Many of us have been embracing our inner chef, exploring the culinary arts from home like never before. For amateur or professional cooks alike, investing in the proper tools is a necessity. One of the most vital must-haves are knives. Just about every meal will involve some fashion of chopping, dicing, or slicing and having the right essential knives for the task at hand will make meal prep easier, safer, and more enjoyable.
There are four essential knives for every kitchen:
- Chef’s knife (also called a Cook’s knife)
- Paring knife
- Serrated or bread knife
- Slicing or carving knife
Ninety percent of all cooking preparation in all kitchens, including those in most restaurants, is managed with these four essential utensils. Odds are you probably have one or more of these already in your utensil arsenal.
The Chef’s Knife
This all-purpose piece of cutlery is every kitchen’s workhorse and, if you had to pick just one knife for your kitchen, the Chef’s or Cook’s knife fits that bill. Used for chopping, dicing, mincing, and julienning, the Chef’s knife is all about versatility and efficiency. It has a one-inch wide blade that can vary in length from 6 to 14 inches, although an eight to ten-inch smooth blade tends to be the preferred length.
There are different variations of Chef’s knives, from the classic French-style with a blade that curves upward, to the Japanese Santoku that has a short blade with a tip that curves downward rather than up.
Whichever type you choose, it is recommended to purchase one with a full tang, meaning the knife blade runs through the entire length of the handle. Full tang knives are stronger and more durable.
The Paring Knife
A miniature version of the Chef’s knife, paring knives have shorter blades that range from two to four inches in length. These knives are an ideal tool for precision work such as peeling fruits and vegetables, coring tomatoes or hulling strawberries as well as smaller scale slicing and trimming.
Serrated knives are meant to cut through foods that are varying textures inside and out, like a hard-crusted bread, meats, or tomatoes. Smooth-edged blades, although sharp, can’t get enough of a grip on these textural foods so that’s where these toothy, jagged-edged utensils come into play. A serrated knife with a longer blade, at least ten inches, will provide the leverage necessary to saw through foods without crushing or smashing them. Something important to note: If you do cut tomatoes or other acidic foods with your serrated knife, wash and dry it immediately. Leaving acids on the knife blade can result in damage over time.
Designed for carving and slicing meat and poultry, carving knives have long, thin, straight blades with a rounded tip. Often, they have what are referred to as Granton, hollow scallops along the blade that help attain thin cuts of meat or even hard cheeses. A blade of ten inches allows for the leverage and sawing motion required of this top kitchen utensil. Families that are plant-based or vegetarian can forego the carving knife since slicing or carving meat isn’t in their dietary wheelhouse.
Since each of these knives will have a different feel, fit, weight, and handle, it is important to purchase them based on those criteria rather than having them all of the same brand. Price, too, can vary greatly.
How to Store Knives
Proper storage of knives is important to keep them functional and avoid damage as well as injury to the users.
There are three primary methods of knife storage:
- Wall-mounting on a magnetic strip
- Drawer inserts
- Knife blocks
Knife blocks are the most popular, but each method has its merits. Wall mounting keeps them in sight and the blades never grate against any surface that could dull or warp them. It also negates the need to try and recall which knife goes in which slot, an issue for the other two approaches. It is crucial to avoid storing knives where the blades will come in contact with each other or where they are resting on their tips. Storing loosely in a drawer is unadvisable unless each knife has a sheath to protect the blade or the knives are in some way separated from one another. Storing them loosely or mixed in with other kitchen utensils also increases the likelihood of someone accidently cutting themselves.
How to Care for Knives
To keep knives in tip-top slicing, chopping, and dicing condition, they should be washed and dried by hand. Avoid using abrasive cleaners or scrubbing pads and don’t leave them to soak. Dry them immediately and store away. Never place good essential knives in dishwasher. The heat and dramatic changes in temperature weaken the blade and shorten the lifespan.
In addition to proper cleaning and storage, knives also require regular honing and sharpening. Honing is the method by which a knife’s blade is straightened while sharpening shaves off small portions of the blade to achieve a polished, keen edge. Honing should take place more frequently than sharpening specifically because it does wear away the knife blade while honing maintains the blade’s integrity and stability. It is possible to hone and sharpen straight-edge knives at home with the right tools, but serrated knives require a professional. If your essential knives are high-end, professional maintenance is recommended and generally any knives will benefit from expert care.
Below are some places to bring knives for sharpening and honing.
- Most Ace Hardware locations offer sharpening services for a reasonable price.
- Knife Stalkers in Willow Glen offers sharpening and repair.
- Resharp has a location in Palo Alto along with many others
- Sharpen While You Shop has locations in Palo Alto, San Jose, and will reopen at the Campbell Farmer’s Market once it is back up and running.
- Williams Cutlery in San Jose’s Cambrian area has knives for purchase as well as sharpening and repair services
- Sur La Table not only offers at-home sharpening devices but many locations offer sharpening services. The first knife is complimentary, and each additional knife is $5. Contact your nearest store (There is one in Los Gatos and another in Palo Alto) to determine if they provide this service.
For occasional cooks to those who delight in culinary creativity, having the right building blocks in your kitchen will only enhance your experience. And when it comes to knives, having the essential knives—a Chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated knife at the very least—will have you chopping, slicing, and dicing your way to many delicious meals.