4 Essential knives you must have
There are so many cooking knives out there and it’s very confusing which ones to own. Buying a whole set of knives isn’t the best option. Like sets of pots and pans, you generally end up getting knives you don’t use and under-spending on the ones you use most. Which ones are 4 essential knives you must have in your kitchen?
Table of Contents
4 essential knives you must have
Cooking knives are quite an essential kitchen tool. Many people don’t realize how important it is to use a good knife. When you use a good sharp knife, it actually makes your cutting so much easier, more efficient, and safer. A good knife with proper care will last a lifetime. So it’s important to choose wisely and get the best knives for your needs.
Things you should consider for purchasing knives
- Your cooking style: Think about how you cook and what sort of knives are best suited for the types of meals you prepare. For instance, if you’re a vegetarian, you likely don’t need a boning knife.
- Your budget: Get the best-quality knives you can afford. If you don’t have a big budget, consider buying one great-quality knife that can be used for most tasks.
- How it feels: Never buy a knife without testing to hold it in your hands (at least you can mimic the slicing, rocking motion to see if the knife feels balanced in your hand and if the handle is comfortable).
4 essential knives you must have
- Chef’s or Cook’s Knife (8″ or 10″)
- Paring Knife (3″ or 4″)
- Serrated bread Knife
- Slicing or Carving Knife (10″)
1. Chef’s knife (Cook’s knife)
It is the most important knife to have in your kitchen.
- Primarily for chopping and cutting boneless meat, though it can be used for anything.
- Not to butcher or carve poultry, to remove the skin of large vegetables such as butternut squash, or to puncture a hole in cans.
Chef’s knives have 2 major styles:
1) Western style
2) Japanese style
- Western knives: 1) German-style 2) French-style
For most of the tasks. Thicker and heavier: fatter and more rounded in belly.
- Japanese-style Santoku knives: (Asian chef’s knife)
For finer, more delicate slicing work or precision work. Thinner: they can chip.
< German-style >
- Originated in Western Europe
- Usage: nearly any kitchen task
- Bevel: double-bevel knives (both sides are angled). Most have the same angle on both sides (ex. 50:50), which makes them easier to sharpen. German knives can be used by both right- and left-handed.
- The blade angle: wider, at about 17.5 degrees
- Edge: the edge of the blade will have a slight curve to it and usually begin to curve toward the middle of the blade. More curved section at the front of the blade, to facilitate an up-and-down “rocking” motion (in which the tip of the knife doesn’t leave the cutting board). The back or spine of the blade should be sturdy, flat, and straight for greater balance and precision.
- Thickness: thicker and heavier blades than Japanese knives
- Material: softer steel and less sharp than Japanese knives
- Hardness: the softer-steel German comes in around 57 on the scale. Knives are far more durable, but won’t maintain an edge for as long as the harder steel – they need to be sharpened more often.
Well-known brands: Wüsthof, Henckels, Messermeister, Victorinox
< French-style >
- Usage: nearly any kitchen task
- Bevel: double-bevel knives (both sides are angled), creating a cutting edge shaped like a “v”.
- Edge: it curves upward toward the tip, the belly of the blade is more or less curved (straighter), and more triangular, which is good for a “slicing” type of motion where the knife is drawn straight back toward you. This allows potentially greater control over the knife and keeps the cutting area used in chopping a bit smaller.
- Thickness: often Thinner than German-style
- Material: a combination of stainless steel and carbon steel.
< Japanese-made Western-style >
After the Western culture and foods were brought to Japan, the Japanese started eating more meats and needed the proper knives for cutting meats – Western Style knives. Japanese became more familiar with using Western-style knives and many knife makers have started to make Western-style knives with the techniques of Japanese sword and knife making. 2 common shapes in the U.S. are the gyuto (chef’s knife) and the shorter santoku.
Well-known brands: Shun, Global, Togiharu, MAC, Tojiro
1) Gyuto (Chef’s Knife)
- The Gyuto is the Japanese version of the classic Western Chef’s knife.
- Usage: multi-purpose for cutting meats, fish, vegetables, and fruits. Precise chopping and slicing used by professional restaurant chefs.
- Bevel: double-bevel knives (both sides are angled). Most have the same angle on both sides (ex. 50:50), which makes them easier to sharpen.
- Edge: the pointed blade tip – good for precision cuts or working in tight spaces. The relatively flat heel section of the blade – great for ‘rock chopping’ (A technique where the food is cut, chopped, or minced, by rocking the knife edge from tip to heel during the cut) and also tall enough to provide good surface contact with the knuckles when ‘tap chopping’ with the middle or tip of the blade. Finally, virtually any portion of the blade can be utilized to either ‘push cut’, or ‘pull cut’.
- Thickness: typically thinner and lighter than that of a Western ‘chef’s knife’, and the balance point of the Gyuto tends to be a little further forward towards the tip. These make the Gyuto feel extremely agile and precise in use.
- Blade lengths: between 180mm and 300 mm, although they can be as long as 360mm. Sizes from 180mm to 210mm are for home cooks and 240mm and 270mm sizes are for professional chefs.
2) Santoku (Asian chef’s knife)
- Usage: precise cutting of meat and vegetable. Multi-purpose knife that is more commonly found in Japanese households than Gyuto knives. The “Santoku” translates into English as either “3 purposes” or “3 virtues”.
- Bevel: mostly single bevel (only one side will cut). Many have an asymmetrical edge (the edge is at a much steeper angle on one side of the blade, i.e. 60:40 or 70:30), which also contributes to sharpness. The left-handed can’t properly use the knife and will have to buy one specifically for lefties.
- it can be an alternative to a French-style chef’s knife
- The blade angle: tend to be 10 to 15 degrees per side. The narrower the angle, the smaller the cutting path through – and the less damage you’ll do to the food.
- Edge: super sharp. It has a “Kamagata: sheep’s foot” tip: the top of the tip curves downward, which forms a wider angle than the tip of a Gyuto or Petty knife. Relatively speaking, this results in a tip that is slightly less prone to breaking but is also less nimble and precise. It’s made for those who prefer an up-and-down chopping motion, rather than the rocking motion traditionally used by western chefs. They have a straight blade edge that allows you to cut down to the flat surface of your cutting board.
- Thickness: it’s usually narrower, thinner, lighter, shorter, flatter than Western knives.
- Blade lengths: 165mm and 180mm. It generally has a slightly taller blade than a similarly sized Gyuto or petty knife. This provides a little more clearance for the knuckles of your knife hand when cutting directly above a cutting board, and also provides a good surface for the knuckles of your free hand to guide the blade during ‘tap chopping’, ‘push cutting’ and ‘pull cutting’. However, it also makes the Santoku slightly less agile than narrower knives.
- Material: carbon steel that’s simple to maintain, and versatile
- Hardness: closer to 60 to 63. Harder steel than Western-style knives. Their hardness also makes them brittle: more prone to chipping or snapping if used improperly. They hold their edge for longer (so you won’t have to sharpen them as often).
- European manufacturers of Santoku knives add a Granton or kullenschiff edge (a row of hollow-ground pockets that prevent food from sticking to the knife’s surface).
This knife comes in various lengths (6-14 inches). Choose 8 or 10-inch. The longer edge, the knife is more versatile and efficient. And the bigger the blade you have to slice through an ingredient, the safer it is. The best way to choose the size is to pick a knife with a blade length similar to the length from your forearm, from your elbow to your wrist.
Find a knife with a nice weight and is comfortable to hold. It needs to have a little heft to it to chop through firmer vegetables like carrots. Western blades are heavier and more curved than their Japanese ones. I’m so used to using Japanese ones, so it was a bit hard to work with a heavier German one at first. It doesn’t mean it cuts less efficiency – it’s just easier for ladies to work with lighter knives.
Generally speaking, harder steel is sharper and more delicate, while softer steel is tougher. Harder steel holds a sharper edge for a longer period of time but can be more difficult to sharpen once it does get dull. And a very hard, very sharp edge can also be more delicate and brittle than a softer one, making cutting up a heavy squash, a little risky to the blade.
When shopping for a knife, you can ask where it falls on the Rockwell Hardness Scale: the higher the number, the harder the steel. Low to mid-50s is on the softer end, mid-50s to low 60s is hard.
Most reputable knife manufacturers have their own unique formula of metal they use for their knives. Different metals and elements can add properties to the product – durability, the ability to hold an edge, the ability to resist staining and pitting etc. It’s hard to tell which material is the best since it really depends on how you use the knives.
- Stainless steel: The most popular material for knives. It’s a mixture of iron, carbon, chromium and other elements to create a blade that is a good balance of being durable, resistant to stains and easy to sharpen.
- High-carbon stainless steel: it gives the benefits of a stainless steel knife in a slightly more durable and sturdy blade.
- Carbon steel: It’s strong but rusts easily and can also react with certain acidic foods, discoloring the food.
- Ceramic: this super-hard material is lightweight, ultra-sharp and will not dull easily. It’ll shatter if dropped and can also chip or break if used improperly. Because ceramic is so hard, it can’t be sharpened in a home sharpener, and likely will need to be sent back to the manufacturer or to a specialist to resharpen.
Under 10 degrees
These are typically the lowest angles that are applicable on blade edges that cut softer materials. It is easy to maintain edges at the under 10 lower angle without damaging them. Such angles are suitable for sharpening straight edge razors as they make them extremely sharp. Normally, these kinds of edges are sharpened at a 7 to 8 degrees angle. It is very easy for a user to damage a straight razor since its edges are very delicate.
10 to 17 degrees
Most available knives can handle a low sharpening edge of 10 to 17 degrees. It’s a very fine angle edge considering that sharpening at such an angle would total 20 to 34 degrees. A knife that is sharpened at such an angle becomes too weak to handle any chopping motion type of work. Its impact can be worse when the blades are made of hard steel which characteristically bristles and therefore more susceptible to damage. However, such a lower angle can be applicable in providing a smooth cutting action to knives that slice meat or cut other soft items.
17 to 22 degrees
It is the typical sharpening angle for most standard kitchen knives. Some knives, especially the Japanese manufactured ones, sharpened at the recommended 17 degrees, while Western-style kitchen knives is about 20 degrees. Most kitchen knives built of tough material can withstand a sharpening edge of 15 to 20 degrees and still cut well without any issue. Considering that it amounts to a 40 degrees total angle rough treatment of such edges will compromise its durability.
22 to 30 degrees
It is the typical range for most durable knives like a pocket or hunting knives, sharpen. Such an edge may not only be useful in slicing, and chopping but also grinding, sawing, and to some extent screwing things. Such duties require a knife to be both sharp and durable to handle versatile things. That is why an angled edge of 22 to 30 degrees is suitable for such blades are they leave it more durable.
Over 30 degrees
Any blade that sharpens beyond 30 degrees makes the edges highly durable, its sharpness is diminished. Such angles are applicable in tools and knives: cleavers, machetes, and axes. That is why extra strength is required as you use such tools on hard materials like chopping down trees. However, such kinds of blades remain efficient when it comes to such work. When you use other knives with such work, it’s bound to get damaged easily.
The metal part of the knife that extends into the handle: The section of steel inside the handle. Choose blades that are full tang.
- Full tang (one full piece of metal with the two handle pieces pinned to the sides). Full-tang knives are more balanced, sturdier, and longer-lasting than half-tang models since the handle is slightly heavier.
- Half-tang (a piece of metal that extends the full length of the knife, but only part of the width, or does not extend the length of the knife and is instead glued into the handle).
Forged chef’s knives
- Made from a single piece of forged steel, heated and pounded into the desired shape)
- Considered the best-quality.
- Heavy, durable, balanced, and will typically hold a sharp edge well.
- Have a bolster
- Cut out of a large sheet of steel
- Undesirable quality in a chef’s knife
- Usually lighter and more flexible.
- They don’t hold their edges as well as a forged knife
The thick shoulder of heavy steel located at the front of the handle where it meets the spine or the top (non-cutting) edge of the blade. In addition to balancing the knife, the bolster also helps keep your fingers from slipping while you work, thus preventing hand fatigue and blisters.
Not every chef’s knife will have a bolster. A bolster indicates that a knife has been forged from a single chunk of steel. The thickness of a bolster shows how thick the original chunk of steel was – and the thicker, the better.
The heel is the widest part of the knife, located at the rear of the blade where it meets the handle. This section of the cutting edge is used for chopping hard items like carrots, nuts, or even chicken bones.
Knives with longer blades produce greater leverage: generating greater cutting force at the heel of the blade. A heavier knife also increases cutting force, but it’s more tiring to use, too.
Make sure it comfortably fits your hand. It shouldn’t feel slippery or cause you to grip excessively hard. Chef’s knife handles have traditionally been made of wood, which can harbor bacteria that cause food-related illness and aren’t dishwasher safe. Even soaking a knife can cause its wooden handle to warp or crack. Due to it, plastic or rubber handles are very popular.
The raised, cylindrical studs keep the handle securely attached to the tang portion of the knife. This is typical of knives with wooden handles. If rivets are present, make sure that their tops are smooth and don’t protrude from the handle at all.
About $100 for a high-quality chef’s knife. It’s a great investment for your cooking and the good ones should last forever.
Suggested chef’s knives:
- Best Overall: MAC MTH-80 Professional Series 8-inch Chef’s Knife with Dimples
- Best Tough Workhorses: Wüsthof Classic 8-inch Cook’s Knife and J.A. Henckels International Classic 8-inch Chef’s Knife
- Best if You Live Near a Good Sharpener: Misono UX10 Gyutou
- Best Lightweight: Global G-2 Classic 8-inch Chef’s Knife
- Best Value: Mercer Culinary Renaissance 8-Inch Forged Chef’s Knife
2. Paring Knife
Though it considers e to be the second most important knife in his kitchen, you might not use it often. Its narrow blade also lends itself to odd jobs like testing to see if a cake is done or if roasted beet is ready.
- Delicate tasks (de-veining a shrimp, removing the seeds from a jalapeño etc.)
- Smaller items such as herbs and garnishes
- Peeling (or “paring”: to cut away the outer surface or to remove the ends from a fruit or vegetable), trimming or mincing fruits and vegetables
- Coring tomatoes
- Slicing cheese
- Avoid using it to cut very hard vegetables, such as carrots, celery root, or parsnips. These smaller knives don’t carry enough weight to easily slice through the foods, which may prompt you to increase the pressure or tighten your grip as you’re cutting. If you find yourself applying pressure at any point, you aren’t using the right blade for the job and it can be dangerous.
It looks like a mini-version of a chef’s knife, with a blade ranging from 2-4 inches long. The exact size depends on what you plan on using the knife for.
- To slice up small vegetables like carrots and radishes, look for a smaller knife around 2.5–3 in (6.4–7.6 cm).
- For peeling fruits and vegetables, choose a knife closer to 4 in (10 cm).
If you’ll be doing several different tasks in the kitchen, consider getting 2 knives, a longer and shorter one. If you only want to get 1 knife, choose a 3.5 in (8.9 cm) blade for general purpose use.
Paring knives come in different construction varieties.
- a stamped plastic handle for lighter weight and low-cost. These are also less durable than other varieties.
- a forged metal handle for a heavier, more durable, last longer, and more expensive than stamped plastic.
Bird’s beak knife:
A bird’s beak is a type of paring knife with a curved blade for more precision cuts. The blade is usually on the shorter side, 3 inches (7.6 cm) max. The curve makes it easier to make small cuts. If you plan on making designs in fruit or cutting very small pieces, consider getting a bird’s beak type.
A bird’s beak doesn’t work as well for peeling fruits and vegetables. Choose a straight blade for this task.
$20 for a good-quality paring knife. Own one, keep it sharp, and don’t spend so much. Avoid ceramic knives and opt for a metal blade for a longer lifespan.
Suggested pairing knives:
- The most versatile and inexpensive: Kuhn Rikon Paring Knives.
- Best: Wusthof Pro Paring Knife, 3-1/2-Inch
- Tojiro 3.5-Inch Paring Knife
3. Serrated Knife
Serrated knives aren’t just for bread – they take on almost any job not suited to the straight blade of a chef’s knife. Most useful on foods that have one texture on the outside and another inside, like a hard-crusted bread or a tomato.
- Bread *Slowly saw through the whole loaf, instead of applying downward pressure.
- Waxy surface foods: tomatoes, peppers
- Fruits – pineapples, watermelons
- Slice whole citrus fruits – citrus skin is tough and slick
- Cake layers
- Baked phyllo dough
- Serrated knives should only be used for slicing, not to slice smaller items such as fresh herbs, garlic, or berries.
A bread knife is recognizable by its saw-toothed edge. The points sink into the food while the scooped-out gullies between them reduce the blade’s friction as it moves through the food. Less friction makes it easier for the user to saw back and forth and cut through the food cleanly.
Those with the classic serration style of pointed tips were, in general, much more successful. The best knives had broad, deep, pointed serrations and, most interestingly, fewer of them.
- The more serrations there are, the less power each one gets.
- Deeper serrations with pointier tips are better at biting into food than rounded or shallow serrations because the force is also spread over the surface area of each tip.
- A narrower tip, sharpened to 16 degrees or fewer (from the very tip of the serrations to the top of the bevel running along the entire edge of the blade), will have more force concentrated behind it and excelled, while those sharpened to 20 degrees or more felt dull. The narrower the object that you’re pushing (i.e., the cutting implement), the less force is required – the knife feels sharper to the user.
Size of the teeth:
Choose a knife with teeth that are not too big (which can tear up the soft interior of a loaf) or too small (not efficient for slicing.) If you’ll be hacking through a lot of loaves, you might consider an offset serrated knife (deli knife). Its offset keeps the hand holding the knife up and away from cutting boards or counters as the blade is pushed downward through thicker than average sandwiches.
Choose a longer one like 6 inches to minimize the amount of sawing necessary. Choose 10 inches.
A serrated knife is thinner and more delicate than a chef’s knife and cuts cleanly through tender, moist cakes.
You want handles made of grippy, rather than smooth, material because you want to feel more secure. Good handles also had what ergonomists call “affordance” allowing multiple comfortable grip options.
$30 to $40 for a good-quality serrated knife. If you take good care of it, it will stay sharp for years. If your knife gets dull, simply replace it.
Suggested pairing knives:
Tojiro Bread Slicer
While many manufacturers claim their knives can go in the dishwasher, you should always wash knives by hand. Washing in the dishwasher can dull the blade. Use a soft sponge and warm, soapy water to maximize the life and performance of your knife. And avoid soaking knives in water; prolonged immersion can loosen the handles.
Keep your knives in a safe and secure place – knife block, on a magnetic strip, or in a special drawer insert that has slots for the blades. Never store them loosely in a drawer – it could result in nicked or dulled blades, as well as nicked hands when you reach in.
- Fewer, broader, deeper, pointed serrations
- Thinner blade angle
- Comfortable, grippy handle
- Medium weight
- About 10-inch length
4. Boning Knife
Most knives are designed to cut straight lines. However, when it comes to anything with a ribcage and joints, you need a boning knife with a thinner blade than a slicing knife that can move and flex.
- Best for cutting up or boning fish, meat, or poultry of any size.
- Preparing fruits for fruit trays, decorative arrangements, peeling the skin or rinds of fruits.
- Baked goods for carving cake and cookie dough, coring and filling cupcakes
- A boning knife should not be used to cut through bones, but rather to cut around bones.
Benefits of boning knife:
- The thin blade makes the de-boning process faster and easier
- Less meat is wasted during the de-boning process.
2 main categories of meat: thick and tender
- Thick: With a thicker skin and tougher meat, these cuts require a stiff knife that is sharp and thin. When removing the bone, you need to maintain a high level of precision. If the wrong knife is used, a slip can cause a massive injury or ruin the cut.
- Tender: Before cooking, tender cuts are easy to enter with a knife. These are your poultry and fish cuts. Especially with fish, you need to have a delicate hand and a thin blade that is able to cut out the bone with relative ease. Curved boning knives are made especially for fish and will be able to remove most bones with just one pass.
Boning knife vs fillet knife:
- Fillet knives are designed for exclusively on fish
- Boning knives can be used for both fish and meat, which makes them more versatile than fillet knives
- a long, narrow and thin, semi-flexible (although some are rigid), straight-edged (non-serrated) blade with a sharp point.
- A flat cutting edge with a slight curve up to its sharp point
- A small guard (bolster) to keep your hand back from the blade
Flexibility is the most important aspect of a knife because if a flexible knife goes into a thicker cut, it will often break or bend. Alternatively, if a stiff knife is used on fish, you’ll have a much harder time removing all of the bones. Your boning knife can be stiff or flexible:
- Stiff: For thicker cuts, providing very little flexibility.
- Flexible: For removing bones from fish or poultry, normally smaller in size, providing great flexibility and control.
- Straight: the process becomes more intricate and difficult to complete.
- Curved: You can remove the bones from a fish in just one pass.
Get one with 6 inches at least. The average blade will span from 5 to 6.5 inches. The smaller the blade, the more flexibility will be seen. Blades in the size range of 7 – 9 inches are more for extremely large cuts of meat (for a professional butcher).
There is no one-size-fits-all option here, but you’ll want to choose a smaller blade if you’re removing bone from delicate cuts. Or you could have both a smaller and larger blade. Even with fish, you might need to use a stiffer blade, especially for saltwater fish.
Tang of the blade:
There will be blades that are either full tang or partial tang. Choose “Full tang” providing a more durable product and further control.
You put all of your force through the handle of a knife, so you want something to fit your hand. There are a variety of handle types available, but it’s all about your preference. With synthetic materials, such as Polypropylene, there are coatings applied that enhance the user’s grip. Wood can rot if left in water and doesn’t provide the same level of resistance or grip.
It would be very difficult to find a blade that has not been forged with stainless steel. There are various forms of stainless steel available, though all of the blade types will provide enough durability and sharpness.
- High carbon: often lighter in weight
- Cold steel: more durable
- Stainless steel: stain- and rust- resistant
How to Care:
- Every time you use it, be sure to wash it immediately with warm, soapy water using a soft cloth or gentle brush if necessary to remove debris, then wipe with a dry with a towel. Make sure it’s completely dry before putting it back in its place.
- Never put them in the dishwasher.
- Make sure to sharpen it regularly and properly
- Store it properly, preferably a knife block, but never loosely in a drawer
About $30 for a good-quality boning knife and invest a bit more if you use it heavily.
Suggested boning knives:
Best: Wusthof Classic Boning Knife
- It should be reasonably heavy – this is a small knife, but one which is too light indicates poor quality materials
- Look for a blade length of at least 6’’ for sufficient cutting surface
- A full tang design is best
OPTIONS to consider
Slicing or Carving Knife
While slicing and carving knives aren’t a necessity, they’re really handy during the holiday season for big roasts.
Difference between slicing and carving knife
- Carving knives: for slicing and carving dense meats.
- Slicing knives: for cutting thinner slices of roast, fruit, and vegetables.
- For cutting in and around cartilage and bones.
- For slicing thin cuts of dense meat, including poultry, roasts, hams, and other large cooked meats.
- Long (8 and 15 inches), narrow, elongated blade that comes to a sharp point
- Much thinner than a chef’s knife (particularly at the spine), enabling it to carve thinner, more precise slices.
- Choose 10-inches. If the blade is too short, it will be difficult to slice larger cuts of meat.
About $40 for a good-quality boning knife and invest a bit more if you use it heavily.
Suggested carving knives:
- Best: Wüsthof Classic 9-Inch Carving Knife
- Best-Buy: Mercer Culinary Genesis Carving Knife
- To cut slices of cooked or smoked meat, poultry and fish.
- To make long slices of terrines and delicate cuts of meat
- Longer than typical chef’s knives (typically 8 to 12 inches in length) ensures that you have plenty of surface area to slice the meat with one smooth motion, instead of sawing at it.
- The shallow divots keep the meat from adhering to the blade
- Thinner than typical chef’s knives and narrow, but it doesn’t taper like a carving knife. It has an even width from the blade to the tip, which is rounded, not pointed.
The blade may be flexible or rigid, depending on the texture of the food you slice.
- Flexible: for firmer fleshed items, such as dry sausages or prosciutto
- Rigid: for fleshed items with a more moist texture, such as baked hams.
The electric knife contains 2 very sharp, thin blades that move independently in a back and forth motion to slice or carve through many different types of meats. the best choice when there are a variety of textures being sliced.
About $40 for a good-quality boning knife and invest a bit more if you use it heavily.
Suggested slicing knives:
- Best: Japanese TUO Slicing Knife
- Best run-up: Mercer Culinary Renaissance 11-Inch Granton Edge Slicing Knife
Conclusion: Now you know a lot more about basic knives to make your cooking easy and fun. Get those 4 essential knives first and add more to your collection if you needed. How simple is that?
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