How Many Knives Do You Need, Really?

Published Categorized as Kitchen
Three knives on a wooden cutting boardIriGri /Depositphotos

Think outside the knife block. You only need these knives for 99% of your home cooking.

Kitchen knives, considered cutlery, are among the most indispensable tools in the family cook’s arsenal. A good set of knives allows you to cut, slice, chop, dice, mince, julienne, and bennoise meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. (Tearing all these ingredients up by hand only takes you so far.)

Even if you are new to the kitchen—and you have not yet acquired every cook’s most prized possession, the chef’s knife—with the passage of time, you are likely to amass a collection of diverse knives with different uses.

The question is, how many knives do you really need?

Chefs get a kick out of showcasing their cutlery collections on TV, and cookware reviewers try to get you to buy the most expensive sets in their YouTube videos and blog posts.

Where do you draw the line between equipping yourself with the right knives and wasting money on a set that, for the most part, you will seldom use?

For the vast majority of your home cooking, you will most likely need a chef’s knife as an all-around cutting tool and a paring knife for peeling and cutting vegetables into smaller pieces. Having one or two utility knives can be handy, especially if you cook with your spouse or children.

Unless you are training to be a professional chef, in which case the advice in this article may not necessarily apply to you, the reality is that you don’t need that many knives for your everyday cooking.

Even if you do need more knives than the rule of thumb above, it is still better to buy your knives separately. Not only because they take up less space on your countertop than a dozen knives in a bulky block, but because the knives you buy will be of higher quality than those you get in a set.

The Chef’s Knife

The chef’s knife is the most versatile cutting tool you will ever own, and one of the few tools in the home kitchen that’s almost always worth making a major purchase for. You will cut ¾ of your food with it; the remaining ¼ is for the paring knife and/or utility knife.

When selecting a chef’s knife—preferably in a brick-and-mortar store where you can pick it up—choose one whose weight feels right to you. Some cooks prefer heavier knives because they put less strain on the hand for prolonged cutting tasks. Others appreciate the agility of a light knife.

A blade that’s 8 inches long is ideal for everyday cooking at home. Shorter blades are far less useful. Longer blades don’t fit all household countertops and cutting boards. (A chef’s knife with a 10- or 12-inch blade is better suited for professional chefs with culinary training.)

The blade may be made of any of the following three materials: ceramic, carbon steel, or stainless steel.

Ceramic knives are light and sharp, but keeping them sharp can be a tedious thing to do at home, and they chip all too easily. Avoid them and go for carbon steel or stainless steel instead.

Carbon steel knives stay sharp for a long time. However, they can be brittle, rust if exposed to moisture for more than 5-6 minutes, and give acidic foods a metallic aftertaste. Like the carbon steel skillet, they are a great tool. Alas, not for every cook.

Stainless steel knives resist rust and don’t react to the acidity in your foods. They are softer than carbon steel and therefore don’t hold sharpness as well. However, this is easily compensated for by honing the knife before or after every one or two uses.

When in doubt, opt for an 8-inch chef’s knife with a stainless steel blade from a reputable brand whose quality control (and warranty) you can rely on.

The Paring Knife

The paring knife, colloquially known as a “peeling knife,” is the right tool for peeling, slicing, coring, and deseeding fruits and vegetables. It can also be used for shucking oysters, filleting fish, and scoring roasts.

When selecting a paring knife, look for a blade that’s 2½ to 3 inches long. It should have a sharp tip to pierce through tough fruits and vegetables with ease, and a stiff blade for even the most stubborn of peels and seeds.

The handle should fit snugly in the hand. The knife itself should be well-balanced and not feel too heavy at either end. Once again, the optimal weight comes down to your preferences, and your preferences only. The best thing to do is to pick up several paring knives until you, like Goldilocks, identify the one that’s “just right.”

Whether you buy your chef’s knife and paring knife from the same brand is entirely up to you. However, it is advisable that they are made from the same material; it makes using and caring for your knives simple and straightforward.

The Utility Knife

Suppose you cook for a large family or frequently entertain friends and neighbors in your dining room or backyard. Your meals probably consist of multiple courses, among them an appetizer, a salad or soup, the main course, and dessert.

If this description sounds familiar, you will certainly appreciate the utility of the eponymous cutting tool, the utility knife. The utility knife is an excellent substitute for your chef’s knife when you are already using it to cut meat, and you need a second knife for cutting vegetables or cheese.

Larger than a paring knife and smaller than a chef’s knife, a utility knife is a must-have if you prepare food with your partner or frequently cook with your children’s help. It’s a medium-sized all-around cutting tool that reminds you of its usefulness at times you need it the most.

On Other Knives

You can get your hands on many other types of knives at the home goods store, but—unless you know their names and uses—you probably don’t need them.

Readers who butcher, debone and/or deskin their own meat will appreciate the functionality of a butcher knife and a boning knife. Those who prepare fish will find the thin, flexible blade of a filet knife highly practical. And those who like to bake will look for a serrated bread knife sooner rather than later.

A cheese knife with holes to prevent cheese from sticking to the blade and kitchen shears for cutting herbs and carving chicken, turkey, or duck are also nice-to-have tools in the well-equipped kitchen.

Just skip the set and buy them separately if and only when you need them.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.

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