The Knives You REALLY Need

I’m a fan of NOT complicating things unnecessarily. And I’m not a huge fan of buying single-use kitchen gadgets or tools (although I DO admit that I have a strawberry huller that I really like :) ). So, when it comes to knives I try to keep things simple. I think (especially starting out) that you should only buy the knives you need. And there's waaaaaay more out there than you actually need to run your kitchen successfully.

Quick! What’s the first thing you think of when you think about a kitchen store. You probably said knives, right? Well at least a lot of us did. The world of kitchen goods and cooking can be pretty much centered around knives. After all they are the chef’s most important tool(s). And a quick look around any kitchen store or online store tells us that there are just tons of knives out there to choose from. Cheap knives. Expensive knives. Steel knives. Ceramic knives. Western, Asian, chefs, utility, paring, stamped, forged…..ahhhhhh! Some brands have upwards of about 200 different knives and knife sets! Gee whiz! Do you need a whole new room in your home for just your knives? And if you don’t buy tons of them, how do you figure out what you need? Well, you’ve come to the right place! Here’s the answer. (Or at least my opinion.)

I’m a believer that there’s really only three types of knives you need as a gourmet-level home cook - with a fourth that you might consider. You need a chefs knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife (and maybe, just maybe, a utility knife). I have found that these three can do almost anything you need to do. So, let’s hit each one.

1. Chefs Knife

Yup. This one’s the big kahuna of any cook’s kitchen. Many people refer to this as the “workhorse” of the kitchen. And I have to say, I agree. It’s worth having a good, solid chefs knife to do most things - from trimming meats to chopping veggies to….well just about anything. This is probably the most important knife you will buy.

I will say this is not a place to go cheap. Cheaper knives are cheaper for a reason. They are often made of lower-quality materials and/or craftsmanship. They dull very quickly; and don’t hold their sharp edge well. The handles can be unstable and uncomfortable. They are not well-balanced. They can actually break. I say, go for a solid forged knife. Save money elsewhere.

So, how do you choose which one? The ideal is to drop by a kitchen store like Sur La Table, Williams Sonoma, or your locally-owned kitchen store. Try one out. Hold it in your hand. Chop with it. (Yes, they’ll let you try one out. Don’t be embarrassed to ask.) See how it feels in your hand. Feel the weight and the balance. Ask questions about the materials and how the brands are different. Even ask how the product lines within a brand differ. And when it comes to chefs knives, try out different sizes - especially the 6-inch, 8-inch, and maybe even the 10-inch. A few years ago I walked into a Sur La Table absolutely sure that I wanted a 6-inch Wusthof. I walked out with an 8-inch Wusthof Classic. I just loved the way it felt. I thought for sure it would be too big (mostly because I was so used to using smaller knives). After I tried it for a few minutes I loved it. This is the 8-inch Wusthof Chefs Knife that I have.

Another done that gets really good reviews (and is more moderately priced) is the Victorinox Swiss Army 8-Inch Fibrox Straight Edge Chef's Knife. I’d say check them both out and choose the one that fits your hand and your budget the best. 

 

2. Paring knife

They seem so small...but, man are they handy! The 3-inch or 4-inch paring knife is great for the small, more precise jobs. Peeling, carving, etc. …..small cuts.

You can buy them individually or in a set. If you decide to buy a single one (instead of a set) get one with a 3 or 4 inch straight blade. It will serve you for almost any job. I have found that having the set gives me some flexibility depending on the job. And they tend not to be very expensive. Typically if you buy a set you get - the short straight, a curved one that helps with some peeling jobs like apples and other curved fruits and vegetables, and a "bird's beak" knife (that is self-explanatory when you see it). This is the set I have.

I love these knives. They are truly handy. Trust me, you'll find yourself using them every day like I do.

3. Serrated knife

This is one many people just seem to overlook. Serrated knives are great for cutting through foods with a firm exterior and softer inside — without crushing or squishing them. Think bread or tomatoes. If you have tried to cut into a whole tomato through the skin - and smashed the insides into a gooey mush or tried to slice a bread loaf and it crushed down flat before you could cut through the crust; you know what I mean. Slice across them with a serrated knife and you’ll realize how useful it is. Trust me, you’ll be happy you have one the next time you try to slice a tomato or some crusty bread.

I actually own two of these. One is an 8-inch Chicago Cutlery knife that's probably about 30 years old. It works great. Especially on smaller to medium-sized jobs like rolls, smaller bread loaves, and tomatoes.

I also have a larger bread knife from J. A. Henckels. It cam as part of block of knives. It works wonderfully on larger loaves of bread and other larger items (like getting melons started).

OK, so I know I talked about the THREE essential knives you need…but I just have to throw in a fourth knife for you to consider. I’d say it’s a second tier - but just barely. It’s maybe not essential but I have found it truly helpful. So, here’s my Number 4:

4. Mid-sized utility knife

Honestly, I sometimes feel like a large, heavier chefs knife just feels like overkill. I sometimes like to use a simple 5 inch or so knife to thinly slice zucchinis, squash, or something generally that size. Something a little too big perhaps for a paring knife, but maybe not big enough to pull out the big chefs knife. Could the chefs knife do the same thing? Definitely. I just sometimes like the feel of the smaller, lighter utility knife in my hands. Is it essential? Not really. If you are gonna leave one out, I’d say this is the one to drop. I love having mine, but honestly It doesn’t do anything my 8-inch sheds knife does.

This is the one I have (and love), a Wusthof Classic 5-Inch Hollow Ground Santoku Knife. The hollow "grooves" you see are meant to release food as you cut (rather than sticking to the knife). Frankly I don't see much of a difference. But nevertheless that's the idea.

While we're on the subject of knives, here are a few other last minute knife-related things to think about:

  • Sharpen your knives regularly - either professionally or at home. If you are going to seek out someone to sharpen your knives, I’d recommend a professional who specializes in higher-end chefs knives (not someone you find at a hardware store). The hardware store guys are cheaper (and probably just fine for that axe hanging in your garage), but may not give the careful balancing and deft touch your kitchen knives need. Go through a kitchen store. If you decide to do it yourself, invest in a good knife sharpener like the Chef's Choice 120 Diamond Hone 3-Stage Professional Knife Sharpener. It gets great ratings, works simply, and can handle both Western and Asian knives. It’s about $150 so I get it, it’s an investment. But it may be a worthwhile one.
  • And speaking of protecting your investment (and your fingers), I HIGHLY recommend buying knife guards or hanging your knives on a magnetic strip. These will protect the edges of the blades - and keep your fingers safe too. Neither is expensive - but will be well worth it. Knife guards run in the neighborhood of $3-$8 per knife. And the magnetic strips can run from $15-20 to well over $100 depending on the quality and number of knives you want to store.

 

So that’s MY take on knives. I don’t have any deal or particular interest in Wusthof or any other specific brand (although a few of the links I provide ARE affiliate links). But I have to admit that Wusthof is my favorite brand. I just happen to really like the way the Wustofs feel in my hand - sharp, well-balanced, and strong. There are certainly other brands (in a similar price range) - and I encourage you to try several. In my experience one or two will just simply feel better for you. Some of these include Shun, Global, Henkels, etc. Try a few and see what feels best to you!

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OK, guys, now it’s time to hear from YOU. Is there a knife you would have included that I skipped? What’s your favorite knife - or favorite brand? Why?