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Cheap Kitchen Knives Buying Guide

The experts at Onlyknives.com offer one key money-saving tip when shopping for cheap kitchen knives: don't sacrifice quality for quantity. Indeed, some cooking experts argue that one top-quality 8-inch chef's knife from makers like Dexter-Russell (starting at $22) or Victorinox (starting at $30) is all you need for most cooking tasks.

But not all cooking mavens agree, and these experts say four knives in particular -- chef's knife, slicing knife, utility knife, and paring knife -- are all necessary tools for a well-equipped kitchen.

Before you start shopping, consider your cooking style; the impact on your wallet will be about the same whether you opt for one chef's knife or a good quality, cheap kitchen knives set containing a variety of knives. If you've decided to spring for a cutlery set, chose one that features the knives you'll actually use. Don't buy a discount cutlery set because it comes with a ton of extra knives. Pick a set with fewer knives that will perform better over a longer stretch of time. Many consumer and expert kitchen knives reviewers insist that the best knives are made by German and Japanese companies, such as Wusthof, Henckels and Ginsu, but don't be fooled by upscale brand names. Henckels makes well-reviewed knives in the high-end price range, but low price kitchen knife sets, like the International Everedge 13-Piece Knife Set (starting at $45), are dinged in consumer reviews of discount cutlery sets on Amazon. Still, home cooks can be assured of a good selection of cheap cutlery produced by well-known, well-regarded manufacturers. Ginsu, for example, makes several knife sets that come with a storage block and sell for less than $50; ditto for other companies, such as Ronco, Miracle Blade, and Chicago Cutlery.

Blades.

A knife is only as good as its blade. And these days blades are made of steel or stainless steel. Each substance has its pros and cons. Steel knives tend to be sharper than stainless steel, but high humidity and foods high in acid can cause steel blades to rust and discolor, respectively. Discount kitchen knives made from stainless steel are not as prone to rusting and contain higher amounts of iron and chromium, which helps them resist staining; on the other hand, stainless steel blades are tougher to sharpen. Users notice these things. A review of cheap kitchen knives on Walmart reports that the blades on the Ronco Rocker Showtime Stainless Steel Stamped 20-Piece Knife Set (starting at $40) don't rust but do require extra effort (like hand washing) to keep the edges sharp.

Whether it's stainless or just plain steel, the composition of the steel itself also matters. Manufacturers aren't always forthcoming with these details, but Ginsu uses 420J2 rust-resistant stainless steel in its International Traditions 14-piece Knife Set (starting at $32), as does Ronco Rocker Showtime in its 20-piece set; Chicago Cutlery says it uses a high-carbon stainless (an alloy of carbon steel and stainless steel) in its Cabrera 12-Piece Knife Set with Block (starting at $37). A word of caution from the experts at Onlyknives.com: generic high-carbon knives might do a fine job cutting, slicing, and dicing when new but will disappoint with continued usage. That may be, but the Chicago Cutlery set claims a legion of satisfied cooks.

Another distinction among blades in discount cutlery sets is whether they are "forged" or "stamped." Forged knives, which are generally preferred by serious cooks, are molded by hand using intense heat; they tend to be harder, denser, heavier, and stronger than stamped knives. Stamped knives are made by machine from a template cutter. Although most high-end, top-rated knives are forged, a number of reviewers on sites like Chowhound write that stamped knives can be just as good, and their light weight may be better suited for tasks such as peeling and skinning. Although the blades in cheap cutlery sets are usually stamped, Chicago Cutlery's Cabrera Set contains five forged knives -- the Santoku, Partoku (unique to this company), serrated bread, utility, and paring knives -- while the four steak knives are stamped.

Knife Variety.

Despite what some experts say about the joy of cooking with only one all-purpose knife, having a choice of knives is an affordable luxury. Cheap cutlery sets typically come with a dozen or more different knives, ranging from a delicate boning knife to a hefty cleaver to steak knives that belong on your table. If you cut up lots of fruits and vegetables, you'll appreciate a paring knife, which is particularly useful for peeling skins. The Miracle Blade III 11-piece Knife Set (starting at $20), the Chicago Cutlery Cabrera, and the Ginsu International Traditions all come with a 3.5-inch paring knife; the Ronco Rocker 20-Piece set comes with two of them. Some cheap cutlery sets, like Ginsu International Traditions and the Chicago Cutlery Cabrera, include a thin-bladed Santoku knife, which is a bit like a small, narrow cleaver and has recently gained favor among home cooks for its usefulness in chopping, dicing, and mincing. For cooks whose recipe repertoire includes meat, steak knives as well as knives like a cleaver and boning knife are important. The Miracle Blade III set seems particularly suited for meat lovers, given its filet knife, rock-n-chop chop cleaver, chop-n-scoop cleaver, and eight steak knives. The Cook Neway 15-Piece Knife Set (starting at $40), with its slicer, boning knife, carving fork, and six 4.5-inch steak knives, is a slightly more expensive option for carnivores.

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Soft foods, particularly breads and tomatoes, call out for serrated knives. The Ginsu International Traditions, Miracle Blade III, Ronco Rocker 20-piece, Chicago Cutlery Cabrera 12-piece, and J.A. Henckels International Everedge sets all feature long slicing knives with some type of serrated edge. In fact, all the blades in the cheap Ginsu, J.A. Henckels, and Sunbeam 13- Piece (starting at $16) sets are serrated. Serrated edges can be problematic when performing tasks like chopping and slicing, mincing and peeling, according to user complaints lodged against the micro-serrated blades in the J.A. Henckels set. On the other hand, the Ginsu International Traditions knives, featuring two-sided serrated edges that can be used by lefties and righties, seems to escape similar condemnation.

Weight.

The weight of a kitchen knife affects its feel in your hand, how you work with it, and how it performs. You'll want a heavier knife for meats and thinner lightweight knives for slicing and chopping vegetables. Experts say metal handles make knives significantly heavier, so if you're eyeing a knife with such a handle, make sure it won't place unnecessary strain on your wrist or impair your control as you whisk across the cutting board. The lighter paring knife in the Ginsu International Traditions set wins raves in reviews of cheap cutlery sets on Amazon. The Ronco Rocker Showtime is another good bet if you prefer all your kitchen knives on the lighter side, according to cutlery sets reviews on Walmart. On the other hand, the J.A. Henkels set gets a thumbs down in discount kitchen knives sets reviews by users posting on Amazon, for including too many lightweight knives that are hard to cut with. Excessive weight is rarely a concern with discount cutlery sets, so you may have to step up a few notches if you're partial to knives with some heft.

Handles.

Ideally, the handles of your discount knife set will be "full tang," which means the metal of the blade extends into the handle. This mode of construction prevents bending and breakage, makes the knife easier to work with, and is likely to lengthen the lifespan of a cheap knife. Handles in the Ginsu International Traditions set are full tang, as are those in the Ronco Rocker Showtime and Chicago Cutlery Cabrera sets. One unique feature of the Chicago Cutlery handles is that they're made of white polymer with a brushed finish, which garners mixed reviews from some consumers posting knife set reviews on Amazon, some of whom find the color appealing, others not so much, and some who worry about keeping the handles looking clean. Neither the Sunbeam 13-Piece Knife Set nor the J.A. Henckels set have full-tang handles. And for that you pay a price: a user posting a cutlery set review on Amazon complains that a handle on a knife from the Sunbeam set snapped while cutting cheese. Consumers likewise criticize the J.A. Henckels knife handles on Amazon for being small and flimsy.

Some cheap cutlery handles are made of Bakelite, a hard heat-resistant and electrically non-conductive plastic used in a lot of kitchenware. The handles on the Ginsu International Traditions knives, as well as those in the Cook Neway set, are made of Bakelite.

The handles on the Miracle Blade III set are contoured and incorporate a parented design that's supposed to help center them in your hand.

Knife Sets Storage Block.

Most cheap kitchen knife sets come with a storage block that sits on the kitchen countertop. For some cooks, the aesthetic quality of this block is important, although posted review comments about the styling are few and far between. A few frugal consumers writing cutlery reviews on Amazon consider the Ginsu International Traditions block attractive, and the Martha Stewart 20-piece Essential Cutlery set (starting at $99) wins praise for its looks in a knife sets review on Buzzillions. At the other extreme, a Buzzillions review warns shoppers away from the Sunbeam 13-piece set, which comes with a storage block described as "tacky" and its "yellowish" color off-putting; furthermore, the reviewer says, the slots for the knives are so deep that some reach through to the countertop.

Cutlery Sets Frills.

It may be hard to believe, but even some cheap knife sets feature a few useful extras. A cutting board is a must-have kitchen item, and among the cutlery sets on our list, only the 11-piece Miracle Blade III set comes with a wooden cutting board.

Budget cutlery usually doesn't get sent back to the manufacturer for sharpening, unlike high-end sets, so you either work with dull knives, buy a new set, or sharpen them yourself. By including an 8-inch sharpening steel, the Chicago Cutlery Cabrera set lets you choose the third option; the Ronco Rocker set likewise includes a sharpener. Be wary of claims in product descriptions of cheap cutlery sets claiming that knives "never need sharpening" (Ginsu makes that assertion about the knives in its low-cost 14-piece set, as does Sunbeam for its 13-piece set); experts say all knives become dull and need to be sharpened eventually, although serrated edges aren't cut out for this type of ongoing maintenance.

Kitchen scissors/shears are hardly an essential component of a cheap cutlery set, but they're certainly handy for quickly cutting open packaging and completing other tasks that aren't easily or safely handled with a knife. Here frugal cooks have several choices: the Cook Neway, Chicago Cutlery Cabrera, Ronco Rocker Showtime, and Ginsu International Traditions sets all feature scissors that consumers seem to appreciate.

by Maralyn Edid (Google+ Profile)

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