While you may think a knife is just something that can slice through meats and veggies, don’t tell that to a chef. A chef’s knife kit is akin to a painter’s brush collection: while any knife can cut and any paintbrush can apply paint, selecting the right tool for the job can help a culinary professional achieve the results they’re looking for.
With that in mind, remember that not all knives are created equal. Using the right knife for the right job doesn’t just improve the quality of your cuts, it’s also a safety measure. If you understand which knives to use for different tasks, you may be able to prevent injuries and save yourself time and effort in the kitchen.
As its name suggests, the chef’s knife is one of the most frequently used and versatile tools in the kitchen. Chef’s knives are typically between eight and ten inches, although they can be as short as six inches and as long as 14 inches. You can probably use your chef’s knife for most of your slicing during food prep, and in many ways, it can be the most important tool you use.
The more comfortable you feel with the weight and balance, the more quickly you’ll be able to slice, dice, and julienne vegetables during prep for a busy meal service. Therefore it’s important to find a knife that gives you a smooth and fast rhythm as you’re cutting.
A paring knife is basically a mini chef’s knife with a small blade that offers greater versatility and precision. While the chef’s knife works for cutting hard vegetables, paring knives are great for peeling apples and potatoes, mincing small amounts of garlic and onions, and coring tomatoes.
The blade will be no longer than 3.5 inches, so it’s ideal for detail work like creating a garnish. A paring knife is useful when you’re working with small or tender vegetables and fruit – like ginger, strawberries, garlic, and shallots – but isn’t suited for harder vegetables – such as carrots, beets, and squash.
Remember that you never want to apply force with a paring knife – so if you find yourself flexing your muscle, swap it out for a heavier blade to avoid injury.
This truly is a utilitarian knife – it does multi-duty. If you want the heft of a chef’s knife with a bit of the precision of a paring knife, the utility knife is the tool to call on. The blade is longer than a paring knife and narrower than a chef’s knife. A utility knife is generally six inches long and works well for slicing fruit, tender pieces of meat, or sandwiches. As the “knife of all trades,” it’s a handy go-to for the everyday chef.
Long, thin, and strong, this knife is used to remove meat from the bone. Its thinness allows you to move with the curves and bends of the bone and separate the meat effectively, creating as little food waste as possible. When using a boning knife, it’s important that you do not attempt to cut through bones.
There are two versions of a boning knife – flexible and stiff – and both have a specific purpose. If you look at a chef’s knife kit, you’ll likely find both in their collection. Both types of boning knives have five to six-inch long narrow blades that come to a very sharp point. This type of flexible blade is suitable for removing skin and bones from poultry and fish, while a stiff blade knife allows you to use greater force when you’re working with thick cuts of meat like beef and pork.
As you probably guessed, the bread knife is designed to perfectly cut through bread. Its serrated edge lets it slice bread without ruining the crumb structure or tearing the loaf apart.
The saw-like blade of a bread knife – or serrated knife – is ideal when you want to cut something without applying pressure. While it’s great for gently slicing fresh bread, it also works well with soft fruits and vegetables, or ones that have a waxy surface. By using a gentle sawing motion, you can use a serrated knife to effectively cut through the surface of a tomato, orange, or strawberry without crushing the insides, although the cut won’t necessarily look as clean as the one you’ll get with a chef’s knife.
Keeping a bread knife sharp can be a challenge since you need a special sharpener in order to sharpen each surface of the jagged blade. However, learning this special skill is worth the effort to maintain a sharp knife.
When it comes time to achieve a clean, precise cut on a turkey, ham, or roast, the carving knife is ideal. A good carving knife is usually fifteen inches long. Its thin blade features an indentation that stops food from sticking to the surface. Whether you’re slicing a sirloin roast into paper-thin slices or a pork tenderloin into thick, juicy portions, a carving knife is the perfect tool.
Soft cheeses like brie and Roquefort often stick to solid knives, which is why many cheese knives have holes in them. These holes reduce the cheese’s surface contact with the knife which cuts down on any sticking. While these knives work optimally on soft cheeses, they aren’t necessarily the best choice for hard cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano.
Tomatoes are notoriously hard to slice because their skin is prone to tearing and their interior is easily squashed. Very small serrations on the tomato knife’s blade grip the skin of the tomato and reduce tears, allowing you to easily slice through the skin while preserving the tomato’s fragile texture.
Cleavers are heavy, sharp knives used to cut through bones. While this knife isn’t particularly common in home kitchens, many chefs in restaurants use them so they can have total control over their cuts of meat.
The chef’s knife reigns supreme in Western kitchens, but in China the cleaver may take the place of everything from a paring knife to a chef’s knife. Therefore, if you’re interested in investing in a multi-use cleaver, consider a Chinese-style one. These knives are lighter than their American counterparts, making them useful for many more kitchen tasks.
A mincing knife is a curved knife that is held with both hands and used by rocking it back and forth. This knife can quickly mince vegetables or herbs into very small pieces with minimal effort. However, it doesn’t offer the precision of a chef’s knife.
If a chef wants their food to have a designed edge (for example, zig-zag pattern), they can use a decorating knife. Decorating knives have patterns in the blade that appear on the foods they cut.
Keep Knives Sharp with a Honing Rod
It’s important to have the right knife for the job, but just as important to have the right tool to keep a sharp edge on your knives. While you can send your knives out to a professional knife sharpener, you can also learn how to reset the edge between sharpenings with a honing rod.
There’s a technique to using a honing rod that will work with all your knives – except your serrated knives. Be sure to hone them before or after a session in the kitchen, at least weekly. Not only can dull blades slow you down, but they can also increase the risk of injury.
Start with Proper Knife Skills
Even if you have the perfect knife for each job, a set of knives is only as good as the person using them! That’s why Escoffier Culinary Arts students start their programs by exploring and practicing their knife skills. With a proper knife kit and the skills to match, students can then move on to tackling more advanced culinary techniques.
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This article was originally published on January 22, 2021, and has since been updated.
*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.