As any home cook will tell you, nothing makes cooking more pleasurable than a set of great kitchen knives. They’re the unsung heroes of the kitchen, transforming the potential drudgery of day-to-day cooking into a pleasurable experience you actually look forward to. Discover the three types of knives you really need and the specific knives I recommend.
From effortlessly dicing onions to delicately filleting fish, having top-notch versions of the three essential kitchen knives — chef’s knife, paring knife and serrated knife — empowers you to unleash your culinary creativity.
I don’t recommend buying kitchen knives in sets, and here’s why:
- Quality, not quantity: Sets often contain several knives you’ll rarely use. It makes more sense to invest in a few high-quality knives that cater to your specific needs. Start with the three basic knives — and then add specialty knives as needed.
- Personal preference: Buying knives individually allows you to choose each one based on what feels and works best for you.
- Maintenance and longevity: Some knives in a set may wear out or break before others, especially if you use them more often. Buying knives individually allows you to replace specific knives as needed.
Here is a rundown of the three knives you really need and my picks for each category.
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Jack of All Trades: The Chef’s Knife
A good chef’s knife should be your first purchase as this is your workhorse, the knife you’ll reach for most often. Here are a few of the many ways you’ll use a chef’s knife:
- Chopping: It’s the go-to tool for chopping ingredients like onions, tomatoes, bell peppers or apples.
- Slicing and dicing: Its long, straight edge can easily slice or dice foods like cheese, sausages or potatoes.
- Mincing: Whether it’s garlic, ginger, herbs or shallots, a chef’s knife can quickly mince them into very fine pieces.
- Carving and slicing meats: Its large, substantial blade can carve roasts or slice meats into thin, even pieces.
- Crushing: The side of a chef’s knife can be used to crush food items, like garlic or lemongrass, to release their flavors.
Wüsthof is often heralded as one of the top knife brands for home chefs, and their rock-solid, razor-sharp 8-inch chef’s knife is no exception. This sturdy, versatile superstar dices, slices, minces and juliennes with ease. It can even break down a chicken without breaking a sweat.
The blade is forged from a single block of high-carbon stainless steel, which is what makes it so durable. And thanks to advanced tempering technology, this blade will stay sharp for ages. A full tang (meaning the blade runs all the way through the handle) gives it both strength and balance.
Shun’s beautiful chef’s knives effortlessly slice through everything from tomatoes to steak. Crafted with a delicate curve, their blades work well with a rocking-style cutting technique, and the slightly dimpled face prevents food from sticking to the side of the blade.
The forged stainless steel blades are stain-proof, rust-proof, stick-resistant and flexible. The handle is made of resin-treated birch, and it feels great in my hand, making this the most-used knife in my kitchen.
If you want something a bit more delicate, the Shun Classic 6-Inch Chef’s Knife has a smaller version of the same blade and a handle perfectly designed for smaller hands.
If you’re not ready to splurge on Wustoff or Shun, the exceptionally affordable Misen 8-inch chef’s knife won’t disappoint. For me, this knife combines the best features of Eastern and Western design to make a great budget-friendly alternative that can hold its own in terms of performance.
Paring Knife: One Great Knife for All Your Detail Work
Paring knives are small, versatile kitchen knives you use mostly for peeling, slicing, trimming, shaping and other precision tasks. They usually have slim, pointed blades that are 3 to 4 inches long, making them your go-to tool for close, intricate work that’s hard to achieve with larger knives.
Here are a few ways you’ll use a paring knife in your kitchen:
- Peeling or paring: Its thin blade and pointed tip make it perfect for peeling an apple or removing the eyes from a potato.
- Detailed cuts: It’s great for making small, precise cuts like when you hull strawberries or devein shrimp.
- Sectioning and trimming: It’s great for sectioning citrus fruits or trimming fat off of meat.
The Japan-made MAC Knife Professional Paring Knife is a great option at a reasonable price. The 3.25-inch carbon steel blade is razor-sharp, strong and elegant. If you have a smaller hand like me, you’ll appreciate the slightly downsized handle.
Shun knives are always good investments in my book, and their classic 3.5-inch classic paring knife is no exception. It features a gorgeous Damascus-clad blade that’s seriously sharp and incredibly durable. The sturdy handle has a classy, sleek look and feel that I love. I could peel apples with it all day.
Again, I always love a Wüsthof. Their Classic Ikon Paring Knife is a bit pricy, but I think it’s totally worth the money. Its 3.5-inch, high-carbon, stainless steel blade is durable, sharp and ergonomically designed, making it a joy to hold.
The Niche Knife You Need: The Serrated Bread Knife
You may think quality doesn’t matter so much for a serrated knife, but, well, you’d be wrong. A good, solid serrated knife is pleasant to use and less likely to result in bloodshed than a cheap substitute.
Sure, a serrated knife is designed for a limited number of tasks — namely slicing bread and soft fruits or veggies like tomatoes — but they’re tasks you likely do quite often. You can get by without a filet knife or carving knife, but I think a serrated bread knife is necessary.
I admit I’m somewhat of a die-hard Shun fan, but I promise you that my devotion is warranted. Their 9-inch bread knife lives up to the brand’s reputation in every way. It feels great, it looks great, and it excels at its one big job — slicing quick bread, whether a crusty batard or a loaf of soft white sandwich bread. It even glides through an almost-too-ripe summer tomato.
The one downside of the Shun bread knife is its hefty price tag, but it’s comforting to know that Shun will always hone the knife for free.
Since serrated knives are difficult to sharpen, they’re often seen as short-term investments. If you don’t want to drop a bundle on a knife that may not see you through to old age, this Victorinox is an affordable alternative.
I like this one’s sturdy, slightly curved blade because it can be used for a multitude of tasks, from the obvious bread slicing to meat carving and more.
Even more of a bargain than the Victorinox, this inexpensive knife is sturdy and sharp enough to make slicing bread a breeze. I found it works equally well to slice squishy tomatoes or saw through watermelon rind.
Things to Consider When Buying a Knife
With so many options, finding the right knife for your kitchen can be challenging. If you’re unsure which knife to get, here are a few things to consider to help you narrow your options.
Focus on What You Need
I don’t recommend buying a set of knives because you usually don’t need them all. Get yourself covered with the basics: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. These will serve you well for everyday cooking.
Feel the Handle
Another thing you should consider is the feel of the knife. Before you buy one, make sure to grip the handle first, if possible. See which one is comfortable, easy to control and doesn’t cause cramping while you use it. Some retailers like Wüsthof and Misen offer easy return policies if you’re buying online. They’re great if you want to take the knife for a test run in your own kitchen.
Consider the Size
The size of your knife also needs some consideration for easy cutting. Shorter knives are easy to handle and control, but the longer ones allow you to slice through larger ingredients or foods. For many users, eight-inch chef’s knives are more versatile. That’s why it’s the most common size you can find.
A kitchen knife’s handle design is important for your comfort and better control. When buying a knife, look for an ergonomic handle design. Take your time to feel the handle if possible so you’ll know if it will hurt your hands when you use it for a long period of time.
You can maintain the sharpness of your knives by sharpening them at home at least every two weeks. Also, make sure you wash and store your knives properly, because how you care for knives can impact their sharpness.
Most knives are designed for ambidextrous use. But then, again, not all of them are designed like that. If you’re a lefty, look for knives that have symmetrical handles. You may also invest in left-handed knives. As the name suggests, they’re angled differently and are specially made for lefties.
The Last Word
A great set of kitchen knives is your most trusted ally in the kitchen, and the dynamic trio of a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated bread knife will have your back on almost every task. Investing in individual, high-quality knives can make all the difference in how much you enjoy cooking, so it’s worth investing in the best versions you can afford of the few knives you really need and use.
Portions of this article first appeared on Food Drink Life.