It includes a basic overview of construction techniques, design, and materials, so you’ll have a better understanding of what’s worth paying for. Many stores have sample sets available to handle, which will tell you a lot about the weight of individual utensils and how comfortable they are to hold.
Prior to joining Wire cutter, I was an editor at the International Culinary Center in New York City, and I worked in various facets of the food and restaurant industry for over a decade. If you want to pick and choose the flatware you need, many retailers, such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Crate and Barrel, or IKEA, sell individual pieces of cutlery open stock for around $2 to $6.
This is an affordable option for college students, or for holidays or other times when your guest list may swell and you need some extra flatware in a jiffy. But we think the sweet spot for a decent, good-quality stainless steel place setting is between $20 and $45, which is the price range where you’ll begin to see better-quality materials and improved craftsmanship.
Another drawback to box sets is that it can be difficult to replace lost or damaged flatware, as the individual utensils aren’t usually sold open stock. Also, the overwhelming amount of flatware sets from big-box stores like Target and Walmart are made of 18/0 stainless steel, so tread lightly if you’re considering this option.
A selection of flatware made with various materials (from left to right): stainless steel, resin, PVD coating, wood, plastic, and silver plating. Photo: Sarah Kiboshing a basic understanding of what to look for before you start shopping will make it easier to find a set of flatware you’ll love.
Utensils can be made from a variety of alloys (combinations of metals) and can have additional coatings or other components, such as wood or resin handles. Sterling silver flatware is an elegant choice for formal occasions, but it’s very expensive and requires more maintenance.
Stainless steel is an alloy (meaning it consists of multiple metals) and is available in various grades, or compositional ranges. Both metals add to the strength of the steel, but nickel improves the corrosion resistance and luster of the alloy.
Sterling silver is beautiful, but you need to polish it regularly to avoid tarnishing and store it carefully to prevent scratching. The easiest way to tell is by looking at the underside of each piece to see if it’s stamped with a hallmark that indicates the quality of the precious metal tested by a country’s assay office.
Check out Jeffrey Herman’s website for additional resources if you’re interested in selling your sterling flatware or having it appraised. However, exercise caution if you’re considering utensils with these materials, since most aren’t as durable as solid stainless steel.
Flatware can also be electroplated, which means the pieces went through a process of chemically bonding one metal onto the surface of another by way of an electric current. Most people are familiar with silver-plated flatware, which is made from a base metal of copper, brass, nickel, or stainless steel electroplated with silver.
Just as with electroplated finishes, the base metal will begin to show through if the PVD coating wears thin. We’ve read some flatware owner reviews that say mirror finishes scratch more than satin finishes, but as Sherrill Manufacturing’s Matthew A. Roberts told us, “chafing and scratching is a function of utensils rubbing against each other regardless of the finish.” Roberts continued, “They’re the same steel hardness.” We’ve seen plenty of satin flatware scratch over time, but in our experience, it seems less noticeable than on flatware that’s highly polished.
Photo: Sarah KobosBefore you purchase a set of flatware, check that the finish is even all over the utensils. Cheaper flatware often includes forks with rough, unfinished areas between the tines, indicating that the manufacturer skimped on polishing the entire piece.
A worker at Sherrill Manufacturing uses a grinding wheel to smooth out rough edges on the handles of flatware. Photo: Lesley Stockton As you examine the finish, also pay attention to the placement of the manufacturer branding on the utensils.
For instance, the Cambridge Silversmiths Province Mirror Flatware has “Robert Welch,” the designer’s name, printed on the side of the knife blade that would lie face up on the table. Some flatware also has markings located on the back of spoons, or on forks just below the tines, which can be glaringly obvious while you’re eating.
Photo: Sarah Hobos When choosing flatware, you need to consider the weight, balance, length, and shape of each utensil. Photo: Sarah Kerosene of the most important reasons to look at flatware in person is to determine how it actually feels in your hands.
Forged knives tend to be heavier, but we recommend looking for those that are relatively balanced and not so hefty that they’ll fall off the edge of a plate or make eating feel cumbersome. Some knives with handles that curved to one side, such as those in the Leno Chester brook Flatware Set, were awkward to hold while cutting, especially for lefties.
Photo: Sarah KobosYou may have noticed that Americans generally eat differently than Europeans do. Eating “American style” with the knife on the plate and the fork in the right hand, tines facing up.
Eating “American style” with the knife on the plate and the fork in the right hand, tines facing up. Deciding on the length of your flatware is a personal choice, but we recommend finding something that will be comfortable to hold and the appropriate size for your eating habits.
Knowing your design preferences before you start searching for flatware in stores or online will make the process far less overwhelming. Sherrill Manufacturing periodically uses a wooden bending block to ensure that the angle and shape of the flatware is consistent.
Since finding a comfortable weight is such an essential part of selecting flatware, it’s important to understand how knives are made so you know what to look for. Some knives are also constructed with hollow handles, which makes them lighter and more balanced than those made from a solid piece of metal.
Photo: Sarah KobosStamped knives, as the name suggests, are cut or stamped from large sheets of steel, in a process called “blanking.” Roberts explained that after the knives are punched out, the blades are rolled or “work hardened” to strengthen them before further refinement and polishing. Photo: Lesley Stockton forged knife is made from a single piece of steel, called a rod, which the maker heats to an extremely high temperature and then pounds into shape using a high-pressure hammer.
Forged knives are heavy since the handles are made from a thicker, solid piece of metal. When purchasing flatware, be sure to check that it’s evenly polished and free of rough spots that could make the utensils more susceptible to corrosion.
“The hollow handle is significantly more expensive because of all the process steps you have to go through to make it, versus one solid piece of metal,” Roberts told us. “So you won’t find a lot of hollow handles in the market.” Most of the testers for our guide to the best flatware who preferred heavier utensils were not fans of the hollow-handle knives because they felt too light.
Photo: Sarah Kiboshed you’re choosing a flatware pattern, it’s important to stay true to your personal style, but we recommend leaning toward something timeless and classic. We define that as stainless steel utensils with clean lines, free of any embellishments or decorative details.
Roberts told us that most people buy flatware only about three times in their lifetime, so don’t be tempted to choose something trendy that you may fall out of love with in just a couple of years. Photo: Lesley StocktonChoosing a flatware pattern that has been around for a while increases the likelihood that it will remain in production for years to come, should you need to replace utensils or grow your set.
We recommend calling the flatware manufacturer directly or going to a store in person to speak with a sales associate. If the set is sold online, you can sometimes approximate how old it is based on how many years back the owner reviews are dated.
In the book Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson notes that Harry Rarely “invented stainless steel in 1913 as a way of improving gun barrels.” The corrosion-resistant quality of the steel made it an excellent choice for flatware too, as The New York Times wrote in this 1915 article (PDF). Iron is the base metal in stainless steel, but when it comes to flatware, the chromium and nickel content are the biggest variables.
Matthew A. Roberts, co-founder and president of Sherrill Manufacturing, said he doesn’t even entertain the thought of making anything out of 18/0 at his company because it’s a huge downgrade. After years of long-term testing flatware, we’ve seen firsthand how some 18/0 stainless steel is prone to rust spots, so we didn’t include any sets made from that alloy in our guide.
Photo: Sarah KobosEven if a set of cutlery is advertised only as 18/10, the blades are almost always made from 13/0 because it’s better at maintaining a sharp edge. It’s difficult to say why some 13/0 blades develop rust spots and others don’t, as the issue can be caused by a number of factors.
That said, we specifically tested all of our flatware for this problem and eliminated any sets that discolored or rusted in the dishwasher. Only five out of more than 40 sets had this issue, so we don’t think you should be too worried, though it doesn’t hurt to dry your knives thoroughly after washing them.