Last Updated Feb 2020 – Every kitchen should have a knife set. Whether you have a drawer with a few loose knives, a fancy knife block with a full set of tools, or even a magnetic strip with your favorite blades, your kitchen will be well equipped to handle any recipe or challenge.
If you’re moving to a new home, however, and you don’t have a set of knives, or you’ve decided it’s time to upgrade to a complete collection of culinary instruments, the best thing to do is to buy a knife block with a set of matching knives.
Chicago Cutlery is a leading manufacturer of low-cost knife blocks. Their products are carried by many retailers and web stores around the country. Their knives are often described with words like “forged,” “high-carbon stainless,” and “durable.” How do they really hold up in practice?
The short answer is that Chicago Cutlery is a great option for someone who’d prefer a full knife set on the cheap, but it doesn’t really compete with top brands like JA Henckels, Shun, or Dalstrong. While their knives are adequate, they fall well short of being incredible. Still, as long as you sharpen them regularly and you don’t need a special grind on your knives your kitchen will do quite well with a set of Chicago Cutlery knives.
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Here’s how some of Chicago Cutlery’s top sets stack up to the competition.
Chicago Cutlery Knife Set Reviews
Generally speaking, I tend to group chefs into two categories: people who don’t mind sharpening their knives, and people who hate sharpening their knives. People in the first category tend to own a high-end chef knife or two, a honing steel, and maybe even a set of whetstones.
Their knives can almost always pass the “newspaper test” with flying colors without any special preparation. You can simply take the blade out of the block, hold a single sheet of newspaper gently in one hand, and slice through it quite easily with the other.
The second group dislikes sharpening their knives. They’ll take them to a store once or twice a year when a friend or relative reminds them, sure, but it’s not a real priority for them. There’s nothing wrong with being one of these folks — there are enough chores in our lives without needing to provide specialty care for every tool in your house — but their knives usually aren’t super sharp.
They might be coaxed into cutting paper after some attention from a honing steel, but they’re not going to impress anyone until they receive a bit of maintenance.
This Insignia knife block from Chicago Cutlery aims to help the second group of people. It’s a big set of 19 knives with a special wooden block that has an extra slot. This hole contains a simple knife sharpener that’s completely foolproof in its operation. Simply insert and then remove your knife in order to instantly sharpen your knife to an angle carefully selected by the manufacturer.
Now, knife experts will tell you that restoring a damaged edge to razor sharpness takes more than a single pass. That’s not what you’re doing here. Instead, Chicago Cutlery has provided a somewhat fine grit stone that polishes and maintains your edge. Think of it like a custom honing steel with a bit more grit. The idea is that inserting and removing your knives from a convenient, highly visible slot is a lot easier than remembering to take out your honing steel or strop your knives after each use.
In a home kitchen, this maintenance tool is more than enough to keep your knives sharp pretty much forever. If you’ve looked at other Chicago Cutlery Insignia reviews, you might have even seen that this set is top-rated by multiple experts and consumer organizations.
This is because it turns the complicated, boring task of maintaining your knives into something that’s basically trivial to do. You can sharpen your knives when you return them to the block with a quick, simple motion.
But what about the knives themselves? Chicago Cutlery tends to make light mid-range knives, but this set is fully forged and feels quite a bit heavier. The knives are made from an unspecified “high carbon stainless” that’s probably not quite as high-grade as the stuff you’d find in a Victorinox or Mercer Culinary set, sure, but the constant sharpening more than makes up for the steel’s slight lack of edge performance.
The metal grips on this set are quite stylish and fairly ergonomic, while the vast selection of useful cutting tools ensures that you’ll always have the right blade for the job.
There are two downsides to this set. First, the built-in sharpener is incompatible with custom grinds. This isn’t a knife set you want to re-profile or even sharpen by hand yourself. If you’re into that sort of stuff, I recommend picking up something like a high-carbon Kramer knife. You’ll get a stronger knife with better balance, better edge performance, and nicer aesthetics.
Second, and more importantly as far as this set’s target audience is concerned. the knife block itself isn’t great. It’s not a lovingly crafted, well-polished centerpiece for your counter that will impress friends and family alike. Instead, it’s a somewhat unappealing block of wood that’s often rough and sometimes even has visible glue seams. Luckily, however, this issue has been fixed in later lines of knives, including the very similar Insignia 2 (see below).
One final note: while this knife set (and all of Chicago Cutlery’s other knife sets) comes with a lifetime warranty, this warranty only covers manufacturer defects. You might be able to replace a knife that breaks in a weird way or that arrives damaged, but you shouldn’t expect Chicago Cutlery to replace these in a decade or two if they rust.
If you’re after these knives for the tools (and the self-sharpening), there’s not a lot wrong with this glaring flaw. You might not have a super pretty wooden block on your counter, but you’ll get a set of affordable, functional knives that you can maintain nearly perfectly without any effort. If you’re after a knife block with great aesthetics, however, you’re probably better off choosing the newer Chicago Cutlery Insignia 2 set below. Alternately, get something from a higher end brand like Shun or Wusthof.
There are two important differences between the updated Insignia 2 set and the old Insignia 1 set. First, the knives have different handles. Instead of the solid metal design of Insignia 1, Insignia 2 features dark synthetic handles that are made to look like dark wood. They’re not quite as modern looking or distinct, but they seem a bit classier and go quite well with any kitchen decor.
More importantly, however, the quality of Insignia 2 knife blocks seems to have gone up quite a bit. You’re much less likely to get an ugly dud with this newer set. This means that it’s a better buy in most kitchens. Insignia 1 is still excellent, of course, but this set is a bit prettier when it’s on your counter.
As far as knife design, material, and performance go, both sets are very comparable. You still get a built-in knife sharpener, that does a pretty good job of touching up the edges of your blades and keeping them honed. Just like with the Insignia set above, it’s important to realize that this sharpener is a tool, not a toy. You don’t want to thrust your knives in and out of it with reckless abandon every time you use them. Instead, sharpen your knives gently every few uses to correct any edge deformities without taking off any more metal than necessary.
If you’re after a stylish set of full tang forged knives that are sharp when they arrive and very easy to maintain, Insignia 2 is a great choice. Again, it won’t beat a higher-end set of knives in most regards. The tools that you receive are still more than adequate for home use, however, and you save a lot of money by choosing Chicago Cutlery.
While the Insignia blocks try to impress with their ease-of-use and automatic sharpening block, the Fusion line tries to compete with more serious knives in terms of build quality and aesthetics. It does a rather good job of approaching brands like JA Henckels in terms of balance, materials, and design, falling only slightly short of the mark. This set comes with an impressive array of fully forged, full-tang knives, a beautiful wooden block, and a matching set of steak knives.
Honestly, while the design of these knives definitely seems a bit nicer than the Insignia sets, that might just be my personal preference speaking. The grippy synthetic handles are comfortable and give you plenty of control over the knives, especially given their excellent balance, while the thicker forged construction helps give them a bit of heft. The block itself is a clear improvement over the Insignia blocks in my opinion, no doubt partially due to a gleaming metal faceplate that “protects” the holes in which you insert your knives.
While the Insignia set comes with a built-in sharpener, this set comes with a honing steel. It’s a clear nod to the intended audience: Chicago Cutlery expects you to maintain these knives yourself. The metal is still the same “high-carbon stainless” as the Insignia lines, but you get the big advantage of being able to choose your own angle should you sharpen them yourself.
If you’re comfortable with a honing steel, I think that this Fusion knife block is worth buying over the auto-sharpening Insignia lines. Not only is the set a bit better looking, but you’ll also have a lot more control over your knives. Overall, I think it’s a win.
Just like the Chicago Cutlery Fusion set above, this set is a subtle shift from one of Chicago Cutlery’s other lines. This time, it’s a riff of the metal-handled Insignia 1 design. This knife set is beautiful, compact, and extra inexpensive. While it doesn’t come with a built-in sharpener, you still get a fully-stocked knife block and honing steel that you can use to maintain any grind or edge.
The biggest difference between Elston and Fusion is the handle type. I tend to think that the modern-looking Elston handles look much better on the countertop, while the more comfortable, grippy Fusion handles feel better in my hands. Your experience will vary, of course. Feel free to choose the set that fits your own tastes.
The other difference, of course, is cost. Check the price of both sets to see which one is cheaper in your area. They both feature similar forged high-carbon stainless blades with excellent balance and very, very good value per money. You really can’t go wrong with either.
Again, serious kitchen hobbyists and professionals will certainly get a lot out of shelling out for a more expensive Dalstrong or Zwilling knife (or knife set). If you’re a less serious chef or you’re looking to save money, this Chicago Cutlery Elston set is very, very good, as long as you sharpen it regularly.
Damen is another very similar knife set. It primarily differs from both Elston and Fusion in the aesthetics department, notably due to the darker wood of the block itself. Like the other lines, it features fully forged, high-carbon stainless knives that are very good quality for the price. Choose Damen if it’s on sale or if your designer thinks the knives will go better with your kitchen.
This general trend continues with most other Chicago Cutlery lines. One notable exception is the Chicago Cutlery 600 series, which is pretty hard to find these days. If you can get your hands on a set, it comes full of Japanese-style beechwood handles, hollow grinds, and the normal Chicago Cutlery high-carbon stainless steel. It’s definitely directed at more experienced chefs that prefer Japanese-style knives.
Chicago Cutlery vs JA Henckels
Knives are very much a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer their knives to be lighter or heavier, shorter or longer, with a very fine grind or a more normal German-style edge. There’s no real right or wrong answer. So why are JA Henckels knives better than Chicago Cutlery knives?
These days, JA Henckels produces two lines of knives. One line, JA Henckels International, focuses on Chinese-produced mass-market knives. Their other imprint, Zwilling JA Henckels, makes high-end knives for the discerning crowd.
To be perfectly frank, JA Henckels International and Chicago Cutlery knives are extremely similar. There are two big differences you’re likely to note: one, Chicago Cutlery favors forged knives, while Henckels International makes many stamped lines, and two, Henckels seems to have much better quality control. This means that you’re more likely to receive a Chicago Cutlery set with a small defect, at least in my experience.
As far as forged vs stamped knives go, there’s no real “right” answer. Forged knives are thicker towards the handle and thinner towards the tip, while stamped knives have a more uniform thickness down the entire spine. There are two advantages to a forged knife.
First, it gives you access to something called a bolster, which is a piece of metal that keeps your fingers from accidentally contacting the blade.
Second, forged knives tend to have slightly better balance than their stamped counterparts. Stamped blades, on the other hand, are often lighter and are usually cheaper.
Henckels International knives are quite nice despite the fact that they’re stamped in a Chinese factory. They are, however, often slightly more expensive than Chicago Cutlery. In my experience, the knives are quite similar in quality, although Henckels knives are more consistent from box to box.
Comparing Chicago Cutlery to Zwilling is a totally different story. Zwilling knives are sharper, better designed, and made with better materials, at least as a whole. They’re also much, much more expensive than either Henckels International or Chicago Cutlery knives.
The biggest difference between a cheap set of Henckels International or Chicago Cutlery knives and a more expensive Zwilling set is the material used. Chicago Cutlery uses “high-carbon stainless” to make their knives. This term refers to an entire category of similar alloys. Chicago Cutlery (and many similar companies) take advantage of this broad category definition to save money. When they make a batch of knives, they have the ability to switch to whatever high-carbon stainless alloy happens to be cheapest at the moment.
In this context, “cheapest” does not mean “worst.” You’ll frequently find knives made from generic steel that actually have expensive alloys like 440A in them. If the manufacturer does their homework and properly treats their steel, you can get incredibly high-quality blades for pennies on the dollar.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t create a consistent consumer experience. You don’t know what kind of steel was used exactly, nor do you know exactly how it was treated. In most cases, these factors aren’t super important, but if you’re looking for an especially hard or especially soft knife, you’re trying to figure out the maximum steepness of grind your knife can support, or you’re just trying to collect the best knives around, it’s not the best idea to buy a knife with variable quality.
Again, to be clear, the minimum quality of a Henckels International or Chicago Cutlery knife is more than adequate for home use. Issues only come up when you want a super nice knife with a set of specific properties.
As far as feel and aesthetics go, I find that the balance in more expensive Zwilling knives feels a bit better than me than the balance in cheap Chicago Cutlery knives. Not enough to make a big difference, of course, but if I pick up both knives side-by-side I faintly prefer the Zwilling.
Zwilling knives also are available with a variety of higher-end options, like real wooden handles or as an incomplete knife set (with open slots in the block for your favorite knives of other brands). It’s definitely a better choice for the discerning knife enthusiast.
At the end of the day, the price will undoubtedly play a big role in your purchasing decisions. You can get quite a few more knives per dollar from a Chicago Cutlery set than a top end Zwilling knife block.
JA Henckels International tends to be somewhere in between, although online prices on these knives can vary quite a bit. If you want something that’s guaranteed to be forged to an exact standard, choose Zwilling. If you’re happy with something that’s simply good enough for kitchen use, choose Chicago Cutlery.
Chicago Cutlery — The Best Knife Sets On A Budget?
Chicago Cutlery’s knife sets are great options for people who want to put tools in their kitchen, fast. Their fully forged, high-carbon stainless steel knives are incredibly affordable, meaning you can pick up complete knife sets for less than the cost of one Damascus steel chef’s knife.
If you’re moving out into a new kitchen or just starting off your knife collection, their knife sets are great options for kickstarting your journey to culinary success. Even if you’re more experienced or you have a knife or two you like to use already, it’s sometimes worth buying one of these ultra-cheap sets for the steak knives, utility knives, and wooden block.
Remember, though: the most important part of any knife is the edge, which requires your care and attention. Be sure to do some research on proper sharpening techniques (especially if you have a knife set with a honing steel) and take your blades to a local shop to be sharpened every so often. You’ll be able to keep them in excellent condition for years to come.