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Cooking for Beginners: Kitchen Knives

Knives are an instrumental tool in any home cook’s arsenal. Sure, cutting up your ingredients is only one part of a recipe, but we challenge you to find one dinner recipe where a knife isn’t somehow used. You may find a few, but the point is that many recipes require a knife. If you’ve ever been shopping for a kitchen knife, you may have noticed that they usually come in sets. These sets aren’t a few of the same type of knife; instead, they give you knives of all shapes and sizes.
Each kitchen knife you have or find is shaped that way for a specific reason. Are you ready to learn why?

Chef’s Knife

A chef’s knife is a great go-to tool for any chef, or home cook, in many situations. This type of knife has a longer, wider blade (usually between six and 14 inches long and between one and two inches wide). The bladed edge starts straight before curling upward, creating a point at the dull top of the blade. These factors combine to allow it to complete many different tasks in the kitchen. If you’re going to splurge on one good knife for the house, go with this type of knife or a santoku knife (the next one we’ll cover).

These factors combine to allow it to complete many different tasks in the kitchen.

Chef knives have the heft and durability to chop sturdy vegetables, while the length of the blade allows you to make gentle, clean cuts to delicate proteins. It can excel at chopping due to the rocking motion the blade allows. The only situations where a chef’s knife shouldn’t be used is when you’re making intricate or extremely delicate maneuvers, like paring or peeling.

Santoku Knife

Santoku knives are the Japanese equivalent of the chef’s knife. Similar to the chef’s knife, they can perform many different functions, but their difference in shape (and some complex knife stuff we won’t bore you with) makes them better at some jobs and worse at others. The shape of the blade differs because a santoku knife has much less of a bladed curve than a chef’s knife. Instead, the dull edge curves downward to meet the sharpened edge, with only a slight curve on the sharpened edge. This leaves it without the same point a chef’s knife has and creates a straighter edge.

All this allows a santoku knife to be very effective at making extremely precise slices or mincing.

Due to its blade and single bevel, a santoku knife can get sharper than the average chef’s knife. Additionally, the blade of a santoku knife is also smaller and lighter than a chef’s knife (usually around five to eight inches long). All this allows a santoku knife to be very effective at making extremely precise slices (if you’re cutting thin slices of meat for example) or mincing.

Paring Knife

A paring knife has a small blade (usually two to four inches long) that’s light and easy to use. The blade itself is shaped more like that of a chef’s knife or a slicing knife, rather than the blade of a santoku knife, but you likely won’t be doing any chopping with it. A paring knife is often seen as a companion to the chef’s knife, handling the precision jobs that a chef’s knife is too big to handle. You can use it for close slicing, trimming, peeling, and scoring food. It can also be used to cut more delicate ingredients that may be bruised or damaged by larger knives.

Slicing Knives

A more specialized knife, a slicing knife is used for one primary job that it’s really good at. Sometimes called a “carving knife,” a slicing knife is used to slice prepared meat into uniform, even slices. It achieves this through its elongated blade (usually between eight and 15 inches long), which keeps the slices cut with the same straight edge.

A slicing knife is used to slice prepared meat into uniform, even slices.

The blade is also much thinner than that of a chef’s knife, which keeps it light and easy to maneuver. Some slicing knives also have a rounded tip and have small indents on the sides of the blade, which prevent the slices of meat from sticking to the blade. This allows you to have even thinner cuts than you otherwise would be able to make.

Serrated Knife

Unlike the other entries in this article, serrated knives don’t have a straight edge on their blade. Instead, they have saw-like ridges, making them highly effective at cutting specific types of ingredients. The saw edge allows you to make a cut into the ingredient without applying downward force in the slice, which is required with a razor edge. It’s especially effective for ingredients with tough or thick exteriors, but soft insides.

The saw edge allows you to make a cut into the ingredient without applying downward force in the slice.

For this reason, a serrated edge is often used for bread knives and tomato knives, with bread knives being longer than the specialized tomato knives. Allowing you to slice without applying excess pressure is also why many steak knives are serrated, too. While a serrated knife isn’t quite as versatile as a chef or santoku knife, it’s a highly useful tool in the kitchen.

Why Does It Matter?

Knowing the purpose of each knife is important for a few reasons. First, you can make your job easier by using the correct knife for each job. (Try cutting a loaf of bread with a paring knife or spreading butter with a bread knife.) Using the wrong type of knife can also be dangerous. (For example, trying to chop vegetables with a slicing-type knife can lead you to cut yourself if you lose control of the blade.)

Finally, if you’re using the wrong knife, it can also lead to poor preparation of a meal. While this is less serious than the potential health risks, poorly prepared ingredients can turn a great meal into an OK meal. If you’re putting in the work, don’t you want every meal to be great?

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While not all knives can be used in most situations, like the chef’s knife or the santoku knife, we think they’re all worth having for their specialized roles. Even the humble butter knife is perfect for spreading butters, cheeses, and jams. It could definitely be worth investing in a good knife set, and maybe, treating yourself to a good chef’s knife or santoku knife!