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The Kitchen Knives Buying Guide

The complete guide to kitchen knivesOne look through the knife bag of any professional chef can leave your head reeling. With so many different types and styles of these vital kitchen tools to choose from, how do you know which ones you really need to bring your favorite recipes to life?

As it turns out, there’s no one clear answer to this question. Why not? Because each cook’s needs are different, their knife needs also depend entirely on their unique habits and preferences. To help you get started on cultivating a knife collection of your own, we’ve put together this handy resource on all things knives. Happy shopping!

The Most Important Tool in Your Kitchen

If you think that amassing a diverse collection of knives is merely a luxury, think again. Choosing the right knife can help you achieve optimal results in the kitchen.

Whether you’re looking to save time, achieve a particular texture, or prevent injuries and promote kitchen safety by assuming more control, selecting the correct knife is an important part of food prep. Using the wrong knife can damage the food product and the user. Most professional chefs would agree that quality knives are an invaluable kitchen tool.

Buying a knife is only part of the process. Learning how to use each knife in your collection is equally important. Most professional chefs take years to hone their skills and become comfortable performing all kinds of kitchen tasks. As with nearly everything in life: practice makes perfect.

Knife Shopping 101: Top 10 Knives

1. The Chef’s Knife

Chef's knifeIf there was a "Most Valuable Player" of kitchen knives, most professional chefs would easily agree on the chef’s knife. Also called a "cook’s knife," this incredibly versatile, all-purpose knife has a wide blade and relatively long length, making it a go-to for chefs looking to maximize productivity without sacrificing quality. Chef’s knife blades come in a variety of sizes, starting with 6 inch and spanning all the way to 14. The 8" chef knife is the most standard.

So what can you do with a chef’s knife? The more appropriate question might be, what can’t you do? Originally designed for dismantling cattle, the chef’s knife is handy for a wide range of tasks, from the most delicate to the heartiest. The knife is perfect for slicing, dicing, mincing, trimming, chopping and carving. It can easily manage all of these tasks and more. An important thing to keep in mind is that chef’s knives do more than their fair share of work in the kitchen, so they will require proper and frequent sharpening for best performance.

If you’re just beginning to build your knife collection or you have a low budget, the chef’s knife is your best choice.

2. The Utility Knife

Utility knifeAny chef who has tried to slice through a tomato with a smooth-bladed knife knows it’s a losing battle. And while your chef’s knife may not be up to this task -- or for cutting through anything with a firm outside/soft inside combination -- a serrated utility kitchen knife is your new best friend for everything, from crusty bread to that perfectly ripe peach. In fact, thanks to its surprisingly delicate touch, the serrated utility knife is a stand-out among kitchen knives for its capacity to cleanly slice through tough outer edges without destroying a food’s more fragile insides.

Serrated utility knives are also appropriate for flaky or frangible desserts, such as meringue.

3. The Bread Knife

Bread knifeAvailable in a wide range of blade sizes from 7 inches to 10 in both straight and curved shapes, bread knives are perfect when slicing -- not chopping -- is the order of the day. A gentle sawing motion allows this knife’s serrated edge to grip and cut through crusty bread without mangling the softer innards.

4. The Paring Knife

Paring knifeSimilar in appearance to a chef’s knife, a paring knife is much more than a scaled down version. In fact, while chef’s knives are classic jacks-of-all-trades, paring knives serve a more singular purpose: exactitude. Chefs turn to paring knives for everything from peeling fruit to filleting fish thanks to their lightweight, compact size and unbeatable maneuverability. Coring apples, trimming mushrooms, or peeling garlic? This 2-4 inch short knife is the perfect choice.

5. The Filet Knife

Filet knifeLike paring knives, filet knives are known for their high degrees of precision. A long narrow length and flexible blade make this exacting knife perfect for trimming fat from tenderloin to deboning salmon.

6. The Slicing Knife

Slicing knifeA must-have for meat lovers, slicing knives are suited for much more than cutting cooked meat. These long, narrow knives are also ideal for cooked chicken and fish, as well as for sushi and sashimi.

7. The Cleaver

Not for the faint of heart or hand, cleavers -- easily identifiable by their heavy, rectangular blades -- are well-suited for heavy-duty kitchen tasks, including cleaving (natch), hacking, chopping, and mincing. But assuming cleavers are exclusively for tough jobs underestimates their full potential. The truth is that they're incredibly versatile in trained hands, so much so that Chinese chefs use them much as Western chefs use chef’s knives.

8. The Boning Knife

Boning knifeThe boning knife is a powerful tool that can easily debone chicken, meat and fish. The thin, sharp blade ranges between 3 and 8 inches in length, and is perfectly suited for separating proteins from the bone, as well as for carving and trimming. Depending on your needs and preferences, boning knives are available in blades ranging from flexible to stiff.

9. Santoku

Santoku knifeThe name of this Japanese-designed knife translates to “three virtues,” but its offerings far exceed a mere trio of abilities. Known for their multi-purpose functionality and sharp edges, Santoku knives offer a nimble alternative to heavier chef’s knives. They’re also unique in appearance thanks to a "Granton edge" release patterned blade and narrow, cleaver-like shape.

10. The Honing Steel

Honing steelHoning steels may not be knives, but they’re a necessary component in any knife collection. A knife is only as effective as its condition, and honing steels serve a vital purpose in realigning knife edges to keep them functioning their best. While a honing steel doesn’t sharpen the blade, it does help maintain the blade and extend the time frame between sharpenings.

Beyond the Top 10

Depending on your needs, a variety of other types of knives are available, including butter knives, cake knives, cheese knives, cimeter knives, clam knives, decorating knives, fish knives, frozen food knives, gutting knives, Japanese knives, lettuce knives, mincing knives, oyster knives, sandwich spreaders, skinning knives, steak knives, and trimming knives.

While the rare knife collection contains each and every one of these, most professional chefs mix and match to create the most appropriate combination for their cooking styles.

Other Considerations When Choosing Knives

Knives are made through two different techniques: forged and stamped. With the former technique, knives are pounded into their specific shape through the application of intense pressure, refined through grinding and honing, and finally riveted or laminated to the handle.

With the latter technique, knives are stamped from a flat sheet of metal using a hydraulic press before being ground and honed into their final shape. The handles are then either glued on or crafted around the knife.

While forged knives are usually heavier, thicker, stronger, and more balanced than their stamped counterparts, the choice between the two should ultimately be guided by feel with a light yet secure aesthetic being the ultimate aim.

The same theory applies to choosing between blades made from stainless steel or ceramic blades and handles made from wood, stainless steel, plastic and Santoprene. While each have pros and cons, avid home chefs will seek out the ones which best complement their cooking aesthetic as well as their current collection of cutlery.

Maintaining Your Knife Collection

Knives are an investment, and should be treated as such. A few simple tips for keeping your knives in good working order include storing them in a knife block, in a wood or lined storage tray, or on a magnetic knife holder or rack; particularly useful when space is tight. On-the-go chefs, meanwhile, will require a knife bag for grab-and-go simplicity.

Regular washing with warm, soapy water is also an important part of keeping your knives in good shape. Many experts recommend hand-washing although dishwasher-safe knives can be cleaned on the top shelf of your machine.

High-quality kitchen knives can last a long time, particularly with proper maintenance. However, if you notice cracks and/or loose parts, it’s time for a replacement. Why? Not only can broken knives trap food and therefore be difficult to clean, but the risk of injury rises when you're working with damaged cutlery.

Wondering whether to buy single knives or spring for the whole set? Again, this is largely a matter of personal preference. In some cases, it makes sense to buy only the knives you need to execute your style of cooking at your precise current cooking level. In other cases, a stocked knife block may give you more desirable versatility and opportunities for practice.

Knives are not one-size-fits-all. Are you dicing, slicing, mincing and chopping with the proper tool for the job? If not, you may be getting less-than-perfect results despite your best efforts. Adding a new knife to your collection; upgrading old, worn, or broken knives; or investing in a completely new set of knives has transformative potential when it comes to both ease of preparation and the quality of your work product.