The Knives No Kitchen Should Be Without

 set of cooking knives

Photo by tracy27

When it comes to the tools needed to create spectacular meals, most cooks seem to swear by the “holy trinity” of kitchen knives: a good chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. With these three super-utensils, you can create just about any dish you can imagine, and if you take care of them properly, they’ll serve you well for years to come.

 

Chef’s Knife

 Chef's knives

Photo by Dinner Series

Everyone has their own preferences as far as the tools that they like to use, but the general, all-purpose chef’s knife seems to be ubiquitous in the kitchen. This is the blade you’ll use to chop vegetables, herbs, meat, nuts, and just about everything else you can imagine. It should be well-balanced, approximately 8-10 inches long, and it should feel “right” when you use it. I know that doesn’t sound terribly helpful, but when you’ve found the right knife, you just know. Your knife will be more like an extension of your own hand, only a sharper, choppier version thereof.

If you don’t have a knife like this yet, go to  a reputable kitchenware store and spend an hour or so holding/fondling various knives until you find one that’s a proper fit. It should be the right size for you to grip it comfortably, and weighted in such a way that it doesn’t strain your wrist, but still has enough heft to slice through roots and sinews.

One chef I know swears by her Santoku blade, while my favourite knife is a high-carbon stainless steel French knife. I’ve named it (Olaf) and I don’t allow anyone else to use it. People develop relationships with the tools they use the most, and take special care of them as well—they’re not left to rust in a soapy sink, but are cleaned carefully after every use, and sharpened regularly. Treat your knife as you would a good friend, with proper care and respect, and you two will create magic together.

 

Paring Knife

 small paring knife

Photo: eggonstilts

Basically a chef knife’s significantly smaller sibling, your paring knife should fit neatly into your hand so you have maximum control with it. This is the knife you’ll use for fine cuts and decorative details, as well as peeling fruits and vegetables.

When it comes to delicate handiwork like de-veining shrimp, sectioning citrus fruits, or even mincing individual shallots or garlic cloves, this little knife is the ideal tool. It’s as effective as the chef’s knife, but its smaller scale allows you to use it with much more dexterity. You’ll use it to hull strawberries, de-seed hot peppers, and dice mangoes or avocados within their shells. This is also the knife you’ll use to cut steam vents on upper pie crusts, make decorative cuts like tournes or flutes, and to create those hideous radish roses that were so popular in the 1970s.

 

Serrated Knife

 serrated blade

Photo by Mystuart

Though most people use this knife solely for cutting bread, it actually has many more uses than just that. Serrated knives are ideal for cutting tomatoes and other thin-skinned fruits such as plums, peaches, and nectarines, and they also make short work of blocks of chocolate when you need those broken down.

Serrated blades are thinner than most chef’s knives, and can slice through flaky pastries and cakes far more smoothly and evenly than any standard blade. Use this knife to cut croissants, strudels (or any other dish that’s made with phyllo or puff pastry), and layered tortes like black forest cake. The serrated edge will slide through the different layers without any compression, which allows for a far more attractive presentation.

It’s as important to keep a serrated knife as sharp as any other blade, but the sharpening method is different: it requires a special sharpening tool  to hone each individual serration. If you’re not comfortable sharpening your knife yourself, you can take it to a knife specialist to take care of it for you.

kitchen knives

You’ll have noticed that there are several other knives available to you, and many of them are included in knife sets/blocks. Though the three mentioned above are the main ones you’ll use in your own kitchen, you may find that you have use for a few others as well. Should you feel a need to add to your knife collection, here are some that you can try out:

Honorable Mention

Filleting knife: Long and slender, this knife is ideal for not only boning/filleting fish, but also for horizontal slices in cakes in order to add fillings like buttercream or jam. I’ve also used mine for slicing smoked salmon

Cleaver/kitchen axe: Sometimes, you just need a hefty blade to help you hack through things like squash rinds, tuna steaks, or roasted pigs.

Butter knife or large spatula: A dull, round-tipped utensil that’s solely for spreading and smearing can come in handy—it’s difficult to slather garlic butter on baguettes with a sharp, thin blade. Use the right tool for the right job.

Photo by haydenseek

- Lana Winter-Hébert

Lana Winter-Hébert fell in love with cooking while still in primary school. The various dietary needs of her extended family (i.e. gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, and paleo diets) have helped her to learn a fair bit about substitutions and meal plan modifications, and though her first love will always be the Scandinavian/Eastern European cuisine she grew up with, she has a penchant for Mexican food and can be bribed heartily with the offer of good huevos rancheros.

Lana currently resides in rural Quebec with her husband and family, where she divides her time between writing, editing, design, and tending her permaculture garden. She cans and preserves whatever’s in season, and is having some fantastic adventures with home cheese-making and mead-brewing.

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