Quite possibly the most important tools in your entire kitchen come from your knife block. Many kitchen tools and gadgets you can live without, but a decent set of knives is invaluable to kitchen success and safety. Learn a bit about knife basics and a few knife skills, too.
We feel your pain—good kitchen knives can be expensive. But they're worth the cost. 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 there are certainly some other types of kitchen knives that come in handy. Here’s a closer look at what you want in your knife block and even a bit about knife sharpeners.
Must-Have Kitchen Knives and Helpful Extras
These are the most important types of kitchen knives to have. Pictured above from top to bottom and 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 this knife.
- Chef’s Knife: If you could only have one kitchen knife, this would be the one to choose! The all-purpose wedge-shape blade of this knife lets you can slice, dice, chop, and mince almost any ingredient.
- Utility Knife: This knife 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 a lot easier than slicing. Use your shears for snipping herbs, cutting chicken, halving dried apricots, snipping 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 next three knives are worthy of runner-up status in your knife block. They are very useful, but you can get by without them.
- Carving Knife: Sometimes called a meat slicer, the carving knife 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 for cutting all produce.
- Santoku Knife: This Japanese-style knife 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.
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.
The value of good knives is in the way their stronger metal maintains a sharp edge. Contrary to what you might think, a dull knife can be more dangerous than a sharp one, since it may slip when you have to 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 type of metal alloy allows the blade to hold a sharp edge and sharpen easily. 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 the weight, balance, and craftsmanship of more expensive models.
Handles: Heat-proof, water-resistant plastic handles usually do not warp, chip, crack, or peel. Some folks prefer attractive wood-handled knives. To avoid damaging the wood finish, hand-wash and do not soak.
In recent years we’ve seen more and more ceramic knives on the market. These knives are made of a ceramic material instead of steel. On the plus side, they are lightweight and stay sharp for a long time. And because they are not made of metal they won’t rust! Downsides are that they can be brittle and they need to be sharpened by professionals.
Prolong the Life of Your Knife
Carefully hand-wash knives in hot, soapy water, using a cloth or plastic scouring sponge. Unless a knife says it is "dishwasher safe," wash it by hand. Dishwashing may be harmful to both the blade and the handle of the knife.
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.
Always use a cutting board when using a knife. The best choice for cutting meats and poultry is a plastic (polyethelene) board. This kind doesn't warp or crack like wood boards can, and it is dishwasher safe.
How to Keep Knives Sharp
Knives lose their sharpness when the microscopic edge of the blade gets bent from cutting. To sharpen knives, break out your sharpening steel or home knife sharpener, or hire a professional service; some even make house calls.
Realign the knife blade’s edge by running the knife along a sharpening steel—a ridged rod made of diamond-coated steel or ceramic.
How to Use a Sharpening Steel:
- 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.
- In one smooth, slow motion, draw the knife blade gently down the full length of the steel, pulling the knife toward you as it moves down the steel.
- When you finish the stroke, the tip of the blade—still at an angle—should be near the tip 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.
Kitchen Knife Rules
- 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 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 full length of the blade.
- 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.