Knife sets are on every bridal registry and hog space on kitchen counters next to equally spendy and hulking Kitchen-Aid mixers (also from the registry, natch). If you're beginning your cooking life in earnest, surely you need a knife set, right?"They look great," says Brian Buckley, chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, "but knife sets are a waste of money and space." Think of those 100-color eye shadow palettes. They're appealing in their seeming completeness (sapphire! violet! fuchsia! wow!), but you're actually better off buying a couple neutral workhorses you can put to use. "Start with a few knives and add new ones for particular, specific, and personal reasons," advises Buckley. We asked Buckley, along with cookbook author and food writer Wini Moranville, to tell us which knives are essential (and they agreed!).
CHEF'S KNIFE: A large, 8-to-10-inch blade that can do almost everything.
USE IT FOR: "All-purpose slicing, dicing, chopping, and mincing," says Moranville. If you're cooking, chances are you're using this guy.
PARING KNIFE: Small-sized with a short blade, a paring knife can get into tight spots a big chef's knife can't. USE IT FOR: "Gotta have one to core, peel, and cut. No way around it," Moranville insists.
SERRATED KNIFE: A long, thin blade, ranging from 9 to 11 inches, that features pointed, scalloped, or saw-toothed serrations to help it slide through tough exteriors.
USE IT FOR: If you're not a fan of "great artisanal bread––boules, baguettes, ciabatta, etcetera," you probably don't need this one, says Moranville. "But if you are, there's no way around this," she explains. Serrated knives also slice beautifully through ripe summer tomatoes, or any fruit or vegetable with a skin that gives way to a tender interior. Moranville likes having a carving knife, while I have a particular penchant for sharp kitchen shears. But there's nothing either of these can do that a sharp chef's knife can't. "The key is keeping any knife you use sharp," she adds. And Buckley warns not to rely on a knife sharpener, advising: "Buy and learn to use a sharpening stone ... or have your knives sharpened on a stone by a pro."
A word on cost. You take the express train to splurge town in the knife department (see: super rad handcrafted blades at Cut), and some argue that it's a worthy investment. "A good knife, if well maintained, will last you a lifetime," Buckley says. "I've used the same chef's knife for over 25 years." Budget is your call, but you don't have to drop a mint to get a good knife.
"I used a $5 Chinese cleaver that I bought in New York City's Chinatown in my early 20s and used it until I was about 35 when I finally got a fancy chef's knife for Christmas," Moranville says. "I still cherish and use my cleaver — I'll never part with it. Too many good times and good meals have been made with it." Frugal cooks are also fond of the $38 8-inch Victorinox.
Whether you spend big or scrimp, remember the choice doesn't really affect the quality of your cooking. "Almost every furnished kitchen I cook in when I'm [vacationing] in France has low-budget knives, yet I manage to cook some wonderful meals there," Moranville says. "It's about the ingredients, not the knives."
"Expensive knives are like expensive cars," she adds. "They're not necessary, but then again, I can see why people might enjoy having them!"
Final verdict: No, you don't need to buy an expensive knife set. You need a chef's knife, a paring knife, and maybe a serrated knife. And they don't need to be expensive, just sharp.
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