I have a lot of knives. Two knife blocks (one of them a 22 slot), plus a small drawer, plus two sets of steak knives. I’ve accumulated them over the years, like chotchkies I can hurt people with. But if my house was burning down (probably from a flaming cookbook), I would grab these five knives before fleeing the scene.
1. The Paring Knife. AKA, the knife for little stuff.
My paring knife is basically my fruit knife. I use it for capping strawberries, sectioning oranges, peeling peaches, cutting lemons for squeezing, etc. Basically, tasks where a large knife would be unwieldy, or potentially dangerous. For many of these tasks, I’m holding the knife and the object to be cut in the air and cutting towards my hand or thumb, as when peeling a peach. A small, nimble knife makes the job easier, so a paring knife is a definite must have. I actually have 3 paring knives, all KitchenAids, all slightly different models. I think at least two parers are good to have on hand, but if you’re really tidy then you could make do with one.
If you’re like my mother, this would be the only knife you use. She has these little Victorinox paring knives that she uses for *everything*, and she’s had them (or their identical replacements) for as long as I can remember. She has other knives, but I think they must be for the other people in the house to use, because she doesn’t use them. And boy, if you use her Victorinox knives, you better take care of them and put them back where you found them! Cook’s Illustrated gave them a high rating, too, so I haven’t tried to upgrade her paring knives. She would resist me to her grave, anyway. These knives might be buried with her.
2. The Small Serrated Knife. AKA, the tomato knife.
I bought this knife on clearance on Amazon 10 years ago for $13.00, and wish I’d bought several. Actually, I did buy several and gave them as gifts, keeping only one to myself. Wish I hadn’t been that generous, since I’ve never been able to find them again. (Note: Just checked Google again, with no luck. *sob*)
According to the writing on the knife, my particular serrated blade is a 5″ steak knife. In my house, it’s my tomato knife. Even after 10 years, it cuts through tomato skin quickly and cleanly. If I’m prepping a salad for dinner, I’ll use it for every ingredient but lettuce (chef’s knife is better for that). It works great on apples, onions, beets, carrots, peppers, whatever. I assume it would be great for steak, but I have other, less valuable knives for lowly meat.
I’ve been known to travel with this knife. I saved the little cardboard sleeve it came in, and use that for traveling when we go on vacation or visit the parents. You never know when you need a good tomato knife!
Now, obviously you can’t add this particular knife to your collection. (If you find it, please send one to me!!) But it’s important that you have a serrated knife in your arsenal for foods like tomatoes. (I have several old serrated steak knives that are great for slicing cheese, and I keep them around for just that purpose.) This 4 knife set from Sabatier looks very tempting and probably comfortable to use. I think I’ll add that to my wish list and maybe one of the people who received the original knife will reciprocate!
Some companies sell tomato knives that are very big, or clunky. I have a long serrated knife that’s so vicious I’m scared to clean it, as I nearly always nick myself. I’ll pull it out to slice bread, but I think a smaller 4 to 6 inch blade is really versatile and practical. And, dare I say, essential?
3. The Chef’s Knife. AKA, The Business Knife.
When I first started using a chef’s knife, I felt like a 6 year old trying on my mom’s high heels. I felt grownup, yes, but the knife was so big! Remember, I grew up around paring knives. When I bought a chef’s knife, it was the first time I’d ever used one. I actually started with a smaller chef’s knife, about a 5-incher, and used that for a few years before moving up to a 7 inch and beyond. This KitchenAid Chef’s Knife is 8 inches, I think, and 7-8 inches seems to be a good size for me.
I use my chef’s knife for large tasks, like cutting up a pineapple or melon, or chopping lettuce. Having a big blade means you can cut an entire side of your pineapple at once, for example.
I’m just thinking about attempting to cut a whole pineapple with a paring knife. Huh. That might be a good comedy skit. Anyway…
Don’t just use the chef’s knife for big stuff, though. The curve from tip to handle allows you to rock the blade across the cutting board. So it’s great for chopping herbs, or smashing garlic with the flat of the knife and then rocking across the smashed cloves to mince. You can also use the flat of the knife to make garlic paste, by pressing and dragging the flat of the blade across the smashed cloves.
When I’m chopping or dicing, the chef’s knife is my go-to blade of choice. Get the rocking motion in hand and you can power through celery, carrots, peppers, onions, squash, zucchini, whatever. (Just watch your fingers! It’s always best to curve your fingers under so your knuckles touch the knife, and never raise the knife higher than an inch or two above the board, with the tip always in contact with the board. Then you’ll never nick yourself. I don’t always remember to do this, but thankfully I’ve never seriously cut myself.)
Feel like a grownup: Get yourself a grownup knife.
4. The Santoku. AKA, the funny sounding one.
My santoku and my chef’s knife are nearly interchangeable, except for two ways that make each one an essential knife for me. First, the santoku has notches on either side of the blade that help prevent food from sticking. So it’s great for slicing potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes, or other starchy foods that would normally stick to the knife as you’re chopping. The main reason I don’t use my santoku instead of my chef’s knife is because the curve of the blade is less pronounced, and therefore I can’t rock the knife on the cutting board as well. But for lettuce, pineapple, melons and the like, I’m happy to use whichever of the two is clean.
I gave my mother in law this knife for Christmas a couple of years ago, and she loves it. Especially the cushy handle that makes it easy to hold and use. As I’ve trained her not to put knives in the dishwasher, it’s held up really well for her. 🙂 Unfortunately, JCPenney no longer sells the cushy handles, but they do have a 2 piece santoku set. I have this little santoku as well (two of them, one cushy handle, one not – yes, I know I have too many knives) and it’s very handy. I just didn’t consider it essential for purposes of this post.
5. The Slicer/Carving Knife. AKA, the holiday knife.
For some reason, I own four or five slicers in varying lengths. Clearance impulse buys, parts of sets, wedding gifts, I have no idea where they all came from. I’m not attached to a particular one, but generally the larger the meat that I’m slicing, the longer the knife I reach for. Slicers have a long narrow blade that minimizes friction, and allows you to cut a wide roast or ham without getting your hand lost in the meat.
I like the control and dexterity I get with a slicer as opposed to an electric knife. And it takes up a lot less space in my kitchen. Of course, this 8″ Sabatier knife is discontinued (what is it with Sabatier?), but this knife from J.A. Henckels looks very similar and won’t break the bank (as opposed to some other Henckels knives).
So there you have it. My five essential knives. If you can find a santoku with a good curve, four knives would do you. For my next post, I’ll discuss what to look for when buying knives, how to build your knife collection for less, and how to take care of your knives so they last (hint: don’t put them in the dishwasher).
Do you have a favorite knife? Is there a type I didn’t mention here that you consider essential? Please share in the comments!
Disclosure: Any purchase from Amazon affiliate links here would earn me a small percentage of the sale price. I do not receive any compensation for the JCPenney link.