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These Web pages all depict a salad knife in a formal table setting:

These Web pages offer to sell or rent salad knives:

I’ve never encountered a salad knife as part of a set of utensils, and the salads I’m familiar with don’t need a knife. The pictures of salad knives are not consistent sizes or shapes, and some look identical to dinner knives. I’m left with the following questions:

  • Is a salad knife a real thing, or is this a creation of low-quality Web content, mis-translation, or sales tactics?
  • When is a salad knife necessary? I.e., what kind of salad needs to be cut with a knife?
  • What properties of a knife make it suitable for salads? I.e., what is a salad knife supposed to look like?

(Searching the Web is difficult, because “salad knife” primarily returns plastic lettuce-cutting knives like this.)

4 Answers 4

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I've been involved in table setting for pretty formal (British) dinners, and what those images are calling salad cutlery I would just call starter cutlery. I don't mean to suggest that the term 'salad knife' is wrong, but I think it's more illuminating to just think of these as the cutlery you'd set for a starter, which are smaller than those you'd set for a main course but typically similar in style.

Moving to focus on using cutlery with salads specifically, I can think of many that could benefit from a cutting implement: anything with pieces of meat or large pieces of fruit, for example, and even larger leaves can be easier to manage when cut. But don't forget that in the non-American style of using cutlery, the diner holds a fork in the left hand and knife in the right, and one of the main functions of the knife is to push food into the fork, which is useful for any type of salad.

As for what it should look like, normally I would expect just a smaller version of the knife used for the main course. The only standard 'specialised' knives in a table setting would be a fish knife, perhaps butter knife and if relevant a steak knife.

Finally, your skepticism is sensible: a lot of those kind of resources do exist to sell products and build on people's class anxiety when they feel like there must be complicated secret rules they aren't privy to. The Petrossian.com link from @moskafj is a prime example, with that 'silverware placement guide' that is ¾ total nonsense but just the kind of thing people get anxious about not knowing.

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  • Marketing is a stubborn thing. If there is an opportunity to make money on something, there will definitely be those who will do it. Even if it is a small deception based on the illiteracy of some people. Jul 11 at 7:45
  • 5
    I particularly like ThePetrossian saying 'No more than 3 of any implement' and then listing 4 knives & 5 forks ....
    – Dragonel
    Jul 11 at 14:53
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    Also, the salad knife should be to the right of the table knife.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jul 11 at 16:58
  • There are a lot of strange things going on in that diagram compared to my experience (piling plates on top of one another, the courses in the wrong order, putting champagne glasses on the table but no port, the bread where you can't reach it easily, individual salt and pepper for each person, the sizes of the wine glasses, the shape of some of the cutlery, the advice under 'seating arrangements'...) not to mention the confusion about dinner/salad cutlery locations. And of course nowadays someone who really wants to flaunt wealth has their staff put cutlery out for each course anyway.
    – dbmag9
    Jul 11 at 17:06
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    Thanks for calling out that "silverware placement guide". silverware together and offset to the right is indeed "I'm done", but anything past that is, at best, so hyperlocalized as to be useless.
    – fectin
    Jul 11 at 17:44
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DBmag answered the rest of this question, so I'm going to just focus on "when would it be used".

The current modern Western definition of salads generally has all of the contents cut up into bite-sized pieces, so no knife is necessary. However, that was not always the case. In the 19th century, when a lot of these elaborate cutlery place settings were designed, salads then would frequently have whole vegetables, fruits, meats, or fish included in them and the diner would need to cut them up. For example, "asparagus salads" generally used whole asparagus in the Edwardian era.

One particular requirement for the knife were the "jellies" that were common for the salad course in the 19th and early 20th century. These were salads in aspic, with vegetables, fruits, and meat in them. And while these weren't impossible to cut with a fork, it wouldn't be easy to do so neatly -- hence a knife. Most of the salad knives you link to look like they were intended for jellies.

Now, this doesn't actually require a different knife than other courses do -- the extra knife comes from class competition. If there's anything different about that knife, it would be that items in the salad course are generally easy to cut -- like half-peaches or jellies -- as opposed to main course items, like roast beef, that require a steak knife.

Interestingly, salads composed this way have returned to fine dining restaurants in the US, particularly the use of whole vegetables and whole heads of baby lettuce, once again requiring a "salad knife".

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  • 1
    I’m surprised no one has mentioned that quarter wedge or iceberg lettuce with bacon (?) and blue cheese that was popular in some places in the 80’s
    – Damila
    Jul 11 at 18:29
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    Hey, I live in Portland, OR. Wedge salads are still popular here.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jul 14 at 0:40
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It is indeed a real thing. When it is necessary, or if it is necessary, is a matter of setting and opinion. Elaborate place settings have a history in formal European dining and etiquette. Here is a table setting guide (similar to your examples) that includes the salad knife, though other examples, with other types of utensils and dinnerware can be also be found. These types of settings are certainly less common today than they once were, but are not non-existent.

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    Thanks, I added the example. However (1) the pointy tip is not common to all examples, and (2) the page doesn’t explain how the knife is used. Jul 10 at 1:45
  • I think a copy of an image or quote of text would be much better than this link, which took me to a page I don’t fully trust which didn’t contain any table setting guide. Jul 11 at 0:40
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In answer to your question - "is a salad knife a real thing". Yes, it's the thing you identified in the last sentence of the question. Like this Usually, I'd expect it to be metal, although this one seems to be plastic.

In answer to the question you meant to ask - "is a salad knife a real thing that I'd put on my dining table". No, it's not. Nobody needs a special knife to eat salads with.

To put it another way, a salad knife is not a knife for eating with. It's a knife to use in the kitchen, when chopping salad vegetables, such as lettuces and tomatoes. Kind of a large utility knife with small serrations; and it could be metal or hard plastic.

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    The last sentence in the question acknowledges this other kind of salad knife. Jul 12 at 21:07
  • That's true, Spencer, but the question also asks "Is a salad knife a real thing" - and the short answer is YES, and it's THIS. My contention is that a salad knife as a "knife that goes on the dining table" is NOT a real thing. If I'm eating a main, and there's salad on a side plate next to the main, I'm not going to put down my dinner knife and fork, and pick up a different knife and fork, when I want a mouthful of salad. So, no, there is no such thing as an EATING utensil called a salad knife. Jul 12 at 21:12
  • @DawoodibnKareem So the people who are selling, or advising the use of, metal tableware "salad knives" are....? And why would you be putting down your "dinner knife and fork" if it's the salad course?
    – Sneftel
    Jul 13 at 6:38

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