A set of high-quality kitchen knives makes a great gift for Christmas, birthdays and weddings. The sheer range on offer, however, is bewildering. In this article we discuss the main factors you need to consider when weighing up the relative merits of different kitchen knife sets.
What material makes the best blade?
Most kitchen knives have a blade made from stainless steel. It’s very practical because it has good cutting qualities, is easy to sharpen, durable and resistant to staining and rusting. On the downside a steel blade is prone to flexing and bending. It also tends to be softer than carbon steel and will therefore go blunt more rapidly.
This type of steel has a carbon content of between 0.05% up to 2.1%. The carbon makes it harder than stainless steel which enables you to get an even sharper edge. It also means it won’t become blunt as rapidly as stainless steel. However, it’s prone to rusting so you need to look after it carefully – regularly seasoning the blade with mineral oil will help prevent this. The hardness also makes it more brittle than stainless steel. One other factor to bear in mind is that carbon steel blades tend to be more costly than stainless steel ones. All things considered, if you are serious about cooking and not too worried about your budget, carbon steel is the way to go.
This material has a carbon steel core sheathed in layers of carbon steel. This gives the surface a very distinctive wavy pattern, resembling swirling currents of water, that’s intriguingly eye-catching. Damascus steel is also highly prized because, being forged of stainless steel and carbon steel, it combines the best qualities of both – it’s exceptionally hard, maintains a keen edge and exhibits a degree of flexibility. Damascus steel blades are generally made by hand and take a lot of work, so they don’t come cheap. One thing to beware of is stainless steel knives that are coated or etched to look like Damascus steel – make sure you are getting the real thing! Read our earlier blog post “Damascus steel knives – a story shrouded in mystery” if you’d like to learn more.
These weigh less than metal blades and are very sharp. They also go blunt more slowly than blades made of stainless steel, carbon steel and Damascus steel. Another positive is that they are relatively inexpensive. On the negative side the edge is quite easy to chip. They’re also very tricky to sharpen – you’ll need a diamond sharpener, meaning than you’re better off sending them to your supplier for sharpening.
What about weight?
There is no ideal weight for a kitchen knife – it’s a matter of personal preference. Most would agree that too heavy is not desirable as it will put a strain on your wrist. However, it should have a bit of “heft” to it…just not too much.
How about the handle?
The handle is obviously pretty important as it will determine how comfortable the knife feels in your hand. The main thing is to make sure it doesn’t have an awkward shape with angular projections or sharp edges that will create pressure points on your palm or fingers. Some knives have rubberised handles to help you get a better grip, others are moulded to fit the contours of your hand, and some designs combine the two. The bolster, the thick section between the blade and the handle, is also important, providing smooth transition from the blade to the handle – a smooth bolster contributes to better balance, strengthens the knife and makes it easier to grip comfortably and control easily.
Handle materials explained
This is a very practical option, light and hard wearing. Some plastic handles are smooth, which is very hygienic – there’s nowhere for dirt or food particles to become trapped. Other plastic handles are textured or have grooves. This improves the grip but they are not so easy to keep clean. Plastic handles are robust but they will melt if they are subject to heat – so keep well away from the hob.
Some people find wooden handles attractive. However, the grain can trap dirt and germs so need to be cleaned thoroughly. Also, some wood handles will need oiling with a dedicated knife handle oil to preserve them. Most modern wooden-handled knives have a light clear plastic coating to protect them.
Is it well balanced?
The weight of the knife should be divided equally between the handle and the blade. To check that the knife is balanced in this way simply lay it across your middle finger and forefinger where the blade and handle meet. Does it tip one way or the other? A handle that’s too heavy means the knife won’t cut as effectively as a balanced one. If the blade is heavier than the handle it’ll be uncomfortable and tiring to use.
Let’s talk about tang
The tang is the rear portion of the blade, the unsharpened bit that extends into the handle material. There are three main types of tang.
This is where the metal of the blade runs down the full length of the handle. With a full tang the metal is usually visible, with two halves of the handle clamped onto it by rivets. A full tang knife is the preferred choice because the design is more robust and it usually has the correct balance – there not much danger of the handle becoming loose. The downside is that full tang knives are heavier than knives with a partial tang.
Rat tail tang
With this design the metal of the blade narrows as it goes through the handle and commonly welded at the base. This is a less sturdy way of attaching blade and handle so the handle can become wobbly over time.
The metal of the blade extends down the handle, but only halfway. The blade and handle tend to be glued together and if too much force is applied when using the knife the blade can break away from the handle.
How many knives do you need in a set?
Most people find that three knives are sufficient for most tasks in a kitchen – a chef’s knife (or the Japanese equivalent, a Santoku knife), a paring knife and a bread knife. Beyond these three a boning or filleting knife is useful. Some cooks also like a smaller chef’s knife (with a six inch blade). See our earlier blog post “How many kitchen knives do you really need?” for a fuller discussion.
All the gifting options you need
Hopefully you now have a better idea of what to look for when selecting a knife set to give as a gift. The Orient range includes 12 different kitchen knife sets, as well as two steak knife sets, so you are spoilt for choice!