Questions for cooks: What knives do I need?

Reader Jackie submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I’m getting married this summer (!!) and my future husband and I have plans to register for gifts April 16. We like to cook, but our equipment isn’t very good. We have already agreed we want to register for a good knife set, but neither of us know what makes a knife good or what we need. Can you help?

Jackie, I’ve actually dedicated a couple of this week’s posts to talking about knives because I knew I would be using your question for today’s column. It’s hard to give a good answer about knives in just one post. Knife buying can be confusing, even for those of us who have purchased them before.

I’m of the opinion that you only need three knives to work efficiently in your kitchen:

  1. A chef’s knife (I prefer a 10″ blade but you might like 8″ if you have smaller hands and 12″ or 14″ if you or your future hubby can palm a basketball) — A chef’s knife is the go-to knife in the kitchen with a straight-edge blade. It’s good for slicing and chopping meat and vegetables.
  2. A paring knife (anywhere between a 2″ and 4″ blade) — This short straight-edge blade knife is good for working with small foods and garnishes.
  3. A bread knife (anywhere between a 8″ and 12″ blade) — This serrated blade knife, as its name implies, is best for cutting bread and other items that tend to squish when applied with pressure. I also use mine on tomatoes.

I have more knives than this in my kitchen, though. I also keep:

  1. A boning knife (mine has a 6″ blade) — This straight-edge blade knife is flexible so you can move it along curved surfaces, like around bones (hence, its name). It’s also good for trimming fat and removing gristle and silver skin from meat.
  2. A slicer/carving knife (mine has an 8″ blade) — This straight edge blade knife looks like a large paring knife. It has a stiff blade and is for the purposes of carving cooked meats, like roasts. Some styles have rounded tips and a granton edge. A granton edge has varied thickness on the edge, which looks like a wave or scallop pattern. The waves help to keep what you’re slicing from sticking to the knife as you work.
  3. A ceramic vegetable knife (I use a 7″ blade) — As discussed Wednesday, this type of knife is perfect for cutting fibrous vegetables.
  4. Poultry shears — A good pair of shears will cut through animal joints, pizza crust, and pretty much every thing you throw their way.
  5. 8 serrated steak knives — Obviously, they’re great for using on steaks. They’re also wonderful utility knives around the kitchen when you’re not entertaining guests.
  6. A mandoline — If you slice a large number of items at a time and want perfect cuts each time, a mandoline can make fast work of it. Personally, I love waffle fries, and the waffle slicer attachment is the easiest way to make them.

Many people also have Santoku-Bocho knives in their kitchens. Santoku knives usually have a granton edge, like a carving knife might, to keep food from sticking to it. People use them in place of or in addition to a chef’s knife.

Congratulations on your upcoming marriage and I hope I was able to help you navigate the knife-buying process. Please check the comments for more advice from our readers. Thank you, Jackie, for submitting your question for our questions for cooks column.

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5 comments posted

  1. Posted by Danielle - 04/03/2011

    The weight of the knife and how the handle fits in your hand is a good place to start with expensive knives (This is just personal preference). The blade should run through the entirety of the knife in one solid piece of metal. Expensive knives are usually all high quality metal that will stand the test of time. A universal knife sharpener will keep those quality blades sharp (they look like swords only cylindrical). Watch a you-tube video to learn how to do this!

  2. Posted by Nick - 04/04/2011

    The quality of the sharpener will dictate how easy it is to keep your knives sharp – and a sharp knife is essential to safe use in the kitchen. Bad sharpening can ruin your knives – especially serrated ones. So if you are going to go for an expensive knife (and I’d really recommend it)and you want the most out of your investment then go for an equally good sharpener.

    I use Global knives – which are forged as a single piece – and I’ve gone for a minosharp – which is a ceramic wheel sharpener with two grades of wheel – coarse and fine. You can get other similar types (Fiskars, Chef’s Choice, Wusthof etc) but they differ from the usual sharpening steel because they are designed to give you a specific angle to your knife edge. So if you’re nervous about a steel then go for one of these as its really straightforward to get the perfect edge

  3. Posted by Jack Cheng - 04/05/2011

    So I just took a class on knives from the country’s oldest cutlery shop, Stoddard’s.

    The four knives you need are, as Erin said, a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a bread knife, and also a carving knife. Everything else is bonus, but there are specific reasons why you want to carve with a carving knife and not a chef’s knife.

  4. Posted by Erin Doland - 04/05/2011

    @Jack — How was the class? Did you find it useful? It sounds really terrific.

  5. Posted by the other Tammy - 04/06/2011

    I loooooooooove my Santoku knife. That one and my big serrated bread knife is all I ever use.

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