The Right Knife for the Job is Essential
If you love to cook, then you’ve come to realize that the right knife for the job is essential. Food preparation is a large part of the process, and having the appropriate knife for the task is indispensable to the serious cook and chef. So, what do you need to know about kitchen knives?
We’ve seen a number of reviews that say you really only need 3 or 4 good knives. This may be true if you really don’t cook that much, or don’t vary what you cook. However, we disagree if you like experimenting with different recipes and cuts of meat or fish. Having the right knife for the job will make the preparation easier – and let’s face it, using a chef’s knife to fillet a fish or a cheese knife to slice a roast, isn’t going to get the outcome you want and could actually damage the knife.
Obviously, you need to determine what your cooking habits and style are. Here is a list of the various types of knives and their functions, with the more specialized ones being further down the list to help determine which is the right knife to use:
- Chef Knife (8” – 10”): This is the most important knife for most chefs and home cooks. It’s the knife they turn to for mincing, dicing, chopping and cutting almost anything you need to cut up. With its large, smooth blade, it is also used for crushing items (like garlic and olives) and corralling the food off of the cutting surface. It is used for both vegetable and meat preparation.
- Paring Knife (2” – 4”): This is used for small fruit or vegetables, like
mushrooms and strawberries, as it is easier to tackle the more detailed or delicate tasks that smaller foods require. The sharp tip is good for hulling strawberries and removing blemishes. Additionally, because of its small size, this knife is good for teaching children how to work with a knife, as it allows their hands to have more control.
- Utility Knife (4” – 6”): Useful for a range of foods, this knife is similar to the paring knife, but because of its larger size, can handle a wider range of tasks and slightly larger fruits and vegetables. It wouldn’t be necessary to have both a paring and utility knife, but we like the flexibility of having both.
- Serrated Knife (8” – 9”): This is also known as a bread knife and it has a long, thin serrated saw-type blade. It is used for cutting bread and cake without crushing, tearing or leaving crumbs. It’s just what is needed for cutting through crusty loaves of French baguettes or rustic boule.
- Some like to use their serrated knives for cutting fruit or tomatoes, but we don’t recommend this knife for this task. It is not the right knife to use because the serrations are normally chisel-ground into the blade, which means that they’re usually thinner than a plain blade. This gives them better cutting ability, but will leave the blade more open to damage with the high acidity in tomatoes and many fruits.
A variation on the bread knife has an offset handle. Most bread knives are straight, with the handle being in line with the blade. The offset handle positions the blade lower than the handle to allow more clearance for your fingers when the blade is close to the cutting board. It can be a safer alternative, tends to be more ergonomic, comfortable and user-friendly. Since it cuts the same as the regular serrated knife, it comes down to personal preference.
- Santoku Knife: This knife is easily becoming one of the most popular kitchen knives because of its versatility with all kinds of prep jobs, and is often replacing the chef knife as the “most used.” The Japanese word “santoku” translates to “three virtues” or “three uses,” referring to the three types of cuts it’s made for – slicing, dicing and mincing. It has small indentations (Granton) next to the edge of the blade that allows food to slide easily off of the blade, making it the right knife for certain types of chopping tasks like onions and carrots. It has a rounded, blunt end that helps to balance the knife and make it easy to work with.
- Carving/Slicing Knife (8” – 14”): This is a long-bladed, straight-edged knife that has a thinner blade than the chef’s knife that allows for thinner cuts. It is used for carving and slicing meats and poultry. Carving knives tend to have a more pointed tip that is perfect for piercing certain areas, such as the leg or winged portions of poultry, in order to access the joints. Slicing knives usually have a rounded tip, and hollow Granton on the sides. The length of the blade encourages a sawing motion, and the slicer is preferred for ham, prime rib and larger roasts.
- Boning/Fillet Knife (4” – 10”): This is a more specialized knife that only a few home chefs will feel they need to have. It’s a great knife for hunters and those who like to butcher their own cuts of meat, as it is the right knife for cutting through bones, tendons and ligaments. These knives are available in varying degrees of flexibility to suit the type of meats that you are preparing. Thicker meats require a stiffer blade, while more delicate cuts require more flexibility. The fillet knife is more specialized for fish, and has a sharper, thinner and more flexible blade. Its design allows better performance when filleting fish.
- Vegetable Cleaver: This is a larger, more rectangular knife that has a rigid blade for chopping, shredding, pounding or crushing. Some have the Granton along the blade that allows the vegetables or fruit to easily slide off the blade. Some have a more curved blade, allowing for a rocking motion when chopping, dicing, mincing and shredding. Others have a straight blade that stays in contact with the food as you cut. The broader blade allows for corralling the food off of the cutting surface. For many chefs, the Santoku does much of the same work, so it’s a matter of preference and determining which is the right knife for you.
Meat Cleaver: This, too, is a more specialized knife that many home chefs don’t think they’ll need or use, but we think that there are more practical applications than initially meets the eye. It was designed to be heftier to chop through whole chickens, lobsters, bones and sinew, and even coconuts and squash that would wear down or damage other knives. In fact, using other knives on these types of foods could cause serious damage to it. The cleaver is heavier and clunkier to use, and it’s not intended to give a precision cut. It relies on sheer momentum to chop straight through. If you make a lot of stock, for example, this may be the right knife for you. It allows you to expose more of the bone and meat to the water for better flavor extraction.
People often ask why there’s a hole in the blade. Since this knife was the butcher’s tool-of-the-trade, the knife was commonly hung from hooks or on the butcher’s belt for ease of access and safety. By hooking through the blade (instead of the handle), it kept it under control so it wouldn’t damage the blade by banging into the wall, and it left easy access to the handle when hung at chest height or higher. We also know of people using the hole to help get a stuck cleaver out of bone or frozen meats.
- Cheese Knife: A specialized knife that has a small, thin blade (usually serrated) to cut through hard or soft textured cheeses. It has cutouts that reduce sticking and speared tips for serving. A cheese knife can also be used to cut other kinds of foods that traditionally stick to a knife surface, such as cake, pies, hard boiled eggs and butter.
I hope this explanation helps with determining the right knife to be used for the task at hand. In future blogs I’ll explore other topics that should be considered in choosing and caring for your knives:
- Weight and balance
- Method of manufacturing
- Quality and cost
- Proper cleaning and storage
- Sharpening methods
Be sure to follow my blog to see these other postings so you don’t miss this other important information, and please share it with your friends! Go to www.nowcooking.com to see the various knives that we carry.