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We originally published this article, written by Alex Delany, in 2017. Sarah Jampel updated it since then to include information and research from our 2020 print feature.
When you buy a knife set, you’re paying for knives you don’t need and probably won’t use. (As a vegetarian, do you really need six mediocre steak knives?) Most home cooks will be just fine with two knives. “If you’re just getting started,” says Jon Broida of Japanese Knife Imports in L.A., “get a big knife and a small knife. Just get that! You don’t need more than that. You can do everything you need to do with one big knife and one small knife.” And we’d throw in a third knife—the serrated knife—for cutting bread.
Choosing your knives individually, rather than buying them in a bundle, lets you get exactly what’s right for you. When you commit to a set, on the other hand, you’re committing to one brand for every single knife you own. You might absolutely love the chef’s knife that one company makes but not feel as passionately about their paring knife. That brings us to the most important piece of advice: When possible, you should hold a knife before you buy it and make sure you’re comfortable with the way it feels in your hand. You wouldn’t buy pants without trying them on, right? Even if you got an extra pair for half the price, you’d be walking around looking pretty foolish.
Go to a store where the salesperson will take out a knife out, talk to you about it, and let you feel the weight of it in your hand before you take it home. Even better if they’re willing to walk you through several knives! If IRL shopping isn’t an answer, order from a site with a generous return policy and big selection, like KnifeCenter or Cutlery and More.
On top of all that, when you buy your knives individually, you have more options for storing them. Those clunky wooden knife blocks take up a very solid chunk of real estate on your counter. Save some precious counter space and go with a magnetic strip or individual sheaths instead.
A tighter, more thoughtful knife lineup saves space and money, but it’s also about learning to use the knives you do have to their full potential. You’re not going to become an onion-chopping expert by practicing the process with six different knives. You’re going to get there by using one.
One day, your knife skills could be like Jacques’.