The different types of kitchen knives: a guide
Are you ready to invest in a quality kitchen knife, but not sure which one to go for? Or perhaps you’re already the owner of a full set of blades, but there’s a few mysterious ones you just never use?
Most home cooks will only need a small selection of knives to perform everyday tasks. It can be all too easy to buy specialist tools that end up sitting in the back of a drawer. But with the right knowledge, expanding your knife collection will give you extra confidence approaching prep work of any variety.
When you have the right knife for the job, it makes food prep easier, faster and safer. In this guide, we’ll demystify the different knife types you’re likely to encounter, so that you know exactly what to include in your set.
The chef’s knife or cook's knife is the most versatile blade in any cook’s arsenal. Perfect for all sorts of everyday slicing and dicing, the curved blade of the chef’s knife lets it rock back and forth for fast, accurate cutting.
A chef’s knife tapers to a fine, sharp tip, allowing it to act with precision. But at the same time, the broad heel area also means it can withstand heavier-duty chopping work on tougher vegetables.
Chef’s knife blades are typically between 8 and 10 inches, although they can be as short as 6 inches and as long as 14 inches. The more comfortable you are with the size and weight of the knife, the faster you’ll be able to work.
Beginner cooks may find the size of a chef's knife intimidating, preferring to use a utility or paring knife for most jobs instead. However, because the rocking motion of using a chef’s knife requires less arm movement, it’s actually easier to use for many jobs.
Shaped like a small, slim chef’s knife, the utility knife is a handy go-to for prep work that requires a little more precision. Usually around 6 inches long and with a sharp, tapered tip, the utility knife is perfect for finely chopping shallots, slicing fruit and cutting small, tender proteins.
Essentially, if your chef’s knife is a little too big for the job, reach for your nimble utility knife. Because it sits between a chef’s knife and a paring knife, it’s a highly versatile blade - and for many home cooks, it’s the one they use most.
Paring knives come in a variety of shapes, with straight, curved or claw-shaped blades. Ideal for small precision cutting, as well as peeling fruits and vegetables, the paring knife’s blade is small and lightweight at around 3.5 inches long.
Whilst a regular-shaped paring knife acts like an even smaller utility knife, a claw-shaped blade (known as a bird’s beak paring knife) fulfils a slightly different role. The pointed tip can poke down into foods, making it perfect for coring strawberries, cutting around avocado pits or removing eyes from potatoes and pineapples.
Santoku knives - shortened from santoku bocho, meaning ‘three uses’ - are Japanese-style chef’s knives that are becoming increasingly popular in the Western world. They’re on the smaller side, with a blade between 5 and 8 inches long.
The main features of a santoku knife that differentiate it from a Western-style chef’s knife are the lack of tapered tip, and a thinner blade. Whilst the shape of a chef’s knife allows for a ‘rocking’ movement, the santoku instead cuts in one decisive downward motion.
Combined with the thinner blade, this makes the santoku better for achieving fine, precise slices. Santoku knives sometimes have a granton edge: small divots on the blade to prevent food from sticking.
Bread knives are defined by their long, even shape and serrated blade, like a saw. Because each sharp ‘tooth’ on the blade applies cutting pressure from different angles, they allow the knife to slice through soft foods without squashing them.
Cuts from a bread knife are rougher than with a non-serrated blade, but they can saw through all sorts of breads, as well as pastries and cakes, without damaging the overall shape.
Bread knives can be tricky to sharpen, but by nature will require sharpening much less often than regular blades. A good quality bread knife will stay sharp for years.
Serrated knife/tomato knife
It’s not just bread knives that are serrated - a small serrated utility knife is a useful blade to have in your arsenal too. As well as being ideal for cutting smaller breads such as rolls or bagels, the serrated knife can be used to effectively saw through tough foods, like cured meat.
These types of knives are also sometimes called tomato knives (especially those with a blunt rounded tip). This is because, as with bread, they’re perfect for cutting anything with a delicate skin and soft interior without crushing it.
Carving knives can be identified by their long length and thin blade. They’re not designed for chopping anything too tough, and are instead intended to execute long cuts, slicing foods in one smooth motion.
When slicing cooked meats such as roast beef or ham (or even when cutting a cake), the carving knife’s length means you’re doing less sawing back and forth. Combined with the thin blade, it makes easy work of cutting neat, thin, even slices.
A boning knife is a skinny, very sharp blade that tapers towards a fine, pointed tip. It’s not for cutting through bones, but around them. The sharp tip is ideal for trimming meat from bones and cartilage, without ruining the surrounding flesh.
A filleting knife looks a lot like a boning knife, but is thinner and more flexible, to accommodate the more delicate flesh of fish. Specifically, it can be used to horizontally cut around the backbone of whole fish, to create perfect fillets.
These knives aren’t your everyday tools, but if you’re interested in processing meat, fish or game yourself, a precision instrument like a boning knife will make the job easier.
Cleavers or butcher knives have a distinctive flat, rectangular blade, but can come in a variety of sizes. They’re one of the heaviest types of knives out there, helping to drive the blade through large cuts of raw meat and even bone.
Chinese cleavers, which tend to be more lightweight than their Western counterparts, are highly versatile and are used more like chef’s knives. They’re used to prep all sorts of foods, from raw meat to vegetables, and even small items like garlic.
Whilst not technically a knife, kitchen scissors or kitchen shears are an exceedingly useful kitchen tool that can help cut foods on the fly. With thick, strong blades, these scissors are perfect for snipping herbs, sectioning chicken and preparing shrimp.
Aside from food prep, kitchen scissors fulfil a wide variety of other roles, whether you’re opening packets, cutting baking parchment or even slicing up a pizza. This makes them one of the most reached-for items in a home cook’s tool set.
Just as important as finding the right knife is having a sharp one. Sharp knives aren’t just a pleasure to work with - they’re safer too. Don’t forget to read our guide on keeping your blades in top shape here.
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