If you've ever sliced and diced your way through a recipe, you know the right knives make food prep faster, easier, and actually safer. With so many knives on the market at all price points, how can you know you're buying the right knife for the right job? This guide shows you what to look for.
Basic Knives for Everyday Use
These are the workhorses of the kitchen—the knives you'll reach for again and again. Since you'll use these the most, it's worth it to spend a little more for good quality. And because a good knife lasts a long time, your initial investment will quickly pay off.
Your all-purpose kitchen tool. This is the knife you'll use most for slicing, dicing, and chopping. Even the flat of the blade can be used to crush ingredients like garlic cloves and whole peppercorns. Sizes usually run from 6 to 12 inches long, measured from the tip of the blade to the start of the handle. The size you'll buy is the one that feels right for you, so hold the knife in your hand to see if it feels comfortable; not too heavy but not too light, either.
Long Serrated Knife
This thin, saw-toothed knife is often called a bread knife, and is perfect for slicing breads and sandwiches without crushing them. It's also used to slice cakes into horizontal layers before frosting.
From peeling potatoes to coring an apple, this small but mighty knife can handle all the fine details.
Once you collect your basic knives, you can start adding to your essential set with these purpose-built blades.
This long, narrow blade is designed to carve meats into thin, even slices. It's thinner overall than a chef's knife.
Slim and narrow, with a very sharp point. This knife is ideal for separating meat from the bone.
Shorter than a boning knife, but longer than a paring knife. Great for slicing smaller cuts of meat such as chicken breasts and pork chops.
Thin, short, serrated blades are ideal for cutting individual portions of meat. These can double as tomato knives in a pinch.
Small knives and servers vary from blunt and broad for scooping and spreading soft cheeses, to quite sharp for cutting through hard, firm cheeses. A cheese knife set usually offers a variety of blades.
Small Serrated Utility Knives
All-purpose blade for small kitchen jobs. Excellent tomato knives. Optional sheaths protect the blade (and your fingers). Great for picnics and camping.
Cleaver or Butcher Knife
Large, heavy, broad blade used like a hatchet for cutting through bone and separating ribs.
Short, strong, sharp blade is uniquely designed to shuck oysters and cut out the meat.
Curved, thin blade minces herbs, garlic, and other small foods held in a shallow bowl by rocking the blade repeatedly over the ingredients. The bowl prevents the ingredients from escaping.
Other Specialty Knives
Depending on the kind of cooking you do, you might be interested in these knives:
- Fillet knife: Long, thin, flexible blade used for boning fish.
- Skinning knife: Essential for hunters in the field.
- Electric carving knife: Takes the work out of carving large roasts
- Japanese chef knives: These specialty knives come in a variety of styles, and include the popular santoku knife used for slicing, dicing, and mincing. Unlike Western-style chef knives, a santoku knife is not designed to rock as it cuts. The blades often have a patterned edge that releases food cleanly after cutting.
Before You Buy Kitchen Knives
Whether you buy a kitchen knife set with an array of different kinds of knives, or collect them one at a time as needed, here are the main points to consider:
How often will you use a particular kind of knife? An everyday, all-purpose knife like a chef's knife will probably be your go-to on a daily basis, so this is where you should shop for the best quality.
Look for high-carbon stainless steel for strength and durability. It won't discolor or rust over time, like ordinary carbon steel can. That said, many professional chefs prefer the relatively softer carbon steel because it's easier to sharpen. But for the everyday home cook, high-carbon stainless steel is the best choice.
Ceramic knife blades have super-hard surfaces, and rarely need sharpening. They're generally lighter than steel knives, and resist corrosion from acidic ingredients such as lemons or tomatoes. On the downside, ceramic blades are very brittle and can break or chip if dropped.
Steel knife blades are made either by stamping or forging. Stamped blades are punched out of a sheet of steel, while forged knives are made from steel that's melted and pounded into shape; that makes forged knives stronger and sturdier. Along with determining the quality of the steel, you should also look at the handle: If the blade is one solid piece that extends all the way back along the length of the handle, that's referred to as full tang, and it's a mark of superior durability.
Most kitchen knife sets come with a storage system called a knife block or knife holder designed to protect the blades. Some are upright blocks of wood with slots to fit every blade. Other storage choices are flat systems designed to fit inside a kitchen drawer, or magnetic strips that attach to a kitchen wall.
The only way to truly sharpen kitchen knives is by grinding the edge with a sharpening stone or other manual or electric knife sharpener. To keep the blade in shape between uses, hone it with a sharpening steel.
All images by Meredith.