While it may seem like anything with a sharp edge will do, choosing the right knife for the job is more important than you’d think. When you see chefs on TV cooking up their favorite recipes, you generally don’t see them doing any of the prep work, but separating out the pros from the amateurs are all the little things that often get overlooked in the process of cooking, and cutting technique is one of the big ones.
Choosing the right knife for the job allows a chef to:
- Make sure the texture of the food is right
- Make sure the size of the food that’s being cut is even
- Work efficiently and safely
Getting the size and texture right when chopping an onion or other food is actually quite important. Smaller pieces will cook faster than bigger pieces so if everything isn’t uniform, you’re going to have parts that are undercooked and other parts that are overcooked.
Furthermore, the wrong knife makes it more difficult to evenly slice or chop, can bruise or otherwise damage what you’re chopping, and that in turn will affect the quality of the outcome. So what are the different kinds of knives that chefs have at their disposal?
When getting your kitchen in order, there are three basic kinds of knife that you can use to do most tasks. There are also specialized knives for specific tasks and will enhance your culinary experience.
1. The Paring Knife
The paring knife is a smaller knife around 3” in length that is used for delicate tasks such as slicing small fruit (like strawberries), peeling, deveining shrimp, skinning, or popping out seeds. It is a precision instrument used for subtle tasks.
2. The Chef’s Knife
The chef’s knife is larger than a utility knife, but is generally considered a good all-purpose knife. It comes in a variety of sizes form 6” all the way up to 12”. I have a 10” chef’s knife that I use for 90% of the work in my kitchen. It is ideal for chopping, slicing, and dicing. Its versatility allows it to be the ideal knife for meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. Because of its larger size it can take some practice, and when accidents happen in the kitchen, it’s generally because of the chef’s knife. This is due in large part to both its size, and by necessity, it needs to be quite sharp. While not ideal for delicate tasks, it’s probably going to be the go-to knife in most kitchens.
3. Serrated / Bread Knife
For those that need to cut something that is harder on the outside and softer on the inside, there’s the bread knife. It’s also useful with some fruits with a thicker skin like a melon or a tomato. The serrated edge allows you to get through the skin without damaging or bruising the fruit, or squeezing the insides all over the kitchen.
4. Boning Knife
The boning knife has a sharp point and a medium sized narrow blade. Its primary use is to trim the fats from meats and carve meat that is cooked on the bone. It’s similar in length to a steak knife, but does not have a serrated edge. It’s good for precision tasks where you need a longer blade, but you certainly would want to chop anything with it.
5. Utility Knife
The utility knife is larger than a paring knife, but smaller than a chef’s knife, and can be used for a number of miscellaneous cutting jobs when a chef’s knife is too big, and a paring knife is too small. It is generally at least 6” long and is a great all purpose tool for the kitchen.
The Santoku is a slightly smaller version of the Western chef’s knife. It’s great for all the same tasks, and is perhaps better for those with smaller hands. It gives you more control over the blade, so those that find the chef’s knife cumbersome may prefer this blade to the Western version.
Having a good selection of knives to choose from is the key to a solid kitchen. Knives are one of the most important tools a chef has at their disposal so picking up some top quality knives for your kitchen will help you make the dinners you cook for your family that much better. You’re going to want to pick up a knife sharpener for yourself too. You don’t want to be chopping with a dull chef’s knife. You’ll end up with food flying all over the room!
Knife Safety in the Kitchen
Knife safety in the kitchen and knife skills in general are an important part of a safe and effective culinary experience. Obviously, you want to keep your knives sharp but you want to make sure that the sharp end is pointed at the food and not your fingers. While this may seem simple on the surface, knife accidents can and do happen, so these are a few do’s and don’ts that will keep your carnage out of the food.
- Keep your knives sharp. This minimizes the risk of having to use too much force when using them.
- Choose the right knife for the job. The more awkward it feels when cutting, the more likely it is that an accident will happen.
- Cut on a flat and stable surface.
- For tasks that require a great deal of force, like cutting hard and large root vegetables, use extra care. An example is if you are cutting a squash take a slice out to create a flat surface for the vegetable to sit on so it doesn’t roll around
- Don’t leave knives lying around after you’re done using them.
- Don’t wildly gesticulate with a knife in your hand.
- Don’t carry knives around in your pocket.
- Don’t engage in aggravating conversation while holding a knife.
While some of this is half in jest, common sense isn’t as common as you would think. Knife accidents happen even in professional kitchens and not only do you end up with an employee who’s out of commission, but you also end up with wasted food product and a clean-up to do
Safe Storage and Cleaning of a Knife
Knives will hold their edges much longer if you follow the following practices.
- Use your knife, hand wash it and dry it right away
- Do not keep your knives in a drawer with other cutlery banging around them. You can get cheap knife guards or use a butcher block.
- When washing your knife, do not put it blade-side down in the sink.
- It’s all about limiting the edge’s contact with anything other than food and a good cutting board.
- Do not, I repeat, do not even think about putting your knives in the dishwasher!!!!!!! DO NOT DO IT!!!
Keeping your knife sharp is key as you have read in the rest of the post. The best way to keep it sharp is to sharpen it every once and awhile. Using a steel will help hone the edge but it will not keep it sharp (figure 1). There are a few ways to sharpen your knifes once the steel is not working. One is using a varying degree of wet stones. This takes a bunch of practice to perfect. You can always take your knifes to a knife store for them to sharpen for you. A simpler way is using a pull through sharpener like the Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone (figure 2).