Mankind has designed tools for every purpose. And so it is with knives. There are knives made specifically for fish, meat, bread, tomatoes, oysters, cheese, butter. You name a food item and there’s probably a knife designed for it. They also vary by function—slicing, boning, filleting, hacking, chopping, paring, carving; and come in different sizes. There are also multi-purpose knives which combine many of the functions needed by most home cooks. Why is it important to know about knives and their functions? One of the important safety guidelines I will discuss in a post (Kitchen Dangerous: Knife and Other Sharp Things) is using the right tool for the job because:
Using the right tool for the job = less effort =
safety = A more pleasant experience
Home cooks will do very well with just a few well-chosen knives. So here’s an overview to help you decide what you should have in your kitchen.
Kitchen Knives and Cutting Tools
Multi-purpose knives: Chef’s knife and Santoku
The work horses of the kitchen, the Chef’s knife and Santoku are multi-purpose knives that are great for most slicing, dicing and chopping. A Chef’s knife has a curved blade and pointy tip. A Santoku has a curved spine, straight-edged blade and dimples on the sides, reminding me of the front of a commercial airliner.
Besides origin, one European the other Japanese, the difference in blade shapes account for some specialty uses. Santoku, which means “three virtues” or “three uses” refers to what it’s made for-- chopping, dicing and mincing, and particularly excels in thin slicing, such as for razor-thin beef found in Japanese cuisine. While a chef’s knife may not slice as thinly as a Santoku, its tip gives it an edge (!) to separating meat from bones. They also tend to be heavier, which I personally like. But Santoku manufacturers often tout being light as a point for ease of use, so weight is largely a personal choice.
Both knives come in varying sizes. Chef’s knives are typically available at 6, 8 and 10 inches. Santoku knives vary from 5 to 7.9 inches. Like weight, size is also a personal choice. In my early days of cooking, I was afraid of large knives and a 6” Chef’s knife was my preferred size. I didn’t know of Santoku knives then, and if I had, I would probably have gravitated to the 5” version. These days, I prefer larger and heavier, so 8” Chef’s knives get the most use in my kitchen.
Some points of clarification: the terms Chef’s knife and Santoku, refer to blade shapes and manufacturers often have both shapes in their lineups. For instance, German manufacturers, Wüsthof and ZWILLING J.A. Henckels both make Santoku knives and Japanese manufacturer Shun makes Chef’s knives.
How about Granton edges and hammered finishes? Some knives have dimples or scallops on the blade side, often referred to as a granton edge, which provide air pockets to prevent food from sticking. You often see this in Santoku knives with the distinctive scallop markings that run across the blade. And then there’s the hammered finish-- finer indentations also on the blade side which are made by hammering the steel manually, at least for the top-end Japanese manufacturers. They not only provide a distinctive aesthetic, but like the granton edge, are meant to reduce drag with air pockets that prevent food sticking to the sides. My experience? Food will still stick to the sides of the blade regardless of edge or finish. If there’s a reduction owing to these particular features, I haven’t really noticed.
While these multi-purpose knives are great for a majority of tasks, neither do very well with slicing bones, frozen food, bread or for precision tasks like peeling, so you’ll need other knives for that.
Serrated knives: Bread and Tomato
Serrated edges are jagged or saw-tooth edges best for food that are too hard or squishy for regular knives to get a purchase on. Have you ever tried slicing bread with a regular knife? A straight-edge blade tends to slide across the smooth surface of the crust which can cause dangerous knife slips. And when you apply pressure to penetrate the hard crust, you end up breaking up the soft insides of your loaf. It’s a messier version with tomatoes. Though some really sharp knives with thin blades can cut it, literally, most straight-edge blades act more like wedges that squish tomatoes until they burst and you end up with a juice and pulp splatter to clean up.
If your household consumes bread or tomatoes, bread and tomato serrated knives are useful tools to have. Note that they are not interchangeable. Bread knives are generally available between 8 to 11 inches long to accommodate large loaves, while tomato knives are smaller—from cutlery size to around 5 to 6 inches long, making easy work of even petite specimens like cherry tomatoes. On the cutlery side, some steak knives are also serrated for the same reasons mentioned earlier.
With blades 3-4 inches long, paring knives are useful for high precision tasks like peeling, where it can hug corners with more control than larger knives. They’re also good for slicing garlic thinly, scoring tomatoes, and other tasks that require small and fine cutting movements.
Utility knives are multi-purpose knives that are in-between the size of paring and Chef’s knives. They’re versatile enough to do some of the functions of other knives, such as slicing, dicing, and scoring, and can substitute in a pinch. There’s also something to be said about portability—it’s easy to take table-side for carving turkey, for instance. Where it excels though, are in tasks where a mid-sized tool has advantages. When filleting fish or deboning chicken, I often prefer a utility knife because it’s small enough to control but large enough to go through food items larger than 3 inches.
Other specialty knives
As I mentioned, there’s a knife for every food item and task, so if you’re new to the kitchen, you may want to start with the basics and build up your arsenal of tools as you discover what your predominant cutting tasks might be. Some examples of fairly common specialty knives:
cleaver- for heavy-duty chopping of hard items like bones, squashes, coconuts; fillet and boning knives- sometimes used interchangeably for fillet and boning.
When a Knife is not always the Best Tool
Knives aren’t the only useful cutting tools in the kitchen. For food applications, kitchen shears can replace knives for snipping herbs, slicing through soft bones (chicken and fish), slicing dried fruit and other cutting tasks. Absent a cleaver for instance (which I don’t have), I use shears to easily cut through the rib cage of a whole chicken. I also like using shears for slicing dried fruits which seem resistant to all but the sharpest of knives. Note that Kitchen shears are not the same as ordinary scissors. While the latter is a useful tool to keep in the kitchen for non-food related tasks like removing labels, nozzle tips, cutting through package tape, kitchen shears are sharp heavy duty tools specifically designed for food functions.
While not a knife, a vegetable peeler is a kind of cutting tool, but specific to peeling. This is a tool used in place of knives for peeling vegetables and fruits. Personally, I prefer using peelers over knives for safety purposes. It’s also great for shaving cheese and chocolate.
Graters and Microplane zesters
Again, these are not knives, but like peeling, grating is a kind of cutting as it shaves and shreds food items. Graters are tools whose angled-edged holes are rubbed against food, cutting or shredding them into smaller sizes. They come in a variety of shapes and designs, with the hole size determining the degree of coarseness or size of food shred. Most are familiar with cheese graters, designed as hand-held tools or table gizmos with boxes to catch the cheese. Four-sided graters feature different-sized holes to accommodate not only the varying sizes you may want but because certain food items, like soft cheddar cheese, are best grated on large holes.
A microplane grater and zester is the petite cousin of regular cheese graters, with smaller holes and thinner “blades” or edges for finer grating. When used on hard cheeses like parmesan, they create a fluffier and lighter shred than traditional cheese graters. They’re excellent for very fine grating, such as for ginger, and as a zester, which requires finesse to remove the zest, the outer colored part of citrus fruits.
Pizza wheel or cutter
If you have pizza often enough, it might make sense to own one of these. While you can use a large knife or kitchen shears to slice through pizza, I prefer a dedicated tool for it. I can also get more distance between my hand and a hot pizza with a pizza cutter and avoid burning myself and getting food on my fingers.
How to Choose Knives and Cutting tools
A good knife is one that is sharp, fits your hand and handles well. The latter might sound somewhat vague if you’re not used to handling knives. While many reviews are made by professional and impartial testers, handling in the end is a subjective experience highly influenced by comfort levels. Remember when I said I started with a smaller Chef’s knife and now prefer larger ones? As a newbie, handling sharp objects can be scary at first and often, small and light can be safer choices, hence, why Santoku knives are touted for their relative light weight compared to Chef’s knives. The shapes also dictate how they’re used. A Chef’s knife with its curved blade is designed for a rocking motion versus the straight-down method for a Santoku knife. Unless you’re familiar with both, it’s hard to decide which method you’ll prefer.
Top of the line knives can be expensive. Some can cost several hundred dollars apiece. While it’s often a good idea to invest in the best you can afford, that’s not what I’d recommend unless cost is not an issue. If you don’t know yet what “best” is for you or you’re new to the kitchen, it might be better to start with a few well-reviewed above- average knives that don’t break the bank, and then you can decide for yourself what works for you. Also, if you have housemates who don’t understand the value of great (and expensive) knives, you might be really pissed off if one of them uses it as a bottle opener (yes, that happened to me, but thankfully it was an inexpensive cheese slicer, but still!).
What’s in my kitchen? I keep multiple Chef’s, Santoku and utility knives of various sizes. I also have a bread knife, paring knife, tomato knife, kitchen shears, pizza cutter and a couple of vegetable peelers, graters and microplane zesters. We also have an electric carving knife my husband Jeff picked up for $3 at a thrift store. It looks like it was made in the 60’s, but works well and is perfectly adequate for our occasional use. As of writing, I don’t feel the need for any other specialized knives, but that of course can change.
For reviews and more information on how to choose knives, check out the additional resources at the end of this article.