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Slate's Shopping: The Best Knives for Carving


Once you get the bird cooked, it all comes down to the carving. Many families have carving sets, generally a long knife and fork that they bring out only once or twice a year. Given how important these knives are for our holiday ceremonies, a surprising number of them just aren't very good at their job. Sara Dickerman is a chef and a food writer for the online magazine Slate, and this year, she and a group of fellow foodies tested a wide selection of carving sets to try to determine the best of the bunch, and Sara Dickerman joins me now.

How are you?


Good. Thanks.

BRAND: So who was in your testing group?

DICKERMAN: Well, I put together one guy who's a knife dealer who's also a bladesmith, so he makes knives on his own, and then a private chef and then also a gourmet shop owner who used to be a chef at one of the biggest restaurants in LA.

BRAND: And what did you set out to test?

DICKERMAN: We tried a full range of carving sets, the cheapest being an electric knife, the classic Hamilton Beach, all the way up to a custom-made knife that retails very close to a thousand dollars US. We had a prime rib roast. We had two birds, in fact. We have some gravlax, which is cured salmon that's very lovely and very sticky and tricky to cut. And then we also had a Jell-O mold.

BRAND: A Jell-O mold.

DICKERMAN: Well, I thought it was sort of classic American holiday. It actually ended up being a poor test of knives, because basically no knife can handle a Jell-O mold that has nuts in it.

BRAND: Well, you tested knives that were electric and non-electric. Let's go with the first one, the electric knife. It would seem to me that that would take all the mystery and all the difficulty out of cutting and just do a good job. Did it?

DICKERMAN: Well, in a funny way, it is easy to use. It will get through a big piece of meat pretty easily, but it's very slow. It's quite noisy, and it kind of saws as it goes along, so you end up with a somewhat shredded texture on the turkey.

BRAND: So not nice.

DICKERMAN: I wouldn't use it myself, but occasionally, it's fun to pull out, you know, like any power tool.

BRAND: It's impressive.

DICKERMAN: And, in fact, on the Jell-O mold, it's the only that even did close to a good job, because the one trick with electric knives that a lot of people might not know is chefs do use them in professional kitchens when they have something with a lot of different textures in it.

BRAND: Well, let's go to the non-electric ones that you tested. They ranged in price from $20 to almost a thousand. And let's talk about the cheap ones. How did they do?

DICKERMAN: Well, the very cheapest one was a Target knife that looks a lot like those really cool Japanese, all-stainless steel molded knives. And it just--it looked cool, but it didn't cut meat well. You had to really saw to get through it. The edge was sort of rough and chipped if you looked at it closely. It just really wasn't worth the money, even at $20.

Then Henckels, which is the well-known knife brand, has a lower-end line called Henckels International. That wasn't a terrible knife, but it was not engineered very well. It just didn't do the job that well.

BRAND: Now all the way at the other end, you tested a $975 Thomas Haslinger custom-made carving set. And how did that one go?

DICKERMAN: It's gorgeous. It's a very woody-looking knife. He used a special kind of ironwood on the handle which is sort of two-toned. Everything about it was very impressive to look at. We liked the way it handled, but I have to admit it was duller than we'd hoped.

BRAND: So tell us who the winner was.

DICKERMAN: The winner was this Japanese knife. It's a commercial knife by Kershaw Shun, and it's a classic two-piece carving set which retails around 238. The steel is--actually has a moire effect, what's called the Damascus steel look. It's very gleaning and it comes in a very pretty bamboo box lined with red velvet. The fork itself is gorgeous, too. So the geometry of everything is very attractive. And then the knife itself has a thin blade, and I find it's easier to slice thin slices with a thin blade. So it had a very graceful feel in hand.

BRAND: And, Sara, I understand you actually have this knife with you. Can we hear what it sounds like?

DICKERMAN: Oh, yeah. Here is the sound of a good Japanese knife.

(Soundbite of knife carving)

DICKERMAN: We also found that if you hit the fork, you get sort of a tuning fork sound.

(Soundbite of fork being struck)

BRAND: Sara Dickerman is a chef in Seattle. She's a food writer for the online magazine Slate as well. And you can find her test results, along with pictures of the knives she tested, including the winner, at

Thanks, Sara.

DICKERMAN: Thank you.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.