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What are the Different Types of Kitchen Knives?

Jun 22, 2021

By: George Steckel

A knife, according to Merriam-Webster, is a cutting instrument with a sharp blade and a handle. And that’s a perfectly adequate definition… if you’re not a chef.

If you

are

a chef - whether professional or amateur - you already know that the world of kitchen knives is far more complex than that. For starters, a knife is more than just a blade and a handle. (It has a tang, a heel, a bolster, etc.) And more importantly, the types of kitchen knives available are truly stunning in their variety.

Some are widely known, even among laypeople, such as the paring knife, the bread knife, the butcher knife, and the trusty chef’s knife. Others are far more exotic specialty

knives

, such as the deba knife, the petty knife, the tomato knife, and the cheese knife. If your head is beginning to spin with all the options, don’t worry - we’ll explore the many different knives in this handy guide, and help you choose the right ones for your kitchen.

Kitchen Knives: The Essentials

The Chef’s Knife

The carpenter has their hammer. The painter has their brush. And the chef has their

chef’s knife

. We really can’t overstate how essential this particular knife is for your culinary adventures. You’ll use it constantly for tasks large and small. And if you buy a good one and maintain it properly, you’ll never need to buy another.

The blade of a chef’s knife is long, triangular, and pointed. It also has a slightly curved blade, which allows you to roll it toward yourself and finely chop your ingredients. Chef’s knives are occasionally as small as 6 inches or as long as 12 inches at the blade - but for most home chefs, 8 inches long is the sweet spot.

As we mentioned above, this knife’s uses are virtually limitless. You’ll chop, slice, dice, and carve fruits, veggies, gourds, meats, herbs, nuts, and more. Expect to use your chef’s knife to do around 80% of your bladed tasks in the kitchen.

The Paring Knife

While we’ve written in detail about how to

hold a chef knife

on our blog, sometimes you’ll find that a chef knife is simply too big and unwieldy for the job, no matter how exceptional your knife skills. That’s when it’s time to break out the paring knife. At just 3-4 inches long, a paring knife is what you’ll reach for when you need control and want to ensure

knife safety

!

Want to peel an apple or a sweet potato? Or slice up delicate vegetables like mushrooms and strawberries? Perhaps you want to core a tomato or finely slice a clove of garlic? The paring knife is excellent for all these tasks. When you’re making fine cuts, intricate slices, and delicate filigrees, you need a short, sharp blade with no serrated edge.

Of the dozens of kitchen knives available, the paring knife is unanimously hailed as a necessity - second only to the chef knife in its importance.

The Bread Knife

When you need to slice a loaf of whole wheat bread, a baguette, fresh-baked sourdough, or a crusty bagel, you should (naturally) reach for a bread knife. This is another universally praised must-have in the kitchen knife section.

Why are bread knives so important? Just look at the design. The serrated blade allows a bread knife to rip through the crust of a loaf without crushing it (thereby preserving the fluffiness that makes bread worth eating in the first place). Compare this to a chef’s knife, which requires you to press straight down, potentially mashing bread and soft veggies. Bread knives are ideal for slicing fluffy cakes (e.g. sponge cakes) for exactly the same reason. You might even find yourself using a bread knife to slice a delicate tomato.

Unlike a chef’s knife, which chops tip-first on your cutting board, a bread knife is a slicing knife that should be used in a back-and-forth sawing motion. That means longer is better! The ideal length for a home chef’s bread knife is 9 inches. If for some reason you want to skip the bread knife, make sure you have

some

sort of serrated knife in your arsenal. You’ll need it.

The Nakiri Knife

This kitchen knife - which is a traditional Japanese knife style - is revered by many professional chefs for its vegetable-chopping prowess. But why would you need a

nakiri knife

(also called

nakiri bocho

) for veggies when the chef’s knife is more than adequate for that purpose? The answer is in the shape.

A nakiri blade edge is almost perfectly flat. That means you can make long, straight cuts by simply pressing straight down. With a chef’s knife, some rocking back and forth is necessary to complete the cut. But with a nakiri, the entire length of the knife blade makes contact with your cutting surface simultaneously. It’s a vegetable knife

par excellence.

This shape advantage makes it easier and more efficient to handle than a chef’s knife when you’re doing a lot of push-cutting. And just as important, it means your prepared veggies are sliced finely and evenly. For everything from carrots cut lengthwise to thin-sliced eggplant and precisely cubed beets, the nakiri will become your best friend.

The Santoku Knife

The santoku, like the nakiri, is a Japanese knife by origin. If you haven’t had the pleasure of using a santoku knife (or

santoku bocho

), you could be forgiven for confusing it with a chef’s knife. And while there are some similarities - both cosmetically and functionally - they are very different knives.

The santoku knife is almost as long as a chef’s knife - typically 5-7 inches. This makes it more comfortable for some people with smaller hands. The santoku also has a thin blade - about 15 degrees - while the typical chef’s knife (and other western knives generally) are thicker, at roughly 20 degrees. This thin blade, combined with the shorter length, makes the santoku easy to control and perfect for delicate work.

The santoku blade edge, like the nakiri, is almost entirely flat. The flat, straight blade is ideal for slicing, dicing, and mincing vegetables as well as meat and fish. (In fact, the word

santoku

means “three virtues” and refers to exactly those veggie preparation techniques.) With a santoku, you can simply push down toward your cutting board, rather than rocking as you would a chef’s knife. Finally, the santoku has a scalloped edge (small dimpled depressions running the length of the blade) that allows you to slide the knife through wet food, similar to a steak knife, without any sticking or dragging, making it one of the

best knives for cutting meat

.

What about other knives?

In many of our childhood homes, a truly gigantic knife set ruled the kitchen counter. Even today, a massive wooden knife block - bristling with 14, 18, or even 20 knives - is easy to come by in domestic kitchens across the country. You might imagine that this is how “real chefs” operate.

Can we tell you a dirty little secret of the cookware industry? The mega knife set (and the knife block to contain it) is a recent invention that was successfully marketed to middle class Americans in the mid-20th century. So,

how many knives do you need

? Today, most culinary experts will tell you that there are really only

three essential knives

: the chef’s knife, the paring knife, and a serrated knife of some kind. We’d include the nakiri and the santoku knife on that list, for reasons we covered above.

Of course, you should still stock up on other knives if they make you happy! A fillet knife, a cook’s knife, a carving knife, a boning knife, a fluting knife, a utility knife, and (yes) even a grapefruit knife can fill a satisfying niche in your kitchen. If breaking out an extremely specialized tool adds joy to your cooking experience, then there’s no reason to avoid it. But if you’re shopping for the kitchen knives you

really need

, stick with 3-5 of the essential ones we profiled above. They’ll get you through any imaginable culinary adventure with grace and style.

How to spot quality in a knife

Knives, perhaps more than any other kitchen equipment, come in a truly staggering quality range. You can pick one up at the dollar store for $10 - or spend 100 times that on an exotic professional model. So how do you know what to look for when you’re evaluating the options?

First, consider whether the knife is stamped or forged. A forged knife is made from a single piece of stainless steel. The metal is heated in a furnace until it’s red hot and malleable, and then beaten into a blade shape. This time-honored technique creates incredibly strong, rugged blades that can be sharpened and maintained for ages. Alternatively, some knives are stamped. A stamped knife is cut from a larger piece of metal, like a cookie cutter. Stamped knives are easier and cheaper to make - and tend to be flimsier, less durable, and harder to sharpen.

Second, consider whether the knife is

full tang

. The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. Ideally, it extends all the way through to the butt of the knife, giving the knife maximum strength and rigidity. Cheaper, lower-quality knives skimp on metal by shortening the tang to ¾ length, half-tang, or even a “stub tang” length. Naturally, this makes the knife weaker and more prone to breaking under pressure.

Finally, consider the manufacturer. Was this kitchen knife mass-manufactured in a dodgy factory somewhere at the behest of a fly-by-night online retailer? Or was it made by artisans skilled in their craft and drawing on centuries of knowledge?

At Made In, all of our knives are produced by a family-owned factory in France - the birthplace of the modern chef’s knife. We believe that quality and care will shine through the very first time you handle one of our knives - and will still be there when you pass it on to the next generation. Learn more about

how we manufacture our kitchen knives

.

Sources

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