Shopping for kitchen knives can be a confusing process. Walk into any retail store and you’ll be assaulted with dozens of choices for brands, sizes, knife shapes, blades of high-carbon steel or stainless, full or partial tangs and hard or soft handles.
Here’s how to slice through the clutter of kitchen knife choices and make an informed decision.
1. Knife Anatomy 101
- Spine: a top edge of the blade.
- Heel: an end of the exposed blade, near the handle.
- Cutting Edge: a sharpen edge of the blade used for cutting.
- Bolster: a point where the blade and handle meet used to give balance and weight to the knife. Not frequently found on less expensive models.
- Handle: a rounded end of the knife, often covered, to allow the user a safe, comfortable grip.
- Full Tang: a section of the blade that continues through the center of the handle.
2. Kitchen Knife Shapes & Sizes
- French Chef’s Knife: used for chopping, slicing and mincing. The “big dog” on the counter for most kitchen prep. Used for cutting fruits and vegetables, chopping nuts and dicing any number of food ingredients. The most popular French Chef knives are 8-12-inches long, have a forged blade, a comfortable handle and a full tang (the blade extends the length of the handle and firmly attached).
- Utility Knife: midway between a French Cook and Paring Knife. Ideal for cutting lettuce and cabbage, slicing, peeling and carving. It is perfect for sectioning and slicing as well as other tasks requiring more delicate cuts. Choose a Utility Knife with a forged blade, a full tang and a comfortable handle.
- Paring Knife: for small cuts and delicate prep. Used for peeling, trimming and paring fruits or vegetables, slicing berries or decorative shapes and cuts. Look for a model with a forged blade, a full tang and a handle that fits comfortably in your hand.
- Boning & Filleting Knives: specialized blades for removing raw meat from a bone or carving fillets from fish. Usually 6-inches in length, the filleting knife is a more flexible blade than the boning knife.
- Carving or Slicer Knife: usually 8 to 14-inches long with a thin and very sharp cutting edge for carving cooked meats. The serrated version is used to cut sandwiches and other delicate food items. Blades should be forged and feature a full tang.
- Cleaver: available in various sizes ranging from 5 to 10-inches in length. Cleavers use a heavy rectangular blade to chop or deconstruct raw meat. It easily cuts through bones with a broad and heavy blade. Choose a model that is forged with a full tang.
3. Blade Materials
Most kitchen knives will be available in four basic materials: carbon steel, stainless steel, high-carbon stainless steel or ceramic. Carbon steel knives; sharpen to a very sharp edge, but dulls easily after several uses. Stainless steel knives; not as sharp, but maintain an edge, longer. High-carbon stainless steel; very sharp edge and can maintain that edge longer, also stain resistant. Ceramic knives; incredibly sharp and hold an edge up to 10 times longer than metal alloys. The downside is that they are fragile and can chip or shatter if dropped.
High-carbon stainless steel knives are the most popular due to their ability to hold a sharp edge for a long time.
4. Begin with 4 Basic Knives
Good kitchen knives are expensive, but can last a lifetime in the home. Buy the best knife you can afford and enjoy year after year of good service. Start with four basic knives: French chef knife, utility knife, paring knife and a boning knife. This modest set will perform most kitchen tasks without draining your budget on cutlery that’s seldom used.