There are many different kinds of knives that a cook might want for his or her kitchen. Many of them are made for very specific tasks, such as slicing, boning, or pairing.
Others are more versatile and might be known as utility knives. Which knives you will want to have on hand will depend on what kind of food you cook, the ingredients you use, and how you source them.
The following is an overview of basic cooking knives and their purposes.
When choosing what knives to buy for your kitchen, keep in mind that while some knives are truly suited to a certain task, other knives can be interchangeable and whether a cook prefers one over the other is often subjective and personal. For example, while I will often reach for a small paring knife for small delicate jobs done in hand, others will insist that all they need is a chef knife for everything. Often, it is knowing what jobs you should not use a certain knife for which is more important than knowing what jobs you can do.
The Chef’s Knife
The chef’s knife, such as this Zwilling J.A. Henckels Four Star 10″ Chef’s Knife, is the most frequently used and versatile knife use by both professional chefs and home cooks. Its design has been perfected over centuries and comes from classical French cooking. For this reason, it is sometimes called a French knife although modern designs have changed somewhat, especially in the curvature of the blade.
It is used for chopping, slicing, dicing, mincing, julienning, or anything else you need it for when you don’t have a more specific knife on hand. It is wide at the heel (the end of the blade near the handle) and tapers to a point so that the cutting blade is somewhat rounded in profile. The spine of the blade is nice and heavy so that the chef knife has a good heft. The flat of the blade can be used for crushing garlic, ginger slices, etc.
Chef knives are available in lengths of 6, 8, 10, and 12 inches. Ten inches is the most popular for all-around work. If you only plan to have one, this is probably your best choice.
Do not skimp on your chef knife. A good one can last for many, many years, and possibly even be the only one you ever need (especially for a home cook).
Santoku Knife or Japanese Cook’s Knife
The Santoku knife, such as the Zwilling J.A. Henckels 7″ Hollow Edge Santoku Knife, is a type you may have seen professional chefs on television using as an alternative to the traditional French chef’s knife.
The blade is wide but the design is somewhat different than the French knife, with a downward tapering point. They come in lengths of 5 or 7 inches. These are becoming increasingly popular and can be used in much the same way as the French Chef’s knife. You will probably want to choose one or the other, the French or the Japanese Cook’s knife. Some Santoku knives are “hollow edge” which means small scallops are “hollowed” out of the side of the cutting edge of the blade. This is meant to reduce friction between the knife and the food being cut, and it helps when cutting paper-thin slices. You may want to read more about what the Santoku knife is used for, but if you have any doubt, go for a traditional Western chef’s knife as described above.
The utility knife, like this Henckels International Classic 6″ Utility Knife, also known as a salad knife, is almost like a smaller version of the chef’s knife. This light-weight knife has a narrow blade of 6 to 8 inches and is used for cutting fruits, lettuce, or anything else you might find it handy for. For large volume chopping it is a bad choice, but small volume slicing it is handy. It can be used for carving chicken, duck, etc. It is much too small to carve your Thanksgiving turkey.
However, for small jobs and delicate fruits, it is a good knife to have around. This is the kind of knife you can pull out quickly for slicing a tomato, a kiwi, mango, or even a carrot, but it is not essential.
Unlike the utility knife, the paring knife is a specialty knife. Paring refers to removing the outer peel or layer of a fruit or vegetable, and other preparation steps. The paring knife has a design well-suited for trimming and peeling, and for any delicate hand-held work.
The blade is short, from 2 to 4 inches, curved, and light-weight. This is a good knife to have around, especially if you work with a lot of fruit. It can also be used for small and delicate poultry trimming jobs, such as preparing chicken breasts. Although not having this knife will not make for a “kitchen impossible, having a paring knife on hand is highly recommended. You’ll like having a knife that can fit in your hand and be used for delicate jobs.
Carving or Slicing Knife
There are two types of carving or slicing knives. Both have slender, and flexible blade. For more information see What is a Carving Knife?
The other type of slicing knife is a serrated slicer. The blade is long and slender like a regular slicer, but with a serrated cutting edge that tapers at the very end to a point. While the regular slicer is used for carving or slicing meats or poultry, the serrated slicer is used to slice bread, cakes, or anything similar.
A butcher knife, as its name implies is a knife used for butchering meat. The blade is heavy, somewhat broad, and curved upwards towards the end. It is used by butchers for cutting, trimming, and sectioning raw meats. Many people call any large sharp kitchen knife a “butcher’s knife” but the true butcher knife has a specific design that helps get around bones, etc. Unless you plan to buy meat in large cuts and butcher it down yourself, you will probably not need one of these.
Many chefs, when breaking down large cuts, will simply use their chef knife. If this seems incorrect, realize that this was exactly what the French chef’s knife was originally meant to do.
Another type of knife butchers might use besides a regular butcher knife is a Scimitar or steak knife (not to be confused with the kind of steak knife you use to eat steak). These knifes have a narrow blade similar to a butcher knife, with a similar upwards curve, but they curve up to a very sharp point. These are used to accurately cut steaks from large cuts of meat.
A specialty knife to go along with the butcher knife. It has a very narrow, curved blade with a very sharp point. It is used for removing bones from meat or poultry. Boning knives come with flexible or heavy blades. The heavy blades are used for removing the bones from meat or chicken, with the flexible blades can be use for lighter work, and for filleting fish. If you plan to remove the bones from a lot of meat or poultry, you will want one of these. Choose a heavy blade for general boning purposes. For filleting fish, choose a flexible blade. There are, however, other knives made specifically for filleting. Japanese sashimi chefs often use a knife called a sashimi hocho, like the Honmamam “Shigekatsu” Sashimi Hocho, for filleting fish. Like other Japanese knives, the blades are only sharpened on one side.
Whether you need a boning knife depends on how often you plan on doing any bone removing. Other knives can stand in for a boning knife if you only plan to debone a chicken breast once in a while, for example, but if you find yourself doing a lot of bone removal, a proper boning knife will make your life a lot easier.
These are almost like handheld hatchets, but with longer blades. The blade is very wide and very heavy. The are used for cutting through bones. A clever is easily confused with a similar looking knife, the Chinese cook’s knife. The cutting edge of a cleaver has no curve. You probably do not need a cleaver.
Chinese Cook’s Knife
Although these may look similar to a cleaver, and are sometimes called Asian-style cleavers, they are used for more than just chopping up meat or cutting through bones. Some chef’s are turning to these to replace the French Chef’s knife. The cutting edge of this broad-bladed knife is curved, making it suitable for chopping, while the heavier, broader design makes it useful from heavier jobs, crushing, and even flattening. You probably do not need one of these unless you want to have one instead of a chef’s knife.
The steel is used for keeping the blades of your knives true and maintaining them so that they do not need to be sharpened as often. See What is a Sharpening Steel? for more information.
What One Knife Do I Absolutely Need?
There is only one knife that a home cook absolutely needs. A chef’s knife. That’s it. Some people have 9 different size utility knives, when, in reality, there is not much they cut with them that they couldn’t have cut with a good, sharp chef’s knife. If you buy a large fancy set of knives, and you’re on any kind of realistic budget, all you’ll be doing is limiting the quality of the number one knife you actually need, and ending up with a bunch of knives that sit around in a knife block collecting dust, or end up in a kitchen drawer somewhere. Here is the best advice I can give you as you are considering any of the knives described above: If you are not sure you need it, you probably don’t. Wait until later on in your cooking career and you’ll know more about your needs.
As far further recommendations that I think are a pretty good choice, most people don’t need a utility knife in addition to a chef’s knife, but a paring knife is nice to have. If you slice a lot of bread or bread like items, then a serrated bread slicing knife is good to have. Chef’s knives aren’t very good for slicing bread. As far a regular slicer, a very sharp chef’s knife can yield you nice thin slices of flank or other steak, or other similar things. However, a chef’s knife is a bit unwieldy and heavy for carving up the family bird. If you do carve up a lot of turkey, chicken, or duck, there are knives called carvers, that are not normally included in the “standard knife list.” These have blades that are 8 to 10 inches but that are both narrow and thin. They are usually used to carve up a turkey but they are actually suitable for cutting up any kind of meat. Modern versions often have hollow edged designs like the Santoku I described above, helping with friction and thinner slicing.
If you want do work with a lot of poultry, meat, and fish, a boning knife is still a good choice. For all-around flexibility, go for a flexible blade (see how that worked out?). This will allow you to fillet a fish occasionally while still dealing with most other challenges, such as Frenching a chicken breast. Who knows, you might tackle a leg of lamb.
Bear in mind that the knives included here are selected for their reliable quality. This includes the materials used and the balance of the knife. However, these may be quite heavy knives. If you have smaller hands, go with an 8 inch or shorter chef’s knife. And keep in mind that no matter how perfectly balanced and high quality a knife is, it may not feel as good in your hand as another similarly high quality knife. However, if the quality is there, and the knife is not too heavy and large for your hand, you will probably get used to it over time.
Remember that the knife industry is just as concerned with marketing as any other. They may make knives supposedly specialized for purposes, with slightly tweaked designs, that you absolutely do not need. For instance, a very good brand called Global makes a “Vegetable Knife” that somewhat resembles a Japanese Santoku knife, but will not do anything that either a good chef’s knife or a Santoku won’t do. There are many other examples, so just be aware that just because a particular type of knife is made, does not mean it is needed or even very useful.
However, if you are concerned with having not only a high-quality but lightweight knife, you may want to check out the Global line, including the Global 3 Piece Starter Knife Set with Chef’s, Utility and Paring Knife. This is a Japanese brand that many chef’s seem to be moving towards. There are several reasons why a home cook might consider them. A standard Global chef’s knife or Santoku knife is less of an investment than the German knives.
This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. See full disclosure.