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.
Bottom line: Looks cool, but any resemblance to a useful knife is purely coincidental.
Cutco Carving Set in Gift Box, $114
Presentation value: The knife is distinctively equipped with a "Double D edge"—a kind of angular serration—a bulbous resin handle, and a swelling "recurve" toward its tip, all features that give the knife a busy look. Coupled with a shiny chrome finish and a cardboard box for presentation, the set has no dramatic presence. Score: 4
Performance: One can understand why Cutco—sold in direct-marketing parties like Tupperware or Longaberger baskets—is a popular line. The knife is light, unintimidating, and easy to slice with, but the results are inelegant: The sawlike edge teases turkey into unappealing fuzz, makes striations in the roast beef slices, and causes the tomato to shed its juice. And unlike other straight-tined forks, Cutco's is pointy and curved, such that you can't brace the meat without piercing it.
Bottom line: Approachable, but overeager and klutzy.
Henckels International, MSRP of $92, often on sale for $50
Presentation value: The knife is all business, with a straight slicing blade and a blocky black handle that attaches to the blade with three bolts. The fork is a little flat and too shiny. Without a presentation box to add pizzazz, it all adds up to a perfectly acceptable but unsexy look. Score: 5
Performance: The knife is not especially sharp, but it is a little keener than its pricier cousin (see below). Unfortunately, the bolster (that thick unsharpened bit that pokes out before the blade fits into the handle) hangs down a bit below the blade, keeping a fair stretch of blade off the cutting board if you hold it straight up and down. I know we're considering slicing blades, not chef's knives, but if you have minced parsley garnish to sprinkle on your brisket, you'll have a hard time doing it with this knife.
Bottom line: Uninspiring, but if you can get one for $50, it's the only set under $100 that I'd use.
Henckels, Professional S Carving Set, $194, on sale for $100 Presentation value: The Henckels Professional S has more elegant details than the International carving knife, such as a sculpted handle, a more attractive fork, and a uniform satin finish on knife and fork. For an additional $10 to $20, you can house it in an attractive box. Score: 6.5
Performance: Fortunately, this knife does not have the same bolster problem that the HI does. Overall, it is a solid, functional blade that feels good in hand, but it was not sharp enough on first use, forcing the panelists to saw through the meat. Unacceptable as that is for a spendy set, it's pretty easy to sharpen dull edges.
Messermeister Carving Set With St. Moritz Granton Edge Carver, $178, on sale for $139.95 Presentation value: The Messermeister knife takes the classic black-handled German look and streamlines it, with a sweeping arc to the blade, a subtler bolster, and a smooth resin handle. This is the only knife we tested that boasts a granton, or hollow-edge treatment, which gives it a high-tech feel. Its fork is muscular but classy. My only complaint is an overabundance of graphics on the blade and the box. It's a knife, not an Indy car. Score: 7.5
Performance: The Messermeister was an early favorite, elegantly slicing through the turkey and the beef, not shying away from cartilage and skin. Was the granton edge effective? When it came to sticky salmon, it did help. Unfortunately, the Messermeister fared poorly in the day-end tomato test; it's made from relatively soft steel and was noticeably duller.
Bottom line: Such a nice young blade …with a bit more staying power, it would be a favorite.
Thomas Haslinger Custom-Made Carving Set, $975 Presentation value: This hand-forged set is a beautiful beast: The knife has an extra-long, thick blade with distinctive lines, as well as a burled-wood box, an ironwood handle, and a classy satin finish. Like a clothing couturier, Haslinger can make a knife to your specifications: Dress it up with a pearl handle or opt for the subtle chic of a carbon-steel blade. Score: 9
Performance: Haslinger was a chef before becoming a bladesmith, and he has put considerable thought into his carving knife. The blade can handle the width of our rib roast, the slight recurve helps minimize the need to saw through meat slices, and the fork is particularly strong. Made from BG 42, an especially fine-grained supersteel, this knife should hold an impossibly keen edge for a very long time. Unfortunately, it's surprisingly dull—it can't cut through a vein of gristle in the beef, and you need to muscle your way through the turkey. At almost $1,000, that's unacceptable. Nonetheless, it's a sympathetic knife; for such a big blade, it feels great in hand, like it wants to cut the meat.
Bottom line: Forget about turkey. Resharpen, and this set could neatly handle a bear roast. A worthy heirloom.
Kershaw Shun Classic Two-Piece Carving Set, $238
Presentation value: This gorgeous commercial knife set, presented in a red-velvet-lined bamboo box, has a serious pointy tip and a significant recurve. The sculptural black handle is asymmetrically shaped to nestle into your right hand (left-handers can special-order). What's more, Shun's fork is indisputably the prettiest. Score: 9
Performance: While other knives had us wishing they could be fine-tuned, the Shun performed terrifically out of the box. Its superkeen edge sliced easily through turkey skin, beef gristle, salmon flesh, and tomatoes; everything but the nuts in the jello mold (which, come to think of it, really wasn't a fair test). What's more, the thinness of the blade is distinctive, making it easier to slice thinly.
Bottom Line: Sure, nobody really needs a carving set (a good slicing knife and inexpensive fork bought a la carte serve equally well), but like that big burnished turkey, those matched, gleaming tools carry serious ritual weight. Only Shun met our challenge in both performance and presence as a showpiece, and it did so with a samurai swagger.