Kitchen knives are arguably the single most important tool in your kitchen.
You can make a delicious meal without pots or pans, mixing bowls or blenders. But chances are, you’d be hard pressed to make a fantastic dinner without using at least one knife.
This guide is designed to be helpful for people who are new to cooking and still learning the basics as well as for more experienced cooks who want to add to their knowledge and skillset.
I’ll cover the terminology you need to effectively describe and learn about your knives, the most important knives in your kitchen, several types of specialty knives, proper grip and cutting techniques to make you most effective using knives in your kitchen, and much more!
What's in this Guide?
What Are The Benefits of Owning a High-Quality Kitchen Knife Set?
High-quality kitchen knives (made from durable stainless or high-carbon steel), are a huge advantage in any kitchen. The better your knives are, the more versatile they will be, and the longer they’ll last.
While buying good kitchen knives can be expensive at first, you’ll be repaid for your investment by a longer functional life, and better results the whole time.
High-quality kitchen knives also take a finer edge, which keeps you much safer in the kitchen since a sharp knife is easier to control.
One of the most important advantages of high-quality knives is that they are more consistent.
You’ll know when they need to be sharpened, because high-quality knives will have noticeable performance changes when they dull. Lower quality knives don’t have the same performance difference between sharp and dull.
High quality knives also tend to have better handles, with ergonomic designs that improve your grip and reduce fatigue when you’re cutting and prepping vegetables.
Essential Knife Design & Terms
Here are some of the most important terms you should know when talking about the design of your knives. The main uses of each term ranges from giving you more precise language to describe your knives and how to use them, to critical definitions that will help you tell the difference between a high-quality knife and a lower-quality knife.
Refer to this diagram for the terms I describe in this section.
I also like this knife guide, which teaches some terminology as a way to help explain how to sharpen your knives.
The tang of your knife is the part that extends from the blade into the handle. The tang determines how stable your knife is and can give you more control over the knife.
There are different kinds of tang, and many are much shorter than you want in a kitchen knife. Look for full-tang knives (meaning the tang is as long and wide as the handle), and split tang knives (a full tang, but with a narrow split down the middle to better bind with the handle materials).
There are several other types of tang. Avoid partial tangs which offer less coverage and are more prone to breakage. Any tang that runs the whole length of your handle is workable.
The Belly of your knife is the curved area of the blade. A thick bellied knife has a lot of space between the spine of the knife and the blade edge, while a very curved belly refers to knives that have a more exaggerated curve in the knife.
The bevel of your blade is the angle leading to the edge of your blade. Bevel is important because it indicates how sharp your blade is (a narrower bevel creates a sharper blade). Try to match the angle of your bevel instead of changing it when you sharpen.
Note that there are both single bevel and double-bevel blades. A double-bevel blade has a noticeable bevel on both sides of the knife. A single-bevel blade only has a bevel on one side.
Single bevel blades are also handed, so if you’re left-handed and purchase a single bevel blade you need to be careful to make sure you’re buying a knife designed for left handed users.
Granton refers to the scalloping on the side of some blades, where it looks like a small hollow has been scooped out of the blade (see image below).
Also called scalloping, you might see manufacturers use either term, though Granton is more correct.
Granton blades have lower surface tension between the blade and your food, which can be a useful feature.
Read More >> Top 5 Best Knives for Shucking Oysters
Rivets, in knives, are usually used to connect the handle to the tang. These small connection points are round, and usually line up exactly with the handle, though there are a few varieties and some knives are different.
The spine of your knife is the side directly opposite the edge. Usually only a few millimeters thick, this isn’t the same as the belly of your blade, it’s the side that’s facing you when you’re holding the knife vertically.
The Ricasso is another term for the flat sides of the knife, before the bevel. Unlike the belly, this term just refers to the flat sides, but doesn’t describe the shape. It’s worth knowing because some manufacturers place their maker’s mark or brand on the ricasso, and knock-off manufacturers will have a different mark, or will place it somewhere else.
The internet has made creating convincing knock-offs easier, but the knives are almost never of the same quality. If your manufacturer has a maker’s mark, you should always check for it.
Different Types of Kitchen Knives: The Heavy Lifters
The Heavy Lifters
These knives do 80% or more of the knife work in a typical kitchen. If you’re looking for a small but versatile set of knives, these are the ones you should buy. They’re the knives you’ll most commonly find in professional kitchens, and the knives you’ll find yourself reaching for most often.
I’ll go over these knives in more detail in a moment, but first, I think this video does a really good job of explaining what knives are kitchen essentials, and how to care for them.
Keep these knives in an accessible location, and sharpen them regularly. If you need to stick to a minimum of knives in your kitchen, these are the ones you’ll want to have.
The Chef’s Knife
If you must have only one knife this is the style you should purchase.
The Chef’s Knife is the biggest workhorse of the kitchen. Originally designed to help with parting beef into specific cuts of meat, this knife is now recognized as the single most versatile knife in the kitchen.
These are usually long knives with a reasonable curve through the belly, a moderately thick spine, and a durable ricasso.
Of course, not all chef’s knives are the same, many manufacturers have several versions they sell for different kinds of users.
The main differences between chef’s knives are the length of the blade, how thick the blade is, and how much of a curve there is through the belly.
For your first chef’s knife a slightly shorter blade 8-10 inches instead of 12, is a good idea. A curved belly can help with slicing thick, tough ingredients like squash and melons, though a slightly straighter belly can make the knife easier to use. Chef’s knives should always be moderately thick and heavy, since they aren’t meant to flex much while you cut.
It’s worth noting that Chef’s Knives are a Western design, but there are several Japanese knives that serve a similar purpose in your kitchen.
Once you start working with Japanese knives, and other Asian designs more generally, you may also be looking at a curved, dull, tip instead of a point, depending on the style you choose.
If you can only have two knives in your kitchen, a utility knife should be the second.
Utility knives are usually around 6 inches long, with a straight belly and a pointed tip.They can be serrated or have a straight edge, but have the same shape with a very straight belly that narrows to a sharp point.
Utility knives with a straight edge tend to be a little more versatile than knives with a serrated edge, but they serve the same purpose, so it’s more a matter of preference than functionality.
These knives are designed to handle pretty much everything a chef’s knife isn’t suited to. They’re good for smaller detail work, cutting bread, and even filleting fish or de-boning meat if you don’t have the more specialized knives for those jobs.
Paring knives are the smaller workhorse of a kitchen, and are designed to take on smaller more delicate cutting jobs. If you eat a lot of small vegetables, and especially if you like to add small fruit to salads and savory dishes, you’ll want to own a paring knife.
Paring knives are rarely serrated, and their maximum length is usually 4”.
Think of paring knives as a smaller, more precise utility knife.
But, don’t think of these knives as 100% necessary. With enough skill, you can accomplish the same tasks with a utility knife, paring knives just make it a little easier.
Read More >> Top 7 Best Knives for Cutting Vegetables
The last workhorse of a kitchen, boning knives are designed to remove the bone from meats. If you eat a lot of meat, or want to save money by preparing your own cuts, this knife is a useful tool. If you prefer buying boneless cuts from the store, you probably don’t need it.
The ricasso and spine of these knives is thinner, and they are often more narrow from spine to blade as well. Its narrowness makes boning knives more flexible, which can reduce any meat wasted when you’re removing a bone.
Different Types of Kitchen Knives: The Essential Additions
The Essential Additions
You probably won’t need these knives every meal, or even every week. However, these more specialized blades still have an important place in most kitchens, and you’ll be grateful you have them when the time comes.
These are the knives you’ll want to start adding when you have a more established kitchen, or when you start cooking at home more, whichever comes first. They’re also good knives to have if you want to start entertaining, since you can serve a wider variety of meals if you have them.
Bread knives are the best option if you need to cut a loaf of bread without crushing or tearing it. They’re good for delicate breads and cake loaves, but sturdy enough to tackle even the crustiest rustic baking.
Bread knives are long knives, often longer than a chef knife’s 8-12 inches, that come to a dull rounded tip. The ricasso and spine are relatively thin, but the blade should be lightly serrated. Waves in the blade are more common than teeth, though both serration styles work.
Bread knives are probably the most common knife other than my Heavy Lifters, and you’ll find them in most kitchens, professional- and home-kitchens alike.
Many bread knives also have Granton along the ricasso, but not all. The Granton can help avoid squishing your bread, but rarely makes a huge difference with a well-maintained bread knife.
If you plan on hosting family dinners and guests over the holiday, you’ll probably want a carving knife. They are the go-to knives for serving roasts of all kinds, and let you create beautifully even slices of meat.
Carving knives are similar in shape to a bread knife in that they are long from handle to tip, but not very thick from edge to spine. They also tend to have a thinner spine and ricasso for added flexibility.
However, most carving knives have a pointed tip where bread knives have a rounded tip (this isn’t universal), and manual carving knives are usually not serrated. If they are serrated, look for a knife that has waves in the blade more than teeth, if you want smooth cuts.
A Second Utility Knife
I’m adding this not because there are significant differences in utility knives. Instead I want to note that, as you start to expand your knife collection, it might be worthwhile to have two utility knives, one that is serrated and one that is not.
That’s because, depending on how you use the knife, the different edge finishes are better and different tasks. Having one of each will give you more options and can make cooking complicated meals easier.
Different Types of Kitchen Knives: The Home Butcher’s Set
The Home Butcher’s Set
You probably don’t need these knives unless you want to cut large sections of meat yourself, like you would if you buy a side of beef or bring home game from hunting.
There’s something about preparing your own cuts of meat that can really help you connect to your food, and really reckon with its origins. Still, preparing your own meat is about more than just knowing where it comes from.
With the right set of butcher’s knives you can save a lot of money, and enjoy higher quality meats, and better cuts of that meat. All you need is a little extra time and dedication to do the prep work yourself.
These are the first knives you want to buy if you’re starting to prepare large cuts of meat at home.
The workhorse of butchering, similar to a chef’s knife, butcher’s knives have more of a curve through the belly that works better for separating sections of meat in a range of different sizes.
These knives are designed to make processing large sections of meat, and cutting through connective tissue a breeze.
Cleavers are also the knives you want on hand if you need to cut through bone. These knives are designed to separate joints and cut through large sections of meat with one efficient motion.
Cleavers are the big rectangle knives that you often see in horror movies, though they’re not nearly as frightening in person.
They are sharpened a little differently to help reduce chipping and damage.
I’ve even created a separate guide to help you pick the best cleaver, since they’re such a useful tool.
Trimming knives are your go-to for tasks in a very small area. They are usually 3 inches long or less, and work well for removing fat from hard to reach areas, removing bones from small game, and similar challenges.
These knives are narrow, pointed, and very short. They work best kept very sharp, and usually come with an impressive edge.
Trimming knives are also one of the few butcher’s knives that are useful for cutting vegetables and fruits, particularly making decorative garnishes and vegetable roses.
Read More >> Top 5 Best Knives for Trimming Brisket
These knives are designed specifically to make cutting a fillet of fish easier, and are a favorite of anglers and savvy cooks who purchase whole fish.
Fillet knives come in a range of lengths, but they are universally very thin, very sharp, and pointed.
These knives need to be kept very sharp because fish flesh tears and shreds easily, so you can’t use a lot of pressure. The flexibility of the knife helps you curve the blade slightly to match the curve of the fish.
This video is a really great, comprehensive resource for learning how to fillet your own fish, and how to use a fillet knife (and some other specialty knives) safely and effectively.
Fair warning, filleting fish can sometimes be a messy job, and this video doesn’t clean up the process for the camera.
Read More >> How to Fillet a Catfish with an Electric Knife
Read More >> Top 5 Best Fillet Knives for Salmon
Different Types of Kitchen Knives: Pastry Knives & Baking Necessities
Pastry Knives and Baking Necessities
Baking usually requires less knife action than other kinds of cooking, but even in this delicate craft there are a few specialized knives that will help you get the best results. These knives can be borrowed from the rest of your set, or you may want some duller versions (because pastry knives have to defy all expectations) specifically for baked confections.
Either way, you’ll be happy to have these tools when it comes time to bake pies, and even happier for more complicated pastries.
Pastry knives are more versatile than their names imply, with some people using them as an equivalent of a chef’s knife. They aren’t quite as versatile as a real chef’s knife though, so I don’t recommend buying a pastry knife in place of a chef’s knife.
Pastry knives are similar to bread knives, but they tend to have more of a curved blade (both the spine and the edge of the blade are curved, without much noticeable belly). Pastry knives are also serrated, but without prominent teeth.
These knives vary in sharpness, from very sharp as an all-purpose knife, to relatively dull for parting doughs and pastries without damaging them.
Dough cutters aren’t properly knives, since they are almost never sharpened, but they’re used as a knife for bread doughs.
They are square or rectangular pieces of thin steel, but instead of having a handle and spine, a dough cutter’s handle covers the spine of the metal.
They’re used with a chop cut, and don’t worry, I’ll discuss what that technique looks like a little later.
This knife is better than a trimming knife if you’re looking for a decoration making specialty tool, and is very effective for carving hard vegetables into your preferred shape.
Fluting knives are similar to paring knives with a short straight blade that comes to a point. However the blade is more angled, wider near the handle for a more triangular look.
Fluting knives are a little less common now that decorative garnishes aren’t as popular, but that can make using one all the more impressive.
Different Types of Kitchen Knives: Specialty Knives for Special Occasions
This group of knives might not see much use, but they’ll be the star of the show when you use them. Some of these knives can even be a conversation starter since, chances are, only a few of your friends will know what they are!
Don’t worry if you don’t have space for these. Almost all of them can be substituted for one of my Heavy Lifters without too much trouble.
Yanagiba are a specialty Japanese knife that is used for sashimi and sushi. They are a long, single bevel blade, that come to a point. They have a straight belly, and are most similar in shape to a carving knife, except that yanagiba don’t have granton blades.
These are especially designed to make cutting through sushi rolls easier, and anyone who wants to make sushi at home will find it much easier if they own one.
These knives are made with a very different design than the Western knives you’re probably most familiar with. Don’t worry though, I have a buying guide for these specialized knives to help you pick the best one and learn why these knives are so effective for sushi.
Read More >> Top 5 Best Knives for Cutting Sushi
Cheese knives are less popular since cheese cutters are widely available. Yet, cheese knives are the more durable of the two, being much stronger than the breakable wire in a cheese cutter.
Cheese knives are curved upward along the spine and blade both, and have holes punched through the ricasso to decrease friction on the cheese. Generally serrated with many small teeth per inch of blade, they range from 3-5 inches long.
While you might not need this knife everyday, they are cost-saving over time since you won’t have to replace them like you need to replace cheese cutters every time they break.
Once a popular knife for members of the social elite, grapefruit knives are a specialty tool for citrus lovers.
These knives have a long, slightly serrated, but dull blade that ends in an upward curve. Some of the nicest don’t have a spine, and are instead double bladed with one side for the peel and the other side for the pith of the grapefruit.
If you’re a grapefruit for breakfast person, you may want to consider adding a grapefruit knife to your collection. Or, if you want a knife to use as a trivia question with friends.
Mincing knives are most useful for home cooks who love fresh herbs and the finest minced vegetables. They aren’t designed to create a rough chop, but they will help you get the most flavor out of herbs and fresh greens, without crushing your produce.
These knives look a bit like a dough cutter, with a handle across the spine and a large, squarish blade. However, unlike a dough knife, mincing knives have a curved blade with a wide belly, designed so that you can rock the knife back and forth to cut.
How to Make the Most of Your Kitchen Knives
Now that you have the terms you need to talk about your knives, and we’ve gone over a wide variety of different kinds of knives, it’s time to talk about how to use those knives.
Here are some of the core benefits of proper knife technique, and why it’s worth learning and practicing:
- Efficiency: The best knife techniques work quickly and efficiently, cutting your prep time and letting you make delicious meals faster.
- Consistency: You’ll also get more consistent results using proper knife techniques. No more uneven vegetables or roughly chopped meats.
- Safety: Proper knife techniques protect your fingers, hands, and the other people in the kitchen around you. This is the most important benefit of proper knife technique.
Since safety is most important, I also want to note that how you hold and use your knife is only part of proper knife safety.
To use your knives safely you also need:
- To keep your knives sharp
- To only use your knives on a flat, stable, surface
- To store your knives in a safe location, with the edge covered.
Proper Grip and Cutting Technique
The first thing you need to know is how to grip your knife effectively. This is all about maximizing comfort and minimizing the stress up your arm and into your shoulder. There are a few different ways to grip a knife properly, and one big nono when it comes to knife grip.
The wrong way to grip a knife is with your forefinger, or first finger, on the spine of the blade, and your other fingers and thumb gripping the handle. There are a few reasons having your forefinger on the spine is less effective. Here are some examples:
- You’re more likely to use too much pressure
- You’re not stabilizing the knife to prevent twisting
- It causes more arm and wrist fatigue
- It increases your risk of repetitive stress injuries in your hand
As long as you aren’t putting your forefinger on the spine of the knife, and you have lots of control, chances are you’re using a good knife grip. Here are some of the most common safe knife grips:
Just the Handle
A common grip is to have all your fingers and your thumb on just the handle of your knife. Your forefinger and thumb should be as close to the blade as possible on your handle. An ideal grip is firm, but flexible and loose enough that you’re not straining your hand.
Thumb on Top
Another, less common, grip is similar, with all four fingers wrapped around the handle so that one side is pressed against the base of your fingers and the other side of the handle is cradled by the tips of your fingers.
In this position, the palm of your hand is above the handle of the knife, and the tip of your thumb braces the handle and the spine of your knife.
Grip the Shoulder and Handle
This grip is a grip many chefs advocate for, and is the grip you’re most likely to see called the ‘correct’ knife grip.
This grip puts your forefinger and thumb over the edge of the handle, on either side of the ricasso, next to the shoulder (the thicker portion near the handle), with your other three fingers wrapped around the handle.
This grip isn’t significantly more flexible than other grips, but it does put your hand closer to the blade and helps you feel what you’re doing through the steel.
This video shows all the grips I’ve talked about, as well as a good rocking cutting technique for chef’s knives.
Your other hand is just as important for knife technique as your grip on the knife. In fact, your off-hand will develop a great deal of dexterity prepping your food using proper knife techniques.
Your off hand should be in a claw position on most foods, with your fingers and thumb curled under so that the tips of your fingers are underneath and behind the topmost knuckles.
The tips of your fingers grip your food and slowly move back as you slice. Ideally, you should not be able to see the tip of your finger, instead, your first knuckle should be furthest forward.
There are four basic cutting techniques you should know for most jobs:
- Rocking Slicing
- Precise Slicing
Chef’s knives are designed for rocking slices and precision cutting. They can also handle a little chopping.
Knives like cleavers and butcher knives are designed for chopping, though butcher’s knives can also use a rocking slice.
Serrated knives (like bread knives, steak knives, and some utility knives) are designed for a gently sawing motion with limited pressure.
This technique is best for smooth edged knives with a moderate belly and tall ricasso (meaning curved, and with a wide flat of the blade). It’s not precise slicing, where you’re making one specific cut at a time, but rather a rolling motion used to dice or mince whatever you’re cutting.
The ricasso, or flat, of the knife should be resting against your first knuckle on whichever finger is furthest forward in a claw position.
The cutting motion should be circular and stable, with the edge of your knife always in contact with your cutting board. This is the cutting technique demonstrated in the video in the grip section.
If you want to see this technique in action, here is Gordon Ramsey using this technique in combination with individual precise slices to dice an onion.
A chopping cut, moving the blade directly up and down to cut, is mostly used to separate the joint in a cut of meat, or to section large sections of meat or particularly large fruits and vegetables into a more manageable size.
Chopping doesn’t have a forward or back motion like slicing, and is very percussive. Relatively few knives are designed for this technique, but the thicker side of a chef’s knife, cleavers, and butcher’s knives can all handle it.
Sawing With A Serrated Knife
This is the basic forward and back motion serrated knives are designed for. The serrations help the knife move through tough surfaces, and also helps work through heavily textured foods like bread.
You’ll move the knife back and forth with a straight edged blade, but not as often, and the cutting action should feel much smoother than it does with a serrated blade.
Precise slicing is probably what you’re doing anytime you aren’t using one of the other techniques. This just involves making a single cut at a time with a specific goal, often to create a stable surface or cut out a small part of your produce.
If you’re making a small slice, it may be easier to use the tip of the knife. For larger slices, like cutting a potato or onion in half, start at the thickest part of the knife, and draw it toward yourself to make the cut.
You can also use this technique to make horizontal cuts, but it’s very important to make sure your knife is sharp so you don’t need much pressure.
My Final Thoughts on Quality Kitchen Knives
There it is! I’ve covered many of the most common types of knives, along with some of the most useful specialty knives that might find a home in your kitchen. I’ve also gone over proper knife technique, and the kinds of skills you need to make the most out of all your knives.
Don’t feel pressured to buy many different knives if you don’t need them. The most extensive collections often go underused since many people buy knives they don’t need more than once or twice a year.
This guide isn’t to encourage you to buy a dozen new knives, but instead to help you find the knives you really need, even if they are a little off the beaten path.
Now, it’s time for you to find out what you can make with your upgraded knowledge and kitchen!