The Miyabi 8-inch chef's knife in action
“What knife would you recommend?” As a chef, it’s probably the question I get asked most frequently. With so many models, styles and brands from which to choose, the selection can admittedly be overwhelming.
That doesn’t even include the neighborhood knife salesmen or the guys on TV who maniacally run their impossible-to-sharpen knife through a tin can or a work boot (!) then make pristine slices of tomato. Let's just say that those types of cutlery are all just snake oil and horse feathers. Instead of paying them any mind, use this guide to help you determine which knives you truly need to cook just about anything.
The chef’s knife: an indispensable workhorse
If you only invest in one knife for the rest of your days, spend your money on a good chef’s knife. That’s right, one sharp, durable chef’s knife should last a lifetime with proper care, and should help you tackle at least 80 percent of all kitchen tasks you would do at home.
Its long, slightly curved blade is perfect for slicing and chopping meats and poultry, as well as for rocking and chopping vegetables and herbs. Want to break down a chicken or a rack of pork? Use a chef’s knife. Would you find yourself chopping onions and potatoes more regularly? A chef’s knife is the knife you want.
The most important factor in a knife is how comfortable it feels in your hand. At its most efficient, a knife should almost feel like an extension of your hand. Use that principle as your guide when determining how long of a blade is best for you. Most of the professional chefs (myself included) prefer a blade between 8 and 10 inches, while my mother, who has very small hands, feels more comfortable using a 6-inch blade. There is no wrong choice here. Relatedly, some people prefer a straight-edged santoku knife, as they find it a little easier to control. With no bolster, a santoku can be easier to grip. If you feel that your prep work will mostly be limited to cutting boneless meat and chopping vegetables, the santoku may be worth your consideration.
Check out the Cangshan 8-inch Chef's Knife
Check out the Wusthof Classic Chef's Knife
Clean slices are key
Some foods simply need a little more slicing finesse than you would get from a chef’s knife. For foods like hard or soft breads, tomatoes, roasted meats and even some cakes, a bread knife is a worthwhile investment. A long, straight blade with small teeth penetrates the food's surface without mashing it down.
Have you ever tried to cut a loaf of French bread with a chef’s knife, only to crush it down to half its size? If you would have used a bread knife, you could have minimized the drag of the blade. The same principle holds true for a delicate-fleshed tomato. Too much pressure can cause the seeds and juice of your beautiful tomato to splatter all over the cutting board, once again squished down to a fraction of its original height. Using a bread knife with a back-and-forth “sawing” motion will give you perfect slices of tomato every time.
Finally, that bacon-wrapped meatloaf or pork loin roast deserves a blade that can create thick slabs with clean cuts. While a specialized carving knife with a beveled blade is nice, especially if you find yourself carving a high volume of meat and poultry, it’s by no means a necessity. Spend the cash on a quality bread knife that can provide more versatility.
Check out the Cangshan Bread Knife
Your scalpel for culinary microsurgery
Once you've got your hands on the two basic large knives, investing in a smaller blade for fine, detailed knifework can be quite helpful. Peeling fruits and vegetables, mincing onions and garlic and cutting perfect segments of citrus are all ideal tasks for a paring knife. If you’re just starting to cook and need to get used to the feeling of a knife in your hand, a paring knife can be a good jumping-off point. Or, if you want to channel your inner 1960s banquet chef, you can use a paring knife to try your hand at such forgotten knife skills as fluting mushrooms and tourneéing potatoes.
This set contains one of our favorite paring knives on the market
The boning knife: Optional, but useful
If you find yourself with a passion for small butchery, especially on whole fish, I would strongly advise purchasing a flexible boning knife. The smaller, thin blade is substantially more flexible than any other knife, and is perfect for navigating the skeletal system of a bass or snapper without tearing the flesh of the fish. Not limited to fish, a boning knife works wonders when breaking down a whole chicken or duck, and it can easily extract the coveted oyster on a bird's back, if desired.
For the home cook, those four knives should take care of anything you may want to cook. While there are always fun additions — a sujihiki for slicing sashimi, and a cleaver or scimitar for tackling larger critters — my advice is to keep your knife collection pared down (pun intended) with a few top-quality blades. Oh, and take that wooden knife block you got as a wedding gift during the Bush administration and hawk it at your next yard sale.