Most people start their culinary adventures with a set of kitchen knives sold in a wooden block that doesn’t cost very much. Now, let’s get this out of the way – there is nothing wrong with a boxed kitchen knife set and most amateur chefs won’t benefit a bunch from buying high-dollar kitchen knives. The best knife in the world won’t make you a better cook, but a good quality set of kitchen knives will make your meal preparation faster. Evenly sliced vegetables and meats cook at the same speed, making your whole dish delicious. Once you have mastered your knives, good-quality kitchen knives will help you make more precise cuts and open up a world of culinary artistry even the average cook can enjoy.
Today, we are going to discuss the types of kitchen knives out there and how they are used. We will write about blade grinds, how the shape of the knife affects the cut it makes, and what makes some knives better for certain jobs than others.
Kitchen Knife Basics
The great thing about those inexpensive knives sold in a block is they provide the average person with a wide variety of knives to learn with. Many of these sets of knives are good quality, but you will probably find that only two or three of the knives get used, while the others just sit in the block on the counter.
Chef’s Knife – French or Japanese?
The chef’s knife is probably the most versatile knife in your drawer. Two common designs of chef’s knives are popular today: the French and the Japanese. They can be used interchangeably most of the time, but there are subtle differences that can make a difference in the way you prepare food.
French Chef’s Knives
The classic French chef’s knife features a heavy blade that tapers to a spear point. French chef’s knives are typically between 8” and 12”. They are almost always straight blades without serrations. Most French chef’s knives are a tapered grind and have a large, balanced handle. A French chef’s knife is happy cutting steaks, slicing veggies, and pretty much doing anything you need. The curved blade allows the chef to chop and mince with a rocking motion, a technique popularized by French chefs.
Japanese Chef’s Knives
Japanese chef’s knives are called Santoku Knives. Santoku means “The Three Virtues.” Those virtues define what the Santoku is all about – slicing, mincing, and chopping. If you ever have the opportunity to visit a sushi restaurant featuring a classically trained Japanese-style chef – do it. You’ll see some of the best knife work on the planet, and almost all of it will be done with this one knife. A Santoku knife is smaller and lighter than a French chef’s knife. You will usually find a Santoku knife to be 6” to 10”, and usually it’ll have those neat little scalloped cuts on the face of the blade. The blade edge will be flat, so no rocking. Japanese chefs chop, slice, and mince.
The Right Way to Hold a Chef’s Knife
This is where your knife skills come into play, and why having a good-quality, sharp knife is important. Not only can you do a terrible job of cutting your meal by holding your knife wrong, you run the risk of an emergency room visit. Hold the handle of the chef’s knife in your dominant hand. Your thumb and forefinger will rest on the blade, while the other fingers lightly grasp the handle. You might think this grip feels funny at first, but the more you practice, the better your slicing, mincing, and chopping will be. Keep your gripping finger somewhat loose for better control.
Your other hand, called the guide hand by chefs, needs to hold whatever you are cutting. The most common way to use your guide hand is the claw technique. If you think about your fingertips and fingernails as a claw shape against the top of the object of cutting, this makes good sense. This position keeps the blade from being able to take off your fingertips. You should rest the side of the blade against your first or second knuckles, depending on comfort. The key here is to keep what you are cutting stable while making sure you don’t cut off your fingers.
With some practice, you’ll find that this technique gives you great control of your blade and allows you to slice evenly. You can use this grip technique and your favorite chef’s knife to julienne, brunoise, or batonnet like the pros on TV. All it takes is practice.
The Paring Knife
That wooden block probably has a paring knife in it, and it probably looks like a mini chef’s knife. There is a good reason – paring knives are used for peeling and coring fruit and vegetables, but are also the ultimate knife for decorative slicing and scoring meat. A paring knife is typically 3” to 4” long. You will find three basic tip styles: spear point, bird’s beak, and sheep’s foot. No matter the cut of the blade, this is a lightweight knife intended for detail work, so get that chef’s knife out for heavy-duty stuff and save this delicate little knife for the finer things.
Spear Point Paring Knife
This is the most common type of paring blade out there. It resembles your chef’s knife, and it probably feels a lot like a baby version. This gives you the advantage of muscle-memory and makes it super easy to switch from your large chef’s knife to a smaller blade without having to rethink what you are doing.
Bird’s Beak Paring Knife
The blade of a bird’s beak paring knife looks a little like a carpet knife – it turns down at the end and has an incredibly sharp point. This is an ideal knife for in-air detail work, like removing eyes from pineapple, coring tomatoes, and peeling ginger. The down-curved blade is not suitable for cutting board work. This knife tip is often used when getting really fancy, like making rosettes from tomatoes.
Sheep’s Foot Paring Knife
Looking much like a mini Santoku knife, a sheep’s foot paring knife might be one of the most versatile small knives you have not used. It excels at free air peeling and is ideal for mincing garlic, shallots, and other oddly shaped vegetables. While not as common as other types of paring knives, once you use a sheep’s foot, it’s a little hard to go back to a spear point most of the time.
The Right Way to Hold a Paring Knife
Finally! No Rules! Except of course, don’t cut yourself. Paring knife technique is always more about removing a fine layer than it is about getting into something and cutting it. Different objects will determine where your fingers end up. Peeling fruit for example, will be easier in a chef’s knife hold, using the claw technique in mid-air. Coring might be better with a grip fully on the handle. You might even find yourself laying your index finger across the spine of the blade while deveining shrimp. The key to a paring knife is that you should always be using as little force as possible to do the work.
Boning Knives and Filleting Knives
Boning and filleting knives are typified by the graceful curve. A boning knife will be more rigid than a fillet knife, but many companies today are selling dual purpose knives that blur the differences between the two. These knives are used for removing hunks of meat from bone or skinning and boning fish. A true fillet knife will be very thin and flexible, giving you total control over the blade. Boning knives are often heavier.
The Bread Knife
The bread knife is a long, serrated blade used for slicing bread. It’s usually 12” to 14” inches long. Serrated blades are more difficult to sharpen, so buying a good bread knife up front will save you time and trouble later on. The bread knife is also a multi-purpose blade in the hands of a talented chef. If you ever wondered how those chefs make layer cakes with tiny, perfect layers of cake, the bread knife is how.
This is a knife that needs no introduction. It’s a big, heavy, scary-looking tool used for chunking through bones and thick objects. A cleaver works fantastic for big, tough gourds like pumpkin and squash, but it’s absolutely essential for getting through bone. We really like high carbon steel cleavers with a lot of weight to them. Light cleavers are just a waste of time. This is a knife you probably won’t use a lot, but having a really nice cleaver comes in handy way more than you think it would.
Once you know the types of knives that are the most useful in the kitchen, you can see why those wooden blocks are not always the best deal. You can usually buy a really good chef’s knife, a decent paring knife, a bread knife, a cleaver, and a boning knife for the price of a block set. You will have the knives you need for almost anything you want to cook. Also, keep your knives sharp – way more emergency room visits happen because of dull knives than sharp ones.
There is a lot that goes into what separates a good knife from a great knife, but that will be another article. What you should take from this article is that these are the types of knives most commonly used by the best chefs for a reason. They are versatile, accomplish a specific task, and keep you from hurting yourself by trying to use the wrong tool for the job. You don’t always need a wooden block with 12 different knives. Most of the time, just a few good knives will set you up to be the master of your kitchen.
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