From slicing a pork loin to dicing a pineapple, knowing how to work with the essential kitchen knives is critical to success in the kitchen. Equipping yourself with the proper knives is key, says Brendan McDermott, chef-instructor and resident knife skills expert at New York's Institute of Culinary Education.
If you're equipping your kitchen and wondering "what kitchen knives do I need?", keep reading to discover the four essential knives every home cook should own, plus how to use them, how not to use them, and what price point yields the best-quality blade.
1. Chef's Knife
A classic chef's knife is the most important knife in your collection. McDermott recommends an 8- to 10-inch chef's knife, which he acknowledges may be slightly longer than most people are comfortable with at first. However, the longer edge makes the knife more versatile and efficient. "The more blade you have, the more knife you have to do the work for you," he explains. "And the bigger the blade you have to slice through an ingredient, the safer it is."
A chef's knife is the go-to tool for more than 90 percent of daily kitchen tasks, McDermott notes, including most slicing and dicing of fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish. And while a chef's knife may be the "king of the kitchen," it should not be used to butcher or carve poultry, to remove the skin of large vegetables such as butternut squash, or, as some people have tried, to puncture a hole in cans. The broadness of a chef's knife blade makes it unwieldy for tasks better suited to a smaller knife.
If you're willing to make an investment in a knife in your arsenal, this is where to do it. Of all the knives you own, McDermott recommends spending the most on your chef's knife and suggests a price of about $100 for a high-quality chef's knife. "Remember that knives are heirlooms," he says. "And the good ones should last forever."
Choose blades that are full tang (one full piece of metal with the two handle pieces pinned to the sides) versus half-tang (a piece of metal that extends the full length of the knife, but only part of the width, or does not extend the length of the knife and is instead glued into the handle). Full-tang knives are more balanced, sturdier, and longer-lasting than half-tang models. Our test kitchen also generally prefers forged chef's knives, which are made from a single piece of forged steel, heated and pounded into the desired shape. The other option is a stamped blade, which is cut out of a large sheet of steel and is usually lighter, a quality considered undesirable in a chef's knife.
2. Paring Knife
A paring knife picks up where a chef's knife leaves off. "Because the average paring knife blade is about 3 1/2 inches long, it's a great tool for any foods that require an attention to detail," McDermott says.
It's best for slicing and mincing items that are too small for an 8- to 10-inch blade, such as mincing garlic, hulling strawberries, or peeling fruits and vegetables.
Avoid using paring knives to cut very hard vegetables, such as carrots, celery root, or parsnips. These smaller knives don't carry enough weight to easily slice through the foods, which may prompt you to increase the pressure or tighten your grip as you're cutting. "If you find yourself applying pressure at any point, you're doing something wrong," McDermott says. Forcing the cut is a signal that you aren't using the right blade for the job, and it can be dangerous, too, causing the knife to slip.
3. Serrated Knife
Serrated knives may be most commonly associated with slicing bread, which is why they are also called bread knives. But according to McDermott, the toothed blade can take on almost any job not suited to the straight blade of a chef's knife.
A serrated knife, with an average blade length of 6 inches, is especially useful for foods with waxy surfaces, such as tomatoes, pineapples, watermelons, citrus, and peppers. They're also great for cutting cake layers. The jagged edge can grip and penetrate those slippery exteriors, while the flat blade of a chef's knife would slip and slide across the surface. Bottom line: Think beyond bread.
Serrated knives should only be used for slicing, rather than chopping, foods. Using a sawing motion with the knife allows the teeth along the blade to grip and cut through ingredients, which is also why a serrated knife should not be used to slice smaller items such as fresh herbs, garlic, or berries.
McDermott recommends spending $30 to $40 for a good-quality serrated knife. If you take good care of your serrated knife, it will stay sharp for years to come, says McDermott. And if your knife gets dull, McDermott recommends simply replacing it.
When choosing a serrated knife, pay attention to the size of the teeth: You want a knife with teeth that are not too big (which can tear up the soft interior of a loaf) or too small (not efficient for slicing.) If you'll be hacking through a lot of loaves, you might consider a knife with a slightly offset handle, which will provide more leverage and more comfortable handling. We recommend this Victorinox 10 1/4-inch Wavy Bread Knife.
4. Boning Knife
As its name implies, a boning knife is the best blade for cutting up or boning fish, meat, or poultry of any size, whether a 3-inch-long anchovy or a 150-pound side of pork. "Most knives are designed to cut straight lines," McDermott says. "But when it comes to anything with a ribcage and joints, there is no such thing as a straight line in the body, so you need a blade that can move and flex." A boning knife gives you that leeway.
A boning knife should not be used to cut through bones, but rather to cut around bones. A good boning knife will have the flexibility to deftly separate meat from bone as well as slice through joints and cartilage.
How Much Should You Spend on a Bonig Knife?