Choosing the best cutlery for your uses is one of the most important things you can do for your cooking skills. This kitchen cutlery buying guide will help you make the right choice.
There’s a reason why on the show, Top Chef, the loser is told to “Please pack your knives and go.” That simple sentence is particularly, er, cutting, because knives are the backbone of any chef’s arsenal. They care for their knives obsessively, sharpening and honing them frequently, and storing them carefully in knife guards and bags.
For home cooks, too, having the right set of knives can make a world of difference in your cooking. Certain knives are suited for certain types of tasks, and if you’re using the correct knife, you’ll find cooking easier and more pleasurable.
The Three Essential Knife Shapes
Those 10-piece knife block sets may have you believing otherwise, but you really only need a few different knives to accomplish most cutting tasks. Avoid buying a set, even if it seems like a good deal, unless you are certain that you will frequently use every single knife in the set.
The three knives you’re likely to use the most are:
- Chef’s Knife: This large, all-purpose knife can be used to chop vegetables, cut up a chicken, slice meat, mince garlic and herbs and much more. If you watch cooking shows, you’ll see that it’s typically the knife you’ll see a chef using the most, because of its versatility. Chef’s knives come in a range of lengths, from 5 to 10 inches. Choose one that’s as big as you feel comfortable with, keeping in mind that a longer knife will naturally give you more cutting space. You’ll also want to hold the knife and make a few cutting motions with it to see if it feels balanced in your hand and that the handle is comfortable.
The iconic Chef’s Knife, as well as its Japanese counterparts, the Gyuto knife and Santoku knife, are designed to be a cook’s primary knife. We recommend you choose one of these as your first knife, which you can use to chop, slice, dice and mince all types of vegetables, fruits, meats and fish. This knife will be your most valuable player, no matter what type you pick. Though these knives are similar, they are not the same. Read on to explore the subtle differences.
The Chef’s Knife is one of the most useful and versatile designs available. The rocking curvature of the blade, the sharp fine tip and the deep, stable heel combine in a form that is utterly faithful to function. You need only look at a chef’s knife to understand how to use it. When choosing your first western style chef’s knife, we recommend one that is made from high-carbon stainless steel. Other materials can be used to make fine chef’s knives, but most quality manufacturers prefer high-carbon stainless steel because it offers a good edge retention, toughness and ease of maintenance. Additionally, they won’t rust and are generally a bit less fragile against hard materials. The 8″ chef’s knife is the most popular size for home cooks.
The Gyuto (or gyutou) is a more recent design in Japan’s impressive bladesmithing history. Similar to the western Chef’s knife in shape and size, the Gyuto is lighter and just awesome to use. The blade is curved and suitable for rocking, but the knife’s light weight just begs to be lifted from the board for quick “tap-tap-tap” cuts. A broad generalization exists that Japanese knives are spectacularly sharp, but thinner and harder, which can make them somewhat more brittle. This becomes evident if you hold a typical Gyuto next to a German Chef’s knife. But it’s the light weight, ability to take an extremely sharp edge, and versatility that make the Gyuto a great all-around knife that excels at mincing, precision vegetable prep and light protein prep (fish and chicken). The biggest downside? You can’t use them for heavy-duty tasks like chopping through bones or splitting winter squashes in half. You can also expect quality Gyuto to cost more than quality Chef’s knives.
The Santoku is a bit more traditional in design than the Gyuto; it has a straight edge that is not made for rocking. Rather, this blade must be lifted from the board for every cut. But the fine edge is supported by a wider blade all the way to the tip so it can make very precise, straight cuts, even slices and fine chops and minces. Santoku are the knives for the kitchen perfectionist. If you want very uniform cuts for super-clean presentations, a Santoku will help you get there. The classic size for a Santoku is about 7″.
Japan makes a great deal of knives of varying quality and from many materials. But in the quality cutlery market, Japan is known for making exquisite blades that, typically, are thinner than western blades and breathtakingly sharp. Some high quality Japanese producers forge blades from carbon steel because it is very hard and will hold a very sharp edge on a thin blade for a long time. Be aware that knives made from carbon steel are prone to rusting and will require additional care. And even when properly cared for, the blades will generally develop a dull “patina”. The fact that they do not stay shiny does not diminish the performance of the blade whatsoever. Japan is also a world leader in advanced ceramic blades that also require specific care and handling. In the end, be sure to learn the specific maintenance requirements for the knife you choose.
- Paring or Utility Knife: A small, 2- or 4-inch knife is ideal for finer kitchen tasks, like cutting small vegetables and fruits, mincing herbs, trimming fat from a piece of meat or slicing a wedge of hard cheese. If you find the tiny paring knives too short, the slightly longer utility knives will give you even more versatility.
Next you will need a Paring knife. A 3-4″ Parer is the knife you use for the small fruit, vegetable and meat prep that just isn’t comfortable with the chef’s knife: trimming strawberries and brussel sprouts, halving mushrooms or prepping artichokes. If you plan on doing much in-hand cutting (holding a small food in your hand as you cut it, such as “turning” carrots, “fluting” mushrooms or peeling apples), we recommend the 3″. Since paring knives are small and meant for delicate work, highly durable build quality seems less of a requirement. You may find that in this category, quality stamped knives are on a more even playing field with forged knives. But don’t underestimate how frequently this little knife gets used; stamped or forged, you’ll want a good one!
- Serrated Knife: A long (think 9 or 10 inches) serrated knife is important for slicing bread, slicing roasts and cutting very soft fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. This is one knife that you can save money on, buying an inexpensive version since many serrated knives don’t resharpen well.
- Sharpening Steel
So we already have the knife you will use most of the time, and the knife you will use when your first knife is too big. And that means your third knife has got to be…a Sharpening Steel! Okay, we tricked you, your third knife isn’t actually a knife. But here’s what you need to know about the mysterious sharpening steel: it’s not optional. As you use your beautiful new knives, the finest tips of their edges are getting pushed and mashed out of alignment which quickly leads to poor cutting performance. That fact is unavoidable. But using a Steel will re-align the edge so your knives will feel sharp, cut cleaner and go longer before they need to be re-sharpened. Sharpening Steels are affordable and come in several sizes, namely 8, 10 and 12 inches. We strongly suggest that you buy a steel that is longer than your longest knife. 10″ is great for most households. Steels also have a hidden talent. The tips are almost always magnetic and perfect for fishing bottle caps and other metal objects from a garbage disposal or under the stove or fridge.
Growing beyond the basics:
Your collection of cutlery can easily grow to specifically address the number of cooks in your kitchen and the foods you prepare. You may find that the basic knives you have are perfect, but you could use a couple more or want a slightly different size. Or you might discover that your growing repertoire requires a more specialized piece of cutlery to help turn a challenging task into a culinary victory. Here are a few examples of other kitchen knives that can make the cut.
A Utility Knife is usually 5-6″ long with a narrow blade that can be straight or serrated. It’s ideal for all-around-the-kitchen, everyday use and nice as a knife that can be used by a helper. It will also take some weight off of the Paring Knife for small food prep and sandwiches.
The Boning Knife is a thin-bladed specialist designed for skating down the surface of bones and maneuvering around joints to separate meats of all kinds. It also works well to clean and fillet fish. Historically, this knife would make the top 4 list, but its status as an essential has faltered in recent years. More and more people typically buy cuts of meat in exactly the form they plan on using; our collective home butchering skills are at an all-time low! Still it is a very good knife for trimming fat and silverskin. But we will concede that if you are a vegetarian, you have little need of this knife. Anyone else who may be the type to bone out poultry and meats, French trim a rack of lamb or free the bone from a ham, absolutely will need a boning knife. The most popular size is 5″.
The Slicing Knife is primarily used for slicing roasts and larger pieces of meats into thin, even slices. Slicing knives are sized from 8 to 12 inches and can have a pointed or rounded tip and a smooth or “granton” edged blade (also referred to as “hollow ground”). For the most part, a slicing knife only sees occasional use, but it does this particular job so much better than any other knife that it is often considered a necessity. Experienced cake decorators know that a sharp slicing knife is the secret to cutting even layers of cake.
The Fillet Knife is similar to a boning knife, but with a longer and more flexible blade that is ideally suited to the delicate removal of fillets from whole fish. It also offers great feel for the fine cleaning of pin bones from the fillets. They also have a very low drag that is ideal for removing skin from meats and large vegetables. Fillet Knives typically run 7″ to 10″ long.
Kitchen Shears- Yup, a good set just for the kitchen is a great thing! They are typically used to butcher chicken, pan dress whole fish, cut parchment paper, pastry dough, herbs and trussing string. Kitchen Shears often feature bottle openers and other handy integrated tools and can separate for thorough cleaning.
There are many other knife shapes, some of which are quite specialized. As you learn about cutlery shapes you can determine whether or not certain shapes would be useful and gradually add them as needed.
Types of Construction
Many cutlery shoppers get bewildered by the many terms used to describe a knife’s consutrction: full tang, stamped, forged, high-carbon, etc. Here’s what you need to know:
Forged knives are considered the best-quality. Each one is made individually from individual pieces of metal, and molded under extreme heat to create their shape. Forged knives are heavy, durable, balanced, and will typically hold a sharp edge well.
A stamped knife means that it was punched out of a flattened sheet of steel, then the edges are sharpened. Generally these knives are less expensive and considered not as good of quality. They don’t hold their edges as well as a forged knife, and their blades are lighter and more flexible. For some things, such as for a boning knife, this might be an advantage, though.
The tang refers to the metal part of the knife that extends into the handle. A full tang means that the metal from the blade extends within the entire handle (and you can see the metal sandwiched along the edge of the blade). The advantage of a full tang is balance, the handle is slightly heavier, which gives you better stability and control of the knife. Some knives are made with partial tangs, in which the tang only extends along the top of the handle, or a rat-tail tang, which is a thin “tail” of metal that extends into the handle and is fully enclosed within the handle.