Feel Like a Pro Chef at Home with These Kitchen Knife Basics

A decent set of knives—and the skills to use them—is invaluable to kitchen success and safety. Learn how to chop, slice, and dice like a pro with our tips.

We feel your pain—good kitchen knives can be expensive. We promise they're worth the cost, but what are the essential knives to have at home? All you really need in your cutlery set are a good chef's knife, serrated knife, utility knife, paring knife, and kitchen scissors (or shears), but other types of kitchen knives come in handy.

Get a closer look at what you want in your knife block and a bit about knife sharpeners. We also share our Test Kitchen's best tips on how to hold a knife, knife storage, and other basic knife skills.

Must-Have Kitchen Knives and Helpful Extras

kitchen knives
Jason Donnelly

These are the kitchen knife basics it's important to have. Pictured above from top to bottom and then left to right:

  • Serrated Bread Knife: The little "teeth" are perfect for cutting through crusty breads, tender cakes, and even delicate tomatoes without squishing them. Use a sawing motion when using a bread knife ($13, Amazon).
  • Chef's Knife: If you could only have one kitchen knife, this would be the one to choose! The all-purpose wedge-shaped blade of a chef's knife lets you can slice, dice, chop, and mince almost any ingredient.
  • Utility Knife: This kitchen knife ($18, Target) has a thin, ultrasharp blade perfect for delicate tasks such as cutting fish, soft fruits, and cheeses. You can also use it as a smaller alternative to your chef's knife.
  • Kitchen Shears (aka Kitchen Scissors): Sometimes snipping is easier than slicing. Use your kitchen shears ($9, Walmart) for snipping herbs, cutting chicken, halving dried apricots, cutting butcher twine, and more. You'll constantly find kitchen-specific jobs for this tool.
  • Paring Knife: Likely the knife your mom or grandma let you hold first due to its smaller size, this small knife is ideal for coring, peeling, and cutting. It's also great for more delicate work your chef's knife is too large for.

The following three knives are worthy of runner-up status in your knife block ($100, Amazon). They are instrumental, but you can get by without them.

  • Carving Knife: Sometimes called a meat slicer, the carving knife ($20, Walmart) is the secret to properly slicing a roast or other large pieces of meat, thanks to its long and thin blade.
  • Tomato Knife: It sounds like it's only for one ingredient, and boy, does it do a great job cleanly slicing through tomato skins without getting pulp everywhere, but you can use this serrated utility knife ($8, Amazon) for cutting all produce.
  • Santoku Knife: This Japanese-style knife ($79, Amazon) has a thinner blade than a chef's knife and hollowed-out impressions on the blade that keep food from sticking to it. It's a versatile knife that more easily cuts through denser vegetables.

Tips for Buying Kitchen Knives

A high-quality knife may seem costly, but compare buying a $70 knife you'll use for 20 years with the $10 knife you replace each year. Which gets you more for your money? A forged, high-carbon, stain-resistant, steel-blade knife is your best buy. It should be rigid and feel heavy yet balance lightly in your hand.

Contrary to what you might think, a dull knife can be more dangerous than a sharp one since it may slip when you force it to cut. Here's what to consider when shopping for the best kitchen knives:

Blades: Most higher-quality, more expensive knives are forged (hammered) or stamped from a piece of high-carbon, stain-resistant steel. This metal alloy allows the blade to hold a sharp edge and sharpen easily. In addition, a quality knife should have a full tang (end of the blade that extends all or most of the way through the handle) for balance and added strength.

The blades of most inexpensive knives are made of stainless steel, making them tough and very sharp. However, these knives lack more expensive models' weight, balance, and craftsmanship.

Handles: Heat-proof, water-resistant plastic handles usually do not warp, chip, crack, or peel. However, some folks prefer attractive wood-handled knives. To avoid damaging the wood finish, hand-wash and do not soak.

Ceramic Knives

Ceramic knives are also a popular option on the market. These knives are made of ceramic material instead of steel. On the plus side, they're lightweight and stay sharp for a long time. And because they aren't made of metal, they won't rust! It's important to note ceramic knives can become brittle and need to be sharpened by professionals.

Prolong the Life of Your Knife

If you've shelled out the money for quality kitchen knives, you'll want to keep them in top shape. Here are our Test Kitchen steps for washing and storing your knife.

  1. Carefully hand-wash knives in hot, soapy water using a cloth or plastic scouring sponge. Unless a knife is labeled as "dishwasher safe," wash it by hand. Dishwashing may harm both the blade and the knife's handle.
  2. Immediately dry the blade and handle with a clean towel and return the knife to a storage tray or block, sometimes after rubbing a little cooking oil into the blade.

How to Keep Knives Sharp

Knife steel for knife sharpening and knife sharpener
Andy Lyons

Knives lose their sharpness when the microscopic edge of the blade gets bent from cutting. To sharpen knives, break out your sharpening steel, home knife sharpener ($11, Amazon), or hire a professional service.

How to Use a Sharpening Steel

Realign the knife blade's edge by running the knife along a sharpening steel ($50, Amazon)—a ridged rod made of diamond-coated steel or ceramic. Here's how to do it:

  1. Rest the sharpening steel vertically with the tip pressed against a stable cutting surface. Place the knife edge near the handle at a 20-degree angle to the steel near the sharpening steel's handle.
  2. In one smooth, slow motion, draw the knife blade gently down the entire length of the steel, pulling the knife toward you as it moves down the steel.
  3. When you finish the stroke, the blade's tip—still at an angle—should be near the end of the steel. Repeat with the other side of the knife blade.

Eventually, you'll need more than just a sharpening steel. Try a knife sharpener at home or seek a professional who can grind a new edge.

More Tips on Knife Basics and Care

Here are some Test Kitchen tips on proper knife usage and safety:

  • Always cut away from yourself. Use knives for cutting and slicing, not as can openers or screwdrivers.
  • Always use an appropriate, firmly fixed cutting surface. A damp towel under a cutting board ($33, Bed Bath & Beyond) keeps it from sliding around the countertop.
  • Keep your knives sharp. A dull blade can be more dangerous than a sharp one.
  • Use the right knife for the right job: paring knives for paring, boning knives for boning, etc.
  • Always hold a knife by the handle. Draw the knife away from you to cut and slice, using the entire blade length.
  • Carry knives blade down, and store knives in blade-down position.
  • Store knives with their blades covered, if possible. Knife racks, sheaths, or blocks are best. When storing in a utensil drawer, keep knives in a separate compartment to protect them and your fingers.
  • If you drop a knife, let it come to a complete rest before you attempt to pick it up. Never grab for a falling knife.

Once you've stocked your new kitchen knives, practice your knife skills at home with our guide to chopping, mincing, and dicing.

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