The best uses
for each shape and size knife:
How and of what it's made,
and what each part does:
it should feel:
How to keep it sharp
and at peak performance:
Care and Maintenance
This Guide is intended to teach you how to choose a knife based on the
Of the numerous shapes and styles, made to perform every
the most useful include the Chef, Paring, Slicing and Utility knives.
Chef's Knife -
Also known as the French Chef's Knife, it is the work-horse of the kitchen.
It has a very broad blade (called the Flat) and can range in length from six
to twelve inches; the eight inch size being the most popular. The Chef's
Knife is used for all the chopping, mincing and dicing tasks and is
essential for vegetables.
This knife is generally used on a cutting board by rocking it on its gently
curving edge, using the tip as a stationary pivot. Its broad blade keeps
knuckles from hitting the cutting board.
Use its back to break chicken bones and scrape foods from the board. Use the
flat side for crushing things like garlic.
Chinese Chef's Knife
- Frequently referred to as a Chinese Cleaver, because of its similar shape
to a meat cleaver, this is the Asian version of the French Chef's Knife.
The Japanese prefer a version with not as broad a blade, called Usuba, which
most westerners find easier to handle, since its size more closely
approximates the Chef's Knife.
Use only its back to break chicken bones, and also to scrape foods from the
board. Use the flat side for crushing things like garlic.
Paring Knife -
Sporting a short blade, usually no more than four inches in length, and in a
variety of shapes and curves.
It is used to peel, carve and prepare vegetables, fruit and other foodstuffs
that can be held in the hand. Handiest for close-up work like eyeing
potatoes, and great for boning chicken. But it is unsuitable and possibly
hazardous when used for large, chunky foodstuffs.
Slicing Knife -
Having a very narrow, thin blade, usually eight to twelve inches long, it is
used to cut very thin slices of foods, especially meats. The more flexible
it is, the easier it will be to get a thin slice.
Some slicers have a curving or scimitar-style tip to assist in tight spots,
like between wing and breast of chicken.
Smaller slicing knives, such as for use in preparing sushi, are only
sharpened on one side, so as to lessen resistance on the flat side and thus
get a thinner slice.
Ceramic knives in general make excellent slicers because of their thinness
and incredible sharpness.
Utility Knife -
Just like the one grandma always used, this all-purpose knife is usually
about six inches in length and narrow. Folks who feel that a chef's knife is
too large and cumbersome will find this knife easier to use. Use it also
when you feel that a paring knife is too small for a task.
Other types of more specialized knives may also be useful to you:
Bread Knife and Tomato Knife - This type of knife has serrated edges, enabling it to pierce a hard crust
or skin without bruising or crushing the delicate insides. Lengths are
available from about five to twelve inches. These cannot usually be easily
resharpened, but because the primary cutting edge is in the curved part of
each serration, they rarely need sharpening.
Ham Slicer - Also
called Granton or Kullenschliff, it is differentiated from a regular Slicing
Knife by its edge. What may look like a series of serrations are actually
hollows along the edge of a flat blade, alternating in location between the
two sides. The air pockets in these hollows keep food from sticking to the
blade, consequently producing ultra-thin slices from most fish and boneless
meats. This fragile knife is legendary for Roast Beef and Lox slicing, and a
well-kept secret for crumb-less slicing of layer cakes.
Cook's Knife -
This is a handy second knife, sized between a chef's knife and a utility
knife. Many find it more comfortable to use because of its smaller size.
Cleaver - The
very broad, thick blade of this knife and its heavy weight make easy work of
cutting bone, splitting ribs and getting through gristle. Its thick edge
will not chip easily. And the heavier in weight, the easier it is to use.
(It should be noted that this is distinct from the Chinese Cleaver which
cannot be used for cutting bone.)
Boning Knife -
Generally five to six-and-a-half inches in length, it features a very narrow
blade. A stiff boning knife is good for boning beef, but a very flexible
boning knife is preferred for poultry.
Fillet Knife -
Similar to a Boning Knife, its thin blade is six-and-a-half to nine inches
in length and should be quite flexible. It is ideal for filleting fish or
This half moon-shape knife has a rounded blade (or blades) with handles at
each end that are perpendicular to the cutting surface. A smaller version of
this knife has one handle at the center of the blade. A Mezzaluna is used to
mince foods on a cutting board or in a wooden bowl and is perfect for making
quick, easy work of herbs and nuts.
Clam and Oyster Knives
- Both have very short, broad blades, usually one to three inches in length.
The clam knife is longer with a rounded tip and the oyster knife, with a
protective hand shield, is shorter and has a sharp tip.
Other Specialty Knives
include ones for grapefruit (serrated on
both sides with a curved tip), frozen foods
(with coarse saw-like teeth), cheese
(with cut-out in the flat of the blade or a non-stick edge, and an upturned
pointed tip for serving; short, wide and pointed for hard cheeses; or 12" or
longer and with two handles for slicing large rounds of cheese), sushi (with only one edge sharpened to get
a thinner slice - see Slicers,
above), and a myriad of specialized cutting and shaping tools.
Among your kitchen cutting tools, you should also possess the following
Scissors - A
good pair of kitchen shears should be made of stainless steel, to prevent
corrosion, and the blades should come apart, to facilitate cleaning. They
are handy for mincing and, if equipped with a notch and a serrated blade,
for cutting small bones and the skin of poultry or fish. Be sure they are
comfortable to hold.
- This utensil is a maintenance tool for every straight bladed knife in your
kitchen. For best results, it should be used every time you use a knife.
Contrary to the connotations carried by its name, a regular metal steel will
not sharpen a dull blade. Rather than removing metal to sharpen, its purpose
is to realign the edge of the blade, which dulls with the pressure and
friction of normal use.
Diamond-studded and ceramic steels will do a much better job in sharpening a
dull edge, but care must be taken to not overuse them, since they remove
metal with every stroke.
Crock-sticks and other fixed-element tools make it easier to maintain the
correct angle of the blade, but use them sparingly to avoid excess removal
Cutlery Sizes - Note that knife sizes
usually indicate the length of the blade; scissors are usually sized from
tip to heel; steel sizes usually exclude the handle.
ANATOMY OF KNIVES
Superior materials, flawless construction and a
are the qualities that go into making a good knife.
- Also called Cutlery Steel, it is no longer widely available. Professionals
agree this is the best metal used for cutlery primarily because it holds an
excellent edge and is quite easy to sharpen. It is somewhat brittle, so care
should be taken not to drop it. It has a tendency to rust if it is not dried
thoroughly after use; just scour and keep using it if it rusts. And because
of steel's reaction to acids and alkalis, it can easily discolor; but this
does not affect the other good qualities of this type of knife.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel
- This alloy has become the most popular of metals used in knife
construction because of its rust and stain resistant quality. It does not
hold its edge quite as well as high-carbon steel and is not quite as easy to
sharpen; nevertheless, its convenience and ready availability make it the
most popular choice in better cutlery.
- This alloy is so hard that it strongly resists sharpening. Although it
remains sharp longer, once it loses its edge it can become another
disposable item. Recent advances in technology have produced some
never-need-sharpening knives that do hold up for many years. Note that
knives in this class almost always lack the quality, balance and feel of
good tools. They remain a viable alternative for those who do not wish to
care for or to sharpen their cutlery.
Titanium - The
better titanium knives are made with a sintering process on a matrix of
titanium (Ti) and carbides (carbon combination), using powder metal
technology (instead of metal casting). The sintering process melts the
elements and recombines them under great heat and pressure. The carbides in
the alloy allow for the blades to be heat-treated to a hardness appropriate
for cutlery. Very lightweight and durable, they stay sharper longer than
steel and are relatively easy to sharpen.
Titanium coated, or titanium edged, knives do not have the same quality as
those made wholly of titanium or titanium and alloys, and have a relatively
short useful lifespan, since the edge hardness is usually lost after a few
Ceramic - This
material is both strong and brittle. It is stronger than steel and has an
edge that is remarkably thinner than steel, so cutting is made considerably
easier, and the edge can last significantly longer with proper care. Because
of their brittleness, relative to steel, ceramic knives are best used for
slicing (not chopping), because they can be made very thin and with a
remarkably sharp edge.
Zirconium oxide, aluminum oxide and other ceramics, in pelletized form, are
melted to form this very hard, very dense material. There is no chemical
reaction between the blade and acidic or alkaline foods, unlike with steel
Because of the lightness of ceramics, they do not have the heft you might
expect of a metal chef knife, for example. Though not as fragile as one
might expect, nevertheless care should be taken not to drop it, to avoid
breaking off the tip. Sharpening and repairs are done on diamond hones.
Plastic - With
the primary goal of keeping veggies from changing color as they're cut,
plastic serrated knives have become more popular of recent. They are not
very sharp and some force may be required, so we don't highly recommend
Forged - This is
a process whereby metal is treated, in different steps, to enhance its
hardness, density and flexibility. Forged knives are often heavier and
better balanced. They are easier to keep sharp, and, with care, can last for
generations. You can usually recognize such a knife most easily by the
presence of a prominent bolster between handle and blade; a few forged
knives are made without a bolster.
Stamped - Such
knives are cut or stamped out from flat metal. They do not undergo the steps
associated with forging and are thus lighter in weight, are usually not well
balanced and not as comfortable in the hand. Because the metal is not as
dense as that of forged knives, they don't hold their edge as well. Stamped
knives with a high carbon content are usually easier to sharpen and to keep
sharp than less expensive knives made of stainless steel with a high
Ceramics and some metals are sintered, that is, melted separately and mixed
together to form a stronger alloy or component. Some forged knives have
parts that are manufactured separately and sintered together to form a knife
of good quality at a lower cost than forged knives, and which blades perform
just as well as fully forged blades.
Sometimes the weight and handling of a particular knife outweigh the
importance of other considerations and make a stamped knife a better choice
in a knife. For most applications, we generally recommend forged knives,
especially chef knives and straight edge slicers; perhaps complemented by
some stamped metal knives such as steak knives and other serrated edge
knives, as well as a spare paring knife or two. We recommend ceramic knives
for delicate slicing and cutting tasks, and titanium knives for those who
desire a good quality all purpose lightweight knife.
Bolster - An
integral part of most good knives, it is a thick piece of metal between the
handle and the blade, made to add weight to the knife, provide it with
better balance and a comfortable resting place for the hand. It is sometimes
called the shank.
Tang - This is the
part that runs from the bolster back into the handle. The best knives have a
full tang, and, except for some of the sealed-handled knives, it is visible
on the top, back and bottom of the handle, held securely by multiple rivets.
A half tang is the next preference, visible on top and back of the handle,
but not on the bottom.
Handle - Usually
made of wood, plastic, a combination of the two, or metal. The handle
envelops the tang, and is usually fastened by rivets or encased in the
plastic or metal.
Wood offers an excellent grip but requires regular care; keep it out of
water and rub occasionally with mineral oil.
Plastic may become somewhat brittle in time, and can be slippery in the
Plastic-impregnated wood has properties similar to wood, but requires less
care and lasts longer.
Some new materials, like polyoxymethylene, offer an excellent grip and
comfort, plus they will last almost forever.
Metal lasts longer, adds extra heft, and can be slippery or firm; try them
And every manufacturer sports differing sizes and ergonomic designs. A
handle that is perpendicular to the blade can be very comfortably used to
overcome physical impairments.
Back - Opposite
the sharp edge, the back, or spine, is thick on most good knives, except for
carvers and slicers, to provide strength to the blade. It can also be used
to scrape the cutting board after cutting. Note that, on forged knives, it
tapers from the bolster to the tip.
Flat - This is the
wide, flat part of the knife. It can be fully tapered from the back down to
the edge, a quality usually found in better knives. In most lesser quality
knives, it is hollow-ground to form a distinct inward curve toward the edge.
The flat can be useful in crushing things like garlic.
Point - At the
tip of the knife, the point should be sharp and relatively thin. It is used,
in many knives, for incisions, for cutting small delicate items and for
Edge - This sharp
part is either flat ground, hollow ground or serrated. In better
non-serrated knives you'll find mostly flat ground edges, though a few still
sport hollow ground ones with their thinner blade easier to keep sharp.
A good edge is made through a three-step process, ground at three different
angles to give them a sharper, longer-lasting edge.
If you want to choose a knife that will be useful to you, the process
might entail more than just picking one that is of good quality and that is
supposed to perform the tasks chosen for it. Consider how important it is
that the knife is comfortable to hold, use and to maintain.
Before purchasing it, ask to hold it and to use it on a cutting board as
you would at home. Ask about the level of care required to keep its edge
sharp. Ask for a demonstration on how to maintain the edge, and practice
what you learned before leaving the store.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF KNIVES
Knife edges should be regularly realigned using a steel, or a device
similar to it, to keep the knife sharp and safe. A sharp knife is safer
because of the effortless way in which it does your bidding; accidents can
occur with dull knives because of the extra effort that it takes to push the
blade through the food and the slipping that can occur.
A few easy strokes, alternating sides, holding the
edge at about a 20-degree angle from the steel, is all it takes to keep it
sharp. Remember, the secret is to be gentle; don't push too hard. If you
find using a steel difficult or uncomfortable, there are small units with
miniature steels or ceramic discs aligned at the proper angle for foolproof
A steel ideally removes only a minimal amount of metal from the edge.
Over a period of time, however, perhaps a year or two under normal household
use, enough metal is removed that the edge requires sharpening by grinding.
Diamond studded steels remove a lot of metal from knives, and should be
used sparingly as a regular maintenance tool. As should ceramic steels.
Utensils with sharpeners at pre-set angles, such as crock sticks and
hand-held-sharpeners, should also be used sparingly, since they usually are
made of ceramic or other hard substances that will remove a lot of metal.
They do, however, make it easy to hold the knife at the right angle and are
recommended for anyone who doesn't particularly care to steel their knives
every time they use them.
There are several machines on the market that can be purchased for
grinding, such as the Chef's Choice. Choose one of good quality that will
not damage your knife. Or, better yet, take it to a reputable sharpening
service. Like us, they should sharpen and repair almost any knife with the
same care and quality that is given to restaurant and chef clientele.
We do not recommend sharpeners that comes attached to a can opener, or a
heavy grinding wheel. These remove too much metal, shortening the life of
your knife, and may create hot spots, indicated by bluing marks, that remove
the temper from the blade, making it difficult to keep sharp.
If you have the time and inclination, you can use sharpening stones,
preferably Arkansas stones, which are known for their consistent quality.
Inexpensive stones are usually made of stone granules, glued together with
epoxy, which interferes with the sharpening process and usually provides
meager results, especially as they get older.
In sharpening stones, there are different grades of coarseness to suit
each task. The coarsest stones are used for the first step, holding the
blade at about a 15-degree angle, followed by medium and fine stones for the
remaining steps, ending up at about a 20-degree angle. The final step is
Stones must be used in conjunction with a medium of honing (light
mineral) oil or water, and, once you start with one, continue using the same
medium for the life of the stone. And be sure to clean your stone regularly
with a bristle brush, to remove metal filings.
A good quality knife should never be subjected to the harsh detergents
and scalding temperatures of a dishwasher. Also, the thrashing of utensils,
which is likely to occur, is likely to damage the sharp edge of the knife.
Certain food acids can stain even the most stainless of knives, so it is
good practice to always wipe a knife clean right after each use. Don't let
foodstuffs dry on the blade, because the knife then becomes more difficult
and hazardous to clean.
We suggest that you get into the habit of cleaning it right away; simply
lay the blade on a flat surface, carefully wipe one side with a wet cloth,
then the other. You should, however, use soap and hot water to clean the
knife after it has been used to cut poultry, meat or fish.
A knife is best stored away from other utensils that might damage the
edge by contact. Keep it in a wooden or polyethylene block or in a sheath
especially made for this purpose. In a slanted block with vertical openings,
store knives with their edge up.
We recommend wooden or polyethylene cutting boards, which create the
least resistance against the edge of a knife. Avoid cutting on ceramic,
metal or other plastic surfaces, which would quickly dull a knife's sharp
Wash your cutting boards after each use. Be especially careful to wash
them and your knives with hot, soapy water immediately after cutting
poultry, meat or fish products and before cutting anything else on them.
Sanitize them by letting stand a solution of water and bleach on the surface
for a short time.
For safety's sake, to diminish to likelihood of cross contamination,
consider owning one cutting board for fish, another for poultry, and a third
for other cutting tasks.
Plastic cutting boards can go in the dishwasher; wood boards should be
carefully washed by hand. A thorough washing and air drying diminish the
likelihood of germs remaining on the surface. Controversies around which is
better, wood or plastic, have been somewhat inconclusive. It remains
that if you keep different ones for meats and for vegetables, clean the
boards well, let them air dry thoroughly, and store them in a well
ventilated area, you won't have any problems with contamination.
For information on maintaining wooden cutting boards, please see our
tutorial on Wood Care.
? QUESTIONS ?
We want you to be happy with your new knives and we are always glad to
show you how to properly use and care for them, for a lifetime of