I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, NY with an Associates Degree in Culinary Arts. While still in high school, I would give up my weekends to do prep work for the banquet kitchen at The Russian Tea Room. I would spend hours and many cuts later, going through mounds of onions. That slowly turned into more complicated knife cuts. I soon learned that no matter how complicated the knife cut, the process was the same. I cooked professionally for 10+ years, and during that time, I have become extremely comfortable with knife skills. I want to give you a glimpse of this very basic but fundamental skill that every cook, (experienced or not) should possess.
I truly don’t believe that you need a knife block. You need to choose knives that work for you and how YOU cook. Don’t let the manufacturer decide that for you. With that being said, one knife you must have is a Chef’s knife. (also called a French Knife)
Whether it is Western style, or Japanese style, this is the most versatile knife. They are generally anywhere from 8-12 inches in length. You can do heavier duty work such as using the heel to cut through chicken joints, (not recommended with some lighter weight Chef’s knives) filleting fish, trimming, slicing and chopping any vegetables or fruit and then also do fine detail work such as brunoise and chiffonade. (will cover that below)
All areas of the knife can be used; for example, the spine can be used to whack lemongrass stalks to release their essential oils and get a head start before chopping, and the flat of the knife can be used to crush garlic and make a paste and carefully lift foods off the cutting board.
A paring knife is a smaller knife; usually about 3.25 to 3.5 inches long. It is another basic in the kitchen because it gives you more control of those smaller, finer tasks. Think more precision. Examples would be trimming most vegetables in your hand, peeling artichokes, scoring and coring tomatoes, cutting small fruits, (hulling a strawberry), segmenting citrus and even mincing shallots.
Serrated Knife/Offset Serrated knife
A serrated knife has sharp ridges or “teeth” that really help get through harder items such as crusty bread or pineapple skin. I also use my offset serrated knife when breaking down fruit like watermelon. It also works great to seamlessly cut through squishy tomatoes! These knives are not usually sharpened, but they maintain their sharpness as long as they are well taken care of. It’s important to mention that it is helpful to also get a serrated paring knife if possible.
Utility or Petty Knives
A utility or petty knife is essentially a smaller Chef’s knife – around 5 to 7 inches long. Generally, the blade is thinner and lighter (sometimes bendable) so they are useful for smaller items. Lemons, tomatoes, and shallots.
Slicers are long knives (approximately 15-18 inches long) that can have a pointed or rounded edge. They are used for anything from slicing cooked meat and poultry, (think Thanksgiving turkey!) to smoked salmon or gravlax. They can either be rigid or flexible depending on what it will be used for. Sometimes they will have a “granton edge” which are those indents on the blade that prevent food from sticking or tearing. These are typically used in one fluid motion. Due to its versatility, this is the fourth knife (after Chef’s, paring and serrated) that I recommend one purchase. A slicer with a scalloped edge or “saw toothed” can also be called a serrated knife. If you already have a serrated knife, getting a straight edge or one with granton edge would be beneficial.
A boning knife is used to de-bone raw meats. It has a more narrow blade and a pointy tip which helps you navigate around the bone and get underneath silver skin and through gristle. It is worth investing in this knife if you want to save some money at your butcher and breakdown some pieces yourself, or practice trimming pieces.
A fillet knife is specifically made for filleting fish. They are long and bendable/flexible and help you get as close to the fish’s delicate bones without removing too much flesh and yielding more fish! If you enjoy a challenge, buy whole fish and fillet your own fish! These knives are a lot of fun to use, but they do take some practice.
A cleaver is a heavy, rectangular shaped knife whose weight helps with getting through hard bones of meat, poultry and fish. Japanese or Chinese style cleavers are intended for the same applications as a Chef’s knife. This kind of knife takes some getting used to, but can be helpful if you work with a lot of meat, or want to learn.
A word about sharpening
Sharpening your knives is an important part of maintenance. It takes much practice to learn how to sharpen it yourself with a whetstone, but it is worth the patience to learn how to do it. There are several reputable websites that show technique and whetstones are not very expensive. You could practice on less expensive knives to gain some practice. While there are many electric sharpeners on the market, they operate at very high speeds, which can over sharpen your blade. Even just a few rounds in an electric sharpener can grind away too much of your blade, which in turn degrades the quality of the knife.
If you must use an electric sharpener for your knife – make sure it comes highly recommended and you use clear instruction on how to use it properly, and make sure that the integrity of your knife’s blade remains.