Flatware – Basics

Fine silverware and what to watch out for when purchasing cutlery

Good-quality cutlery is made from either solid silver, silver plate, or stainless steel. Confusingly, cutlery is also known as ‘silverware’ regardless of its material, and ‘flatware’ regardless of its shape. Solid silver and plated silver are almost identical in terms of functionality, the main difference being that one costs 15 times more than the other. In order to last for decades of daily use, silver plated cutlery should be electroplated to a thickness of at least 30 microns (about the same as three human hairs). If you have old cutlery whose plating has begun to wear thin, you can have it re-plated by a professional.


Stainless steel cutlery is identified by two numbers; the first number represents the percentage of chromium in the metal, and the second the percentage of nickel. So 18/10 stainless steel, the finest grade, contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel. Chromium increases the durability of steel and makes it resistant to corrosion; nickel adds shine and prevents staining. The higher the numbers, the better the flatware will last. If the manufacturer does not specify the composition at all, be wary.

When buying cutlery, note that there are three different sizes. Plate size, the smallest (9 inch knife, 7.5inch fork) is the most common in America. Dinner size, rarely used today, is identical to plate except that the knife and fork are about half an inch longer. The largest is Continental size (10.5 inch knife, 8.5 inch fork), which as its name suggests is most popular in Europe. If you are buying extra pieces of flatware to mix-and-match with what you have already, make sure the new pieces are made to the same scale.
Pieces of cutlery can be either forged (heated into shape), stamped (pressed into shape), or hollow-handled (cut into shape, then stuck together). The only practical difference between the techniques is that hollow-handled cutlery tends to be lighter. Forged cutlery is slightly stronger, but that only matters if you are buying something like a chef’s knife which will be treated roughly. Some cutlery has a separate handle made of another material, such as plastic, wood, or bone – these items need extra care, because the joint in the middle will weaken if they are put through the dishwasher or left to soak.

Regardless of the material or design you choose, there are a few things to look for before you invest in new silverware. Check carefully for rough edges or lumpy joins, which denote careless manufacture. Weight does not necessarily denote quality. Although all cheap cutlery is light, not all light cutlery is cheap. What matters is the balance in your hand. If you lift a table knife by the top of the handle (just before it meets the blade) with your finger and thumb, it should balance perfectly in the air. If it tips towards the blade, the handle is too light and it will be unwieldy to eat with; if it tips towards the handle, the blade isn’t strong enough and it will be likely to bend.


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