First, a caveat: These knives
, while trash by Henckels' traditional standards, are still better than the huge majority of knives sold each year. They are not, however, comparable in any way to the "real" knives made by Henckels, Wusthof, or other top manufacturers.
Want performance from your knives? Here's what to look for:
1. "Made in Germany." There's not much to say about this; the Germans make no compromises when it comes to making steel, and their manufacturing technology is among the finest as well. Ask your favorite surgeons where their scalpels come from; ask the most knowledgeable machinists you know where the tool bits they respect most are made; ask the best mechanics you know what "country of origin" is listed on the boxes containing the finest bearings. You'll get an occasional "Japan" in there -- and the Japanese certainly deserve recognition, though they have yet to enter the cooking knife market in earnest -- but Germany usually dominates.
2. A name of distinction. It's true, there are many good knives made by lesser names, at lesser prices. The trick is, which ones? I have to tell you, I have been selecting knives for over 20 years, I use them every day and have studied their characteristics carefully, and I still am fooled sometimes by promising-looking knives with concealed but nonetheless tragic flaws. Make sure your brand is made by a manufacturer who stands behind their products, so you can exchange or return your knives if you are unhappy. It is YOUR satisfaction that matters, forget all the reviews written by "experts," how do they know what will make you happy?
3. Buy knives whose handles fit your hand and whose weight distribution fits your strength and style. This might sound obvious, but most people skip it. There is no substitute for this point. My grandmother is a German native, my inspiration for entering the culinary profession, and one of the greatest geniuses of kitchen wizardry I have ever known. She also curses my beloved collection of mostly Henckels and Wusthof knives when she visits -- despite her loyalty to all things German! -- because nearly all the knives I've chosen fit my large masculine hands, not her dainty, nimble feminine ones. I would never dishonor her by saying she's wrong...and she means me no disrespect by saying my knives are lousy. They are...for her. Free wisdom, if you are tempted to discard Grandma's good advice, ask yourself: What's more malleable, a steel knife or my hand?
4. Consider your use habits. Are you going to toss them in the dishwasher? Make sure your steel is as stainless as possible (not all "stainless" is equal, or even close, so do your homework). Are you the type who is disciplined about using a steel and skilled enough to do his/her own sharpening, or at least inclined towards this goal? (Most people, including the majority of culinary professionals, are not. I acquired the interest over time, but initially I was like most cooks, more interested in what a fine knife could do than in what made it capable of doing.) Stay away from "stay sharp" knives, the hardness of the steel will only frustrate you -- and you probably know this already. Are you going to use them with wet hands? Share them with youngsters? Display them as a showpiece for visitors? All these things factor into your decision, be honest with yourself about what you want and you'll have a better chance of getting what you need.
5. Buy fewer fine knives rather than many lesser ones. Most people don't know what the various knives are actually intended for; even fewer understand that the intended uses are just guidelines, and that individual skill and preference will sometimes make selection different than conventional wisdom would suggest. More knives means more maintenance; it doesn't necessarily mean more versatility. I once had a young cooking student who stubbornly stuck to a single small knife for everything, a habit I tried to dissuade him of until I noticed that he could cut nearly everything better with that one little knife than any of the other students -- or, sadly, his instructor -- could with ANY knife! He explained that he had inherited his love of whittling with a pocket-sized knife from his deceased father, and spent nearly all his time creating things out of wood as his father had taught him. Well, no wonder! This young man still found a couple of tools he had use for -- a cleaver and fillet knife among them -- but the huge sets of cutlery would not have improved him one bit. You may be a bit more diverse but you're probably not infinitely wealthy; given constrained funds, you would be smart to concentrate them where they can do you the most good.