Holiday meals, with their roasted bird carcasses and looming rib roasts, are in many ways the last vestige of animal sacrifice in contemporary American life. It is little surprise then, that carving sets, too, carry heavy ritual baggage. Most often acquired as heirlooms or wedding gifts, carving sets are among the least-used tools in the house—hauled out two or three times a year for special holidays. But like Baccarat crystal and decorative gilded pine cones, carving sets are part of the theater of a big meal—props that, from time to time, inject a little spectacle into our workaday lives. As such, they should look good.
That said, if you're going to invest in a carving set, it really ought to serve its purpose: All ceremonial value is lost if you're caught cursing over a shredded turkey. So I set off to evaluate several sets, ranging wildly in price from $20 to $975, on both beauty and function.
For presentation value, I considered factors such as aesthetics, design, impressiveness, and whether it makes a worthy heirloom. For performance, I put the tines and blades to work on the stringy meat of two roasted turkeys; the lush flesh of a big medium-rare prime-rib roast; the clinging meat of salmon gravlax; a holiday fruit-and-nut jello mold; and finally, to test blade sharpness at the end of the day, the flesh of several (I kid you not) Emeril-brand heirloom tomatoes. I also considered how each knife and fork functioned with hands made slippery by olive oil. (Although durability is a crucial function of heavy-use chef's and hunting knives, measured, say, by the number of antelopes you can skin before a blade needs sharpening, I skipped such assessments, given the infrequent use of the family carving set.)
To aid me, I pulled together a carving party consisting of a knife dealer, who is himself a bladesmith and an avid home cook; a private chef who's cooked for pop music and Internet royalty; and a gourmet-shop owner who, as a chef at one of Los Angeles' busiest restaurants, once carved côte de boeuf for 400-odd people nightly.
Here then, from worst to best, are the results.
Hamilton Beach Chrome Classic Electric Knife With Case, $24.99
Presentation value: More hedge trimmer than knife, the presentation value of this electric knife is predictably low. A chintzy plastic shell houses the ugly fork, detachable blades, and power cord. The effects of blades whirring and the scent of overheating motor in the air did make for some amusement, however. Score: 2 (out of 10)
Performance: The power knife slices easily but very slowly through turkey and salmon, and it shreds the former and mashes the latter. As soon as it encounters a tough obstacle like turkey cartilage, the knife slips off the meat. The Hamilton Beach shone only in the jello-mold competition—its vibrating blades handled its varied textures beautifully. (This is a long-standing chef secret—electric knives work wonders with pastry-clad beef Wellingtons or pistachio-studded pâtés.)
Score: 2.5 (out of 10)
Bottom line: Lazy, loud, and destructive—and naturally kind of fun.
CulinArt Two-Piece Carving Set, $19.99
Presentation value: I have to hand it to CulinArt: They stash their cheap carving set in a secret-agent-style aluminum case. Could it hold a laser? Or a pen gun? Way cool. Visually, the all-steel knives have curvy, surgical appeal that seems cribbed directly from the all-stainless sleekness of Wüsthof's higher-end Culinar line and the trend-setting Japanese brand, Global. Score: 4
Performance: No self-respecting spy would put up with equipment this flimsy. Even brand-new, the beveled edge is chipped and rough; and in order to cut effectively you have to throw your weight into it and saw—a tricky feat given the slippery handle.