The Essential Knife Guide for Dedicated Home Cooks
How many different styles of knives do you really need to own? Spoiler alert: not as many as you might think.
How many different styles of knives do you really need to own? Spoiler alert: not as many as you might think.
It is possible, no doubt, to go down the kitchen knife rabbit hole until you outgrow your knife drawer, acquire multiple knife racks until your new knife racks need knife racks. That, of course, will probably require some home remodeling. And that is without even considering the choice of knives within a given category. Knife prices, like the prices of so many things, escalate from the least expensive supermarket brands to high-end, handmade Japanese-crafted collector’s blades.
Don’t go there. At least not yet. Here is a suggestion of a relatively small set of knife styles that we would recommend for any home cook:
- Chef’s knife/Asian Cook/Gyuto
- Paring knife
- Bread knife, and
- Slicers like a yanagiba or Western carving knife
There are far more knife styles out there and many ways of going about picking which knives and knife brands to buy. The first and most important point is that you need to actually hold the knives before you buy them. Everyone’s hands are different: in size and even in shape. The best knives, or brands, for one person, will not necessarily be the best for the next person.
Many specialized (and some far less specialized) stores offer the chance to hold and feel the knives they sell. Many knife sellers will allow you to try some of their knives and, for example, dice an onion. Avail yourself of those opportunities. Consider the construction of the knives, their weight, the shape of the handle, how the knives fit your hand, and, critically, the balance of the knives. Also, importantly, consider the reputation of the knife-maker or manufacturer.
Ultimately, which knives you buy should depend on your budget, what you cook, and what knife feels good to you. After all, the relationship between chefs and their knives is a personal one. The knives of a high-end sushi chef in Tokyo would not likely be the knives of choice for a Carolina whole hog pit-master, a New England clam shack owner, or a San Francisco Michelin-starred chef.
Beyond that, though, many highly personal characteristics factor into a cook’s knife selections: hand size, strength, aesthetics, knife skills, technique, and cooking style among them.
But while there is no single best knife that does not mean there are not some rules and realities. Most styles of kitchen knives are designed to perform a primary type of task and do so better than any other style of knife. That said, most styles of kitchen knives can effectively perform more than one type of task.
For example, an Asian cook/gyuto (that translates to “Cow Knife/Sword” ) is essentially the Japanese term for knives along the lines of what Westerners would call a chef’s knife. It can effectively break down and dice both proteins and vegetables but can also serve as a slicing knife. Japan’s santoku knife is specifically designed to be a multitasker, good for mincing, dicing, and slicing. This earned the santoku its nickname: “knife of three virtues.”
So, what are the different styles of knives and what are each designed to do? We will give you a primer. In doing so we will tend to favor the Japanese names of knife styles because, frankly, the Japanese have a more developed vocabulary to describe the different types of knives than we seem to have in the West.
Santoku: Mince, Slice, Dice
The santoku, on the other hand, was specifically designed to be something of an all-purpose knife. Indeed, santokus are known in Japan as the “knife of three virtues” with those three virtues being: mincing, dicing, and slicing. Santokus are generally shorter and often thinner than gyutos with most santoku blade lengths in the range of five to seven inches (about 125-175 mm).
While the santoku can be effective at slicing, the longer length of the gyuto makes it a better choice for that task. Of course, slicing in Western cuisines tends to involve larger sizes and slices of proteins than is generally common in Japanese cuisine.
Unlike a gyuto, the spine of the santoku curves downwards toward the tip and cutting edge of the blade. The shorter blade of the santoku makes it an excellent vegetable knife. Maybe that, rather than slicing, should be the third of the advertised virtues of the santoku.
Yanagiba: King of Slicers
The king of slicing knives is the yanagiba, Japan’s classic sashimi knife. Unlike Western knives, Japanese knives were traditionally single-beveled, meaning that they have an asymmetrical slicing edge. That single bevel design is particularly effective for cutting fish and, accordingly, that is the yanagiba’s primary task. In addition to slicing fish for sashimi and sushi, the yanagiba is also effective for breaking down large fish. This could come in handy in the event you have a big tuna scheduled to arrive at your doorstep in the near future.
Given its traditional uses, the yanagiba is a long knife. Typical blade lengths range from 210 mm up to 360 mm (8 ¼ to (14 inches) with the 300 mm to 330 mm (12 to 13 inch) range being the most popular. Of course, while the yanagiba was not designed for purposes other than slicing fish there is no reason the knife cannot be used to slice other proteins.
The yanagiba is not the only style of slicing knives. Other slicing knives, which are similarly long, include the Japanese sujihiki and western-style carving and slicing knives. Sujihikis are generally used for fish (including sushi), as can Western-style slicing knives, but can also be used for meat.
Kiritsuke: Hybrid Prestige Knife
The kiritsuke is something of a prestige knife in Japanese kitchens. Traditionally, the master chef (and only the master chef) of a Japanese professional kitchen would use one, but today it can make a wonderful addition to a home cook’s collection. The kiritsuke is essentially a cross between a gyuto, a vegetable knife, and a slicer (yanagiba if single-beveled, sujihiki if double-beveled). That hybrid shape gives the kiritsuke versatility that makes it an effective single knife for the professional kitchen’s master chef.
The geometry of the kiritsuke presents two obvious differences from the chef’s knife (Western or Japanese): (1) the cutting surface is notably flat, and (2) it has a “K-tip” that allows for fine finishing work and looks really cool. The flat cutting surface is excellent for pull and push cutting techniques (and thus for slicing fish) but less effective for a cook who uses the rocking-cut technique.
Paring Knife: Small, Versatile, and Essential
While paring knives may not be the knife style with the greatest sex appeal they may well be, along with the chef’s knife, the most essential knife for every home cook. Its small size (2 ½ to 4 inches, or 63 to 100 mm) makes it easy to handle and the perfect choice for in-hand (as opposed to cutting board) work.
The paring knife is a tremendously versatile style of knife. It is excellent for peeling and hulling fruits and vegetables, deseeding chiles, coring tomatoes, segmenting citrus, deveining shrimp, trimming proteins, and testing the tenderness of meat and vegetables. While the paring knife may not be the perfect choice for mincing and dicing larger ingredients like onions it is the better choice for smaller ingredients like garlic or shallots.
Nakiri: The Ultimate Vegetable Knife
The nakiri is one of two primary vegetable knife styles, the other being the usuba. Nakiris look like smaller, shorter, and lighter versions of a cleaver with a rectangular shape and a double-edged cutting surface. It is the ultimate vegetable knife, especially for the Western home cook.
The primary limitation of the nakiri is that it is not particularly good at non-vegetable tasks because, in large part, of the fact that nakiris do not have a tip. Also, while the shape might suggest they would be effective as a small cleaver that is not what they are made to be. They would not likely stand up to that sort of use (or, perhaps more accurately, abuse).
Cleavers: Western Versus Chinese
There are two (at the very least) basic styles of cleavers: Western cleavers and Chinese cleavers. While the two styles look similar their uses are quite different. They are designed to do different things.
Western cleavers are meant for heavy work like hacking bones, disjointing cuts of meat, and taking on heavy vegetables. If you are not going to do that type of work in the kitchen the best Western cleaver choice you can make is not to get one. It is not an essential knife for the home cook though it can come in handy.
Chinese cleavers are a different story. While the Chinese cleaver looks superficially like the Western cleaver its uses are far different and it is far more versatile. But the Chinese cleaver is not a substitute for Western cleavers. Use a Chinese cleaver as you would a Western cleaver and it will likely turn your Chinese cleaver into an expensive (and dented) doorstop. It is a deceptively light, all-purpose blade that is as good for smashing ginger or garlic as it is at fabricating the relatively small slices and pieces of meats and vegetables common to Asian cuisines.
Specialized Knives: Bread, Boning, Filleting
Sometimes it seems that if there is a task to be done in the kitchen there is a specialized knife designed specifically for that task. These knives, unlike many of the knives above, can often be unitaskers (a term coined by Alton Brown to describe tools that are good for one thing, and one thing only). Few of those specialized knives, however, could be considered true essentials.
The most common of the specialized knives is the bread knife, made for cutting bread as well as cake and other pastries. The saw-like serrated edge of the bread knife’s blade helps ensure you won’t be crushing your bread (or other baked goods) and will preserve both the crumb and fluffiness of the product.
Perhaps the next most common specialized knives are two – boning knives and fillet knives – that are often conflated. At one level, boning knives and filleting knives seem almost as if they were the same. Boning knives are generally between 5 and 7 inches (125 to 175 mm) long, straight-edged, and semi-flexible with thin blades. Fillet knives are between 5 and 9 inches (125 to 225 mm) long, similar in shape to boning knives but with a thinner and more flexible blade. The differences between the two similar styles are dictated by the job they were designed for: boning knives are designed to separate meat from bones and thus must be able to cut through connective tissue. Fillet knives, on the other hand, tend to be used for fish (particularly filleting fish) and thus need more flexibility and less heft.
More Than a Tool
The personal relationship between professional chefs and their knives can be seen in the way they baby their knives, meticulously sharpening them before a shift and lovingly returning them to the knife roll at the end of the evening. A chef’s knife is more than a tool. It is, almost literally, an extension of the chef. A beautifully hand-crafted knife can be a status symbol, and it can make cooking more enjoyable. Indeed, the same is true whether that cook is a restaurant chef or a dedicated home cook.
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