Which Knives Should I Have? (And What Do I Do With Them?)

About 8 years ago, just as I was beginning to be fascinated by cooking, I attended a Pampered Chef party, where the consultant pulled out a Santoku Knife, and moved on to her recipe. I had to stop her. I had a set of knives, but had never given thought to which knife was best for what and why. I wanted her to demonstrate all. the. knives. We joked that she’d have to do a separate cooking party just for that. 

Just this year, I finally invested in new knives. And the new knives have made a huge difference. So has using the correct knife for different foods. Doug from the Kitchen Professor is jumping in with a guest post today to share his knife knowledge. (I promise, using the correct knife will make a big difference!) This post contains affiliate links. Thank you.

When holding a knife you are automatically drawn to its keen edge. At its very core a knife is a tool, and like a lot of tools on the market it comes in various materials, lengths, and configurations.

Many of us have a kitchen knife set with a whole range of knives – so many knives that we may not even know what all of them are for! I am guilty. When I got married we received an impressive knife block set and I had to study up on what to do with each one. Before I get into the details of specific knives, let’s talk about the big sets of knives…

Which kitchen knives should you have in your kitchen? And how do you use them properly? Here's a guide for every kitchen

Do I need a Big Set of Knives?

No, you really just need a handful of knives for 95% of what you need to cut in the kitchen. I had no idea until I read the Alton Brown book Gear For Your Kitchen, which I highly recommend. Sure, you may need an oyster knife if you have oysters all the time, but most of the time you are chopping veggies or slicing up a tomato. There are some essential knives that you do need. The Essentials consist of three knives and I can attest to the practicality of just using those three knives during some long term travel.

The Essentials

There are a plethora of knife types and styles to choose from. The three knives we, and many-a-cook, have deemed essential are the:

  • Chef’s knife
  • Straight paring knife
  • Serrated bread knife

If you keep these few knives sharp and maintain them, they should serve you for almost anything that you need to cut, chop, or dice in the kitchen.

A Quick Note On Sharpness and Safety: It is important to keep your knives sharp because a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. That is due to the fact that a dull knife needs to have more pressure applied to make a given cut. Here is a guide for choosing a sharpener for your kitchen.

Chef’s Knife

Ranging from six to fourteen inches in length, the Chef’s knife is the standard utility knife for most cooks. Its length and varying thickness (the blade’s width decrease as it nears its point) allows it to be used for different cuts.

Fine cuts can be made with the seemingly delicate tip of the knife, while the mid-section is used for slicing and finally the rear or heel of the blade is used for chopping or cutting through thicker products.

Shun Chef's Knife

Here is my Shun Chef’s Knife, the Ken Onion edition. The balance of this knife feels great in my hand. I use this knife almost 90% of the time. If I am cutting something small, like strawberries, I may need a smaller blade. That brings us to the…

Straight Paring Knife

Compared to a Chef’s knife, the straight paring knife is downright tiny. Coming in at a mere two to four inches in length, this knife is used for preparations that require a delicate touch.

Peeling small produce like shallots along with fruit preparation and carving are among its chief purposes. Occasionally, I will shave garlic cloves into tiny slivers and the paring knife is perfect for that.

paring knife

I personally have a Wusthof Classic Paring Knife that I found on sale. It was only $24 at Williams Sonoma so I knew I was getting a great deal. It should last a lifetime as long as I keep it sharpened. (editor’s note: it’s not on sale for $24 any longer. I couldn’t it for less than $39.95.)

Serrated Bread Knife

Serrated bread knives are in a class all its own, and rightfully so. The appeal with breads is their crusty exterior combined with a warm and fluffy interior.

Using a straight edged knife would lead to a cracked and destroyed outer shell with a compressed and mashed inside. The moral of the story: using anything but a serrated bread knife to cut bread would most likely end in the destruction of the bread.

bread knife

These knives don’t have to be sharpen very often since each little tooth is like a mini-blade. I only sharpen my bread knife every couple of years. I have a Cuisinart Bread Knife and find it to be a zillion times better than a lesser knife I received as a gift a few years ago. -Julie

Boning Knife

The slender and flexible Boning knife allows you to separate meat from bone. Much thinner than a standard Chef’s knife but up to six inches in length, the boning knife is perfect for deboning beef and pork to filleting fish.

Technically, you could use a Chef’s knife to do a lot of similar tasks, but it would dull rather quickly. I have a pretty beat up boning knife because, well, the blade ends up cutting against bone. So, that’s the main reason I have a boning knife.

Now, the thin design of the boning knife is very helpful when filleting a piece of salmon.

Utility Knife

There are many sizes of utility knives but the 4- and 5-inch sizes were, for a long time, the workhorses of many kitchens. They have recently seen a decline in popularity as they are now seen as being inferior to a Chef’s knife and being too cumbersome to be a paring knife.

Utility knives can be use for almost anything and are generally easy to handle. Most of the time, I will pull out a utility knife for cutting a sandwich in half.

Kitchen Shears

When something needs to be cut but a knife is deemed inefficient or insufficient to do job is when the kitchen shears come out. Basically, rugged and over-sized scissors, this tool is used for a wide variety of tasks ranging from splitting a chickens breast bone to opening that pesky packet of chicken bouillon.

kitchen shears

I have a set of the Wusthof Shears and I actually use them way more than I thought I would. The best part is that they are two-piece so you can really get them clean. That is very important since one of the most frequent tasks is to cut up a chicken. You can just take apart the shears and put them in the dishwasher. (Would you believe I use these so often I have three pair?! One is specifically for serving, and the other two or for helping with everything in the kitchen. Mine aren’t all Wusthof, but I agree that the Wusthof Shears are fabulous. -Julie)

Electric Knives

Need to carve a huge roast but lack the knife and the skills to do it? Then it’s time to bring out the electric knife. With many cordless models now available, electric knives make easy work of tough cutting jobs.

Essentially, a mini-reciprocating saw, electric knives now come with a variety of blades that can tackle almost any manner or jobs from carving turkeys to slicing that flank steak just right.

Time to get cutting

The world of knives is huge, but by no means should you be lost in it. By familiarizing yourself with some general knowledge and a few essential knives you are well on your way to shaking hands with all the opportunities that present themselves in the kitchen.

Just remember… handle first.

Doug blogs at The Kitchen Professor, and while his degree is honorary (bestowed upon him by his wife), he has enjoyed cooking his whole life. He loves using old cast iron, BBQ,and loves adding the small, special touch to a recipe that takes it from just “okay” to “wow.” Follow Doug on twitter and Facebook and check out The Kitchen Professor blog.

mom of 3 and wife living in the Philadelphia suburbs, Julie is a former elementary school teacher and a Public Relations manager. She is the owner/editor of Julieverse, a merchandiser with Chloe + Isabel (jewelryverse.com) and founder VlogMom and Splash Creative Media. A marketing strategist and freelance education and parenting writer by trade, Julie attempts to carve out time to enjoy playing with her kids, PTO, cooking and exercise.

© 2015, Julie Meyers Pron. All rights reserved.

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