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Cutlery is one of the most undervalued aspects to every beginning cook's career in the kitchen. But as you get more experienced and learn to discriminate between what really aids your cooking and what is just more fluff, it becomes rampantly obvious that high quality knives are a chef's best friends. Sharp, consistent knives cannot be overrated in the kitchen, as they reduce preparation time, increase efficiency, improve the appearance of cut foods, and maintain their blades for long periods of time without significant hassle.

Among the multitude of knife manufacturers out there (high quality and otherwise), two brands stick out as the clear favorites. Those two are the German knife manufacturers Wusthof and J.A. Henckels. Both manufacturers make fantastic cutlery, but is it possible that they are identical in quality?

Henckels cutlery has existed since 1731 and has all of the qualities necessary to back up its prestigious name. All Henckels knives are made to meet rigorous criteria, but its Five Star series is the best that the company offers. The Five Star combines the best features of Henckels' Four Star and Professional S series' and adds even finer blades and Twin Star bio-curve handles. Each Five Star knife is built with Sintermetal Component Technology (SCT), which Henckels claims will insure that the blade angle is consistent and that the edge is uniform. The blades are ice hardened to prevent chipping, have a full tang (the piece of metal, which extends into the handle) to improve balance, high carbon stainless steel, and ergonomic polypropylene handles.

But Henckels is not the only knife maker on the block. Wusthof has been manufacturing fine kitchen knives since 1814 and has a reputation equally strong. Its Trident Grand Prix and Classic series' were rated numbers one and two in the knife market by Consumer Reports magazine. The high carbon stainless blades are expertly hand forged for strength and durability. The blades make use of carbon for a fine edge, chromium for a spotless finish, molybdenum for toughness, and vanadium for flexibility (so that the rigidity of the carbon will not result in chipping or breaking). Wusthof knives also have full tang construction and feature wide integral bolsters for maximum strength and superb balance. Their solid polypropylene handles have a hygienic joint between the bolster and handle. Even the rivets are made of nickel silver for long-lasting shine.

Both companies provide high quality knives, this much is obvious; so where do they break down? Although J.A. Henckels claims that the new SCT technique will improve their blades, sintering (which is a process that converts powders to a continuous mass by heating them at temperatures below their usual fusion point) does not form metals as strong as those that have been forged. It is too early to tell whether their blades will truly last longer, but Wusthof's forged blades should be stronger and have been proven to last years without re-sharpening, as well. Wusthof knives definitely have a heftier feel and more rounded blade tip, both of which will be preferred by some users, but not by all.

No buyer can go wrong by purchasing either set of knives. Both J.A. Henckels and Wusthof have had centuries to develop their cutlery. But some people will definitely prefer one to the other-so any new buyer should go take a solid look at his options (and use the knives first, if at all possible) before laying down $300-1000 for a new set.

For the knife buyer on a budget, American made Cutco knives are only slightly lower on the quality ladder, but at a significant reduction in price. Cutco knives lack some of the frills of the Germany industry leaders, but they are nothing to scoff at with their 420 fold manufacture (the more often a blade is folded on itself in the manufacturing process, the more carbon deposit impurities will be pushed to the outside and removed) and life-long guarantee.

Kitchen knives are an investment for any consumer and should be carefully thought out. With a little foresight, a would-be chef will find himself happily gripping a knife that pleases him and improves his cooking performance.