The Best Types of Kitchen Knives for Every Use
Every cook values quality cutlery—the sets of forks, spoons and knives that you use to cook and eat your food. Kitchen knives may be an intimidating investment, but one that is worthwhile for cooks of any level of expertise.
What's Included in a Kitchen Knife Set?
Kitchen knife sets can range from a two-piece chopping knife prep set to a 20-piece butcher block filled with almost every blade imaginable. Most sets offer something in between, with a chef and/or Santoku knife, serrated bread knife, paring knife, utility knife, pull-apart shears, sharpening steel (a.k.a. honing rod) and a block, to which you might want to add steak knives.
You should also note that when counting the pieces in a set, the block itself is considered one, as is the sharpening steel—even though they're not knives. A standard five- or seven-piece knife set is sufficient for the needs of most home cooks. Other knives are nice to have, but not essential.
This detailed guide will teach you what each knife's purpose is and how it might fit into your cooking technique.
What is a Chef Knife?
Also known as chef's or cook's knives, these thick-spined, up-tapered blades are what you'll most commonly see on cooking shows. This all-purpose tool's blade ranges from 6-12 inches, though most non-professionals prefer it to be 8 inches. You can also find the blades scalloped ( a.k.a. fluted or hollow-edged) for less sticky slicing. Some chef knives are also slightly rounded so that they rock against the cutting board, creating more efficient patterns for chopping. Use a chef knife for:
What is a Santoku Knife?
Invented in Japan, this blade is another versatile tool whose name means "three benefits" (slicing, chopping/dicing, mincing). It's similar to the chef knife, but is thinner and lighter, and it has a wide blade called a sheepsfoot, with a rounded tip. This blade may also be scalloped. Because the blade is slightly shorter than the chef knife, varying from 5-8 inches, it's more comfortable for someone with small hands. A Santoku knife does all that the chef knife does, except for deboning poultry (because the tip is different). In addition, use a Santoku knife for:
- Precise slicing of produce, cheeses and meats
- Scooping up herbs, nuts and other items
What is a Paring Knife?
This is the magician in the kitchen knife family, with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. The blade typically runs between 2.25-4.5 inches and has several different shapes—spear point, bird's beak and sheepsfoot—each of which work for different tasks. For example, the spear point is ideal for deveining shrimp while the bird's beak follows the curve of an apple or potato. Meanwhile, like a mini Santoku, the sheepsfoot is an all-round overachiever. Use a paring knife for:
- Coring and hulling
What is a Bread Knife?
With a 7-10-inch blade, a bread knife is always serrated so that it cuts through crusts of all kinds without crushing them or smashing their pillowy interiors. Use a bread knife for:
- Soft- or waxy-skinned fruit or vegetables
- Fruit or vegetables with thick peels or hard rinds
One thing to note is that not every serrated knife is a bread knife. For instance, steak knives, which are much smaller, are also serrated. So what is a serrated knife, exactly? It's one whose blade is wavy or teethlike, as opposed to one that is scalloped or dimpled to produce air pockets between the blade and the item being carved. It's best to sharpen serrated knives professionally, but you can use a sharpening steel for scalloped blades.
What is a Utility Knife?
A utility knife features a long, fluted blade that has a speared point like a paring knife. Use a utility knife for:
- Precise slicing of produce or protein
- Soft cheeses
- Breads and pastries
If you love grilling, then breaking down raw and/or cooked meats and fish are tasks that require the right equipment. These include the following knives:
A butcher knife looks like a scimitar, with an upcurved blade. It's quite handy for trimming and shaping large cuts of meat because it gives your arm extension, leverage and reach.
A fillet knife looks like a larger, upside-down version of a bird's beak paring knife. It's the sharpest knife in the toolkit, but it's used for the most delicate of chores: scaling and slicing fish without ruining the flesh.
Similar in appearance to the fillet knife but with a slightly wider blade, a boning knife does exactly what's implied—it separates meat from bone. Boning blades range in elasticity and, at their most flexible, are also good for poultry skinning and removing the silvery membrane in lamb, beef and pork.
Carving (pointy tip) or Slicing Knife (round tip)
A long-bladed carving knife sometimes comes with a friend: the carving fork. But when it's alone, and it has a rounded instead of a pointed tip, it's easy to confuse it with a bread knife. There's one key difference—a carving or slicing knife will often be scalloped, but never serrated, which can shred the meat instead of neatly and elegantly slicing it. (A carving or slicing knife also cuts cleanly through delicate layers of cake.)
Types of Kitchen Knife Materials
When it comes to choosing the material of your kitchen knives, there are several options to consider.
High-chromium stainless steel is the most common material for basic knife sets.
- Best for: Stainless-steel knives are resistant to rust and an excellent choice for cooks who like to throw everything in the dishwasher.
- Considerations: Though they are dishwasher-safe, the blades can dull quickly when they are washed this way, so will require regular sharpening.
Carbon steel blades don't need sharpening as often. As long as you're willing to hand-wash and dry them, these kitchen knives hold their edges.
- Best for: Carbon steel blades have honed edges, hardness, strength and resistance. They're easy to re-sharpen and look beautiful, if you take care of them.
- Considerations: This material does stain and rust easily, so if you're better at cooking than cleaning, you might want to forgo it in favor of stainless steel. Additionally, striking very hard objects can nick or even shatter these blades.
High-Carbon Steel and Carbide Steel
Both high-carbon stainless steel and carbide steel kitchen knives are professional-quality, proprietary blends that are usually unique to the manufacturers.
- Best for: Excellent tools for skilled home cooks who spend a lot of time in the kitchen.
- Considerations: These knives can be an investment up front, but worthwhile for the durability.
Damascus steel (also called laminated steel or pattern-welded steel) is another blend of at least two different types of metal.
- Best for: They are wonderfully aesthetic and strong, with beautiful rippling patterns, whetted edges, and resistance to shattering.
- Considerations: Because the makeup of each knife is different, maintenance can be tricky depending on the metals.
Ceramic kitchen knives are super workhorses for both small and large tasks and often come with their own protective sheaths.
- Best for: Extremely hard yet also lightweight, ceramic knives hold a significant advantage over other kitchen knife blades because, unlike steel alloys, they're chemically nonreactive. In other words, the material will not alter the taste of your food.
- Considerations: Ceramic knives retain their edges for so long and are so sharp that they can take some getting used to. They can also shatter when dropped against hard tile and you can't sharpen them at home.