information on choosing a chef knife, but here is what is most important - the handle must fit comfortably in your hands, and the blade should be made of decent steel. How can you tell about the steel? The simplest answer is that if it is a well-known company than they probably use decent steel. If you really want a valuable opinion, call the professional who you will have sharpen your knives and ask for a recommendation. If you plan to purchase online and will not be able to go in store and hold the knives in your hand, look for a handle that seems ergonomic and has no hard corners, which may cause calluses.

Second in line is the appearance of the set. Now I am not being vain, but really, being able to display your knives in a beautiful block right out on the counter top adds a real touch of prowess to any kitchen. So chose a set that you will be proud to have out on display. You will most likely see it everyday, so be sure that it goes well with the appearance of the kitchen and that you feel glad to see it in your home.
Finally, you will also want to consider the other knives that are in the set. Why is this not first on the list? There are no "useless" knives. What is most important when it comes to the knives in your block is knowing what tasks to use them for. Chances are if it is in your block it has a special purpose and it is worth if for you to take some time and find out how to use it. Ask a salesperson, a chef friend, or do a quick search online for each knife in your set and how it should be used. This will save you hours of frustration in kitchen, trying to use a santoku to debone a fish. If you knife set does not include a honing/sharpening steel you will need to purchase one and learn how to use it in order to maintain your knives. Your steel will not need to be stored in any special way, but if it is not included in your set you must consider this as an added expense.

How to maintain your set?
A knife set should be cared for specially in only two ways. Always insert completely dry, clean knives into the block to prevent bacteria from going inside, and whenever you are vacuuming, carefully remove the knives from your block and suck out any debris that may have fallen into the slots to prevent your knives from getting scratched or dented. Otherwise, maintain each knife as it normally should be. Hand wash your knives, only use them on wooden or rubber cutting boards, and use each knife for its proper job. Your chef knife should be honed after each half-hour of use and should be sharpened professionally at least once or twice per year.

Any extra bonuses?
This is actually why I love knife sets so much. A properly chosen and well maintained set will last a lifetime, becoming your best friend in the kitchen and perhaps someday, a family heirloom.
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