Knives are synonymous with cooking. A cook without a good knife is like a race car driver without a steering wheel! You might be able to get to the finish line, but you wont be able to control the ride. Needless to say, knives are one of the most important tools in a cooks arsenal. With that in mind, I’m going to talk about some of the things you should know about kitchen knives in order to have a safer and easier experience in the kitchen.
When I first started getting serious about cooking, understanding knives was one of the things that really overwhelmed me. I wanted to get a good set of knives that would last for a long time and be easy to use. But, as I found, it can be difficult making the right choice. Knives come in all different shapes, sizes, packages, and materials. Throw in the fact that buying them can get pretty expensive without the right information, and you have the perfect storm of confusion. And investing in your kitchen should be fun, not confusing. Luckily, I have put in the hours and done the testing and research necessary to ensure that you will be able to get just what you need!
There are dozens of different styles and types of knives, but really there are only four knives you will need for pretty much any cutting you will ever have to do. The chef knife, pairing knife, bread or serrated knife, and the filet or boning knife.
#1. Chef Knife
The chef knife is the knife you think of when you think of a kitchen knife. The anatomy of a chef knife is made up of the tip, blade, heel, spine, bolster, and handle. The pointy end is the tip. On the sharp side of the knife, the blade has a steep curve towards the tip and a gentler curve towards the heel of the knife. The blunt side of the knife is called the spine. Some knives have a bolster under the blade which is kind of like a guard to keep your hand on the handle. The two dominant styles of chef knifes (these deserve their own post): European, which tends to be heavier, and Japanese which tends to be lighter. They come in sizes from 6 inches all the way to 14 inches. Although there are a lot of different types of chef knives (more than any other knife on this list), I really like Japanese style knives. The light weight makes them easier to control, and usually they are made of higher grade metal…more on that later. I would recommend looking for an 8 inch because anything longer is too much knife to fit on a cutting board, and anything shorter should be pairing knife work. Also, look for a knife with a tall enough heel to ensure that your knuckles will be off of the cutting board while cutting, which is really important.
#2. Pairing Knife
Think of the pairing knife as the chef knife’s side kick. It is comprised of a 3 to 5 inch blade with a shallow curve and handle. Pairing knives are great for peeling, slicing, and small cuts where a chef knife would be too bulky and slow. For instance, a pairing knife makes much quicker work of peeling shrimp or similar tasks you have to do many times, quickly. Some paring knives have thin flexible blades, but I would avoid these. You will want to find one that has a sturdy, unyielding blade because it makes working with one a lot safer
#3. Bread/Serrated Knife
Bread or serrated knives have sharp ridges on the blade that performs much like a saw does. these knives are great at bread and not much else, but a chef knife doesn’t cut through bread very well so the bread knife is useful to have. When looking for a bread knife, the blade should be sturdy/wont bend, and most importantly have a strong handle with a firm, comfortable grip. This is especially important in a bread knife because even with a sharp blade, some bread can be dense and tough to cut. A good handle can absorb some of the pressure.
#4. Boning/Filet Knife
Finally, the last knife on the list is the boning or filet knife. This knife has a thin, flexible blade whose purpose is to seperate meat from bone and other connective tissue. While a chef knife can handle this action, the filet knife can squeeze into tight spaces which greatly reduces the difficulty of deboning chicken thighs, cutting steaks, etc. When shopping for this knife, look for one in the 10 inch range. Shorter knives aren’t tall enough to make long smooth cuts.
Let’s talk for a minute about steel. All these knives are made from variations of steel, which is actually a very complex metal. Steel is iron that has been fortified with carbon and other metals. Depending on the blend, each steel can have dramatic differences. For instance, high carbon steel, steel that is fortified with mainly carbon, takes and keeps an edge really well but rusts very easily. Some other steel blends can be elastic, which is easy to sharpen, but loses its edge more quickly. Some other blends can be brittle, which are harder to sharpen, but stay sharp longer. If you have the opportunity to choose your knife based on the metal, keep in mind that there isn’t a “best metal”. I personally like a type of steel called VG-10 steel. It takes longer to sharpen, but once it is sharp it will make incredibly fine, easy cuts. The key is knowing what you want out of a knife, and being informed enough to choose the right one.
Speaking of making a choice, Here are the rules I follow when shopping for a knife. First, stay away from the knife block sets. They will have a bunch of knives that you will never use. It’s far better and cost effective to shop a la carte. Usually, I’ll find a chef knife that’s great, but prefer a different brand bread/pairing/filet knife or vice versa. Shopping for individual items gives you more control, which will always ensure you get what you want. Second, make sure the store or person you are buying from lets you hold (or better yet, use) the knife. The most important thing when deciding on a knife is making sure that it feels comfortable. Feel for the weight of the blade, and make sure the handle is comfortable. I’ve used a thousand dollar knife that had a terribly uncomfortable handle, and would have greatly preferred a sharp $20 knife with a comfortable grip. Third, keep price in mind. Price is not necessarily indicative of a better knife. The reason why there are so many choices is because everyone is different, and what is comfortable and easy to me may not be the same for you. Make a checklist of things you want in a knife, and when you find it don’t be afraid to make the investment in something you will love using, whether it is $20 or $200. I’ve actually found some great used knives at thrift stores for a few dollars. Which leads me to my final point, shop around. Department stores, thrift stores, kitchen supply stores, and even local knife makers are all readily available. There are also all sorts of craftsmen online who make amazing knives. While you won’t be able to interact with the product, you will be able to talk to the producer directly, who will be more than willing to get you the knife you want.
A knife may be one of the bigger investments you will make, but it is also the most used tools in the kitchen. It is definitely worthwhile to take a little time searching for the right one so that you can improve your culinary skills while also having some fun. Believe me, the feeling of effortlessly cutting through a tomato is extremely satisfying! Although, there is a little thought that goes into buying your knives, take your time, follow the steps outlined, and you will find something you will enjoy using.