Knives are the single most important utensil to cooks. They’re also the utensil that is the most abused. A good set of knives will make all the difference for food prep and knives that are well sharpened will save you valuable time in the kitchen.

If you’re interested in improving on your current set or if you’re buying your first set, do it one knife at a time. You usually don’t need every knife included in an expensive set so you could end up throwing money away by going that route.  Start with a large chef’s knife, it should serve as your go-to for most jobs. Then add a paring knife and maybe a utility knife (sort of a long paring knife – I don’t have one but some people like them). Your last purchases should be specialty knives like bread, carving, boning, and filet. Outside of those, I can’t think of much more I want in my knife kit.
Brands are only important because of the quality of steel they use. A set from a box store will do the job but knives made from good quality steel will sharpen better and last longer. My set from culinary school is made by Mercer and they’re known for good quality knives. As I buy new knives to replace my culinary school set, I buy Wusthof. I don’t know if they’re any better than Mercer but they’re good knives and I like the design of their Classic line better than any others.

When shopping for knives, shop around. Certain stores shamelessly overcharge for brands so get a feel for which knives you like at a physical store then go online or use a handy shopping app on your phone to see where you can get the best price. Remember that brands like Mercer and Wusthof have several different lines and their weights and grips are all different. Make sure you know the brand and the line so you can accurately compare prices.

Some hipster chefs will only use lesser known brands and scoff at all the big names but don’t mind them. Knives are shaped differently because they serve different functions and they’re generally not interchangeable. I became well aware of the concept while training for ACF competitions; you can actually get docked points for using the wrong knife for a particular job. I would never use a hipster-friendly Japanese knife while preparing a classical French dish in front of ACF judges unless I wanted to get murdered in my critique! My ACF judges were Master Chefs (real Master Chefs, not the fake ones on the Fox reality show) from France and Germany. Another was a Master Chef in the U.S. Army who competed on the U.S. Culinary Olympic team. Talk about intimidating. Since you don’t have to worry about getting ripped apart by a Master Chef, choose the knife that feels best for you.
Here’s my current set:
  • Chef’s.  Mine is 9″. If you’re not accustomed to large knives, go with 8″. A chef’s knife is a must and once you become comfortable with it, it will greatly reduce your time in the kitchen.
  • Santoku.  I rarely use this one but it came in my set. People use it for vegetables but it has a straight edge and I use a rocking method for chopping veggies so I need a tapered knife. For that reason, I stick to my chef’s knife.
  • Paring.  Great for small jobs.
  • Tourné.  Also known as a bird’s beak, this is a specialty knife used for specific cuts and vegetable and fruit carvings. I needed it for ACF competitions where they required demonstration of classical French cuts. Less than 1% of the population needs this in their arsenal.
  • Boning.  Necessary for breaking down large cuts of raw meat; a whole chicken, for example.
  • Filet.  Makes fileting a fish way easier. The blade is thin and flexible and great for removing flesh from bone and skin from flesh.
  • Bread.  A serrated bread knife comes in handy quite a bit. In addition to bread, it’s great for chopping blocks or bars chocolate and trimming or slicing cakes and raw dough. 
  • Carving or Slicer.  Perfect for slicing large cuts of meat like a cooked turkey, prime rib, ham, etc.  
Shears are often included in knife sets so let’s not forget about them. I have a pair from Wusthof and they cost considerably less than their average knife; I think I paid around $20 for these. Shears should be sharpened and cared for just like any other knife you use. You need to be able to clean them thoroughly so be sure to get a pair that come apart, as in the photo above. 
Shears should be reserved for kitchen use so leave them in the kitchen. Don’t use them for odd jobs like wrapping presents or cutting into ridiculously hard plastic packaging, like the kind scissors come in. I still find it odd that you need a pair of scissors to open a package of scissors. 
Rules everyone should know about knives:
  • Always wash by hand.  Yes, knives are dishwasher safe but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them. Knives will dull faster and are more likely to rust if washed in the dishwasher. It takes less than a minute to hand wash so it’s not worth the risk of damaging an expensive tool. If you invest in a good set, this is a must.
  • Use a honing steel.  A honing steel does many things but the most significant feature for you is it keeps your knife from dulling quickly. Use a honing steel every time you remove it from your block or drawer and you can go longer between sharpening. Gordon Ramsay has a great instructional video on how to use a honing steel. 
  • Keep ’em sharp.  As far as actual sharpening goes, I recommend you leave it to the pros. If you know someone who’s good at it, ask them to do it. If not, most specialty kitchen stores (like Williams-Sonoma or your local equivalent) will either sharpen your knives or hook you up with someone who will for a very reasonable price. If you cook a lot, you should sharpen your most used knives around once a month.
The idea of using a chef’s knife regularly could still be intimidating but we’ll learn how to properly use knives in our first physical cooking lesson. That will give you a better idea of what knives you’ll use most often and prepare you for adding to your own collection. You can jump ahead to that lesson now or continue through the posts and find your way there while learning the fundamentals of cooking.

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