I remember my first time watching Iron Chef. I was about 8 years old, and totally amazed by the chefs’ lightning-fast knife skills and familiarity with ingredients I had never seen, let alone tasted. I wondered how they could possibly choose between all those types of kitchen knives.
Fast forward a little more than 20 years and, prompted by my early fascination with Iron Chef, I’ve now been working in kitchens across the US for nearly two decades. During that time, I’ve gained an incredible amount of hands-on experience with virtually every type of knife you might discover in a home or professional kitchen.
In this guide, I’m excited to share that knowledge and experience with you.
I’ll be covering the types of kitchen knives you should know, their defining characteristics, how each one is typically used, and what to look for when selecting one for your kitchen.
There’s no knife more emblematic of the professional chef than the chef’s knife, also known as a cook’s knife or French knife. Measuring between 6 and 12 inches long, these broad and heavy knives are truly all-purpose — allowing a cook to do everything from chopping through chicken bones, to disjointing large cuts of beef, to mincing and slicing vegetables.
Blades for chef’s knives are either forged, through a laborious hand-made process, or stamped with the help of a die-cut machine. Forged blades are considered the gold standard, as they are both more durable and can take a sharper edge.
Traditionally partnered with the chef’s knife in French kitchens, paring knives are made for small, delicate, and intricate work. Think peeling fruits, or deseeding and deveining a hot pepper — just be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward, as I’ve touched my eyes right afterward paring hot peppers one too many times!
Paring knives measure 2 ½ to 4 inches long and are made to be lightweight and highly maneuverable. They’re also an inexpensive addition to your selection of kitchen knives and come in very handy for times when you don’t want to break out a full cutting board setup with your chef’s knife, like cutting pieces of fruit to top a salad with.
The king of Japanese kitchen knives, the santoku is the Japanese equivalent of the Western chef’s knife. Measuring 6 to 7 inches long, they’re a bit shorter than the chef’s knife, but their super-hardened steel blades make them suitable for almost any kitchen purpose — and able to hold an edge longer than their Western cousins.
While the two knives may have similar applications, the way you handle them will be quite different, owing to differences in handle design, curvature, and blade angle. Santoku knives are at their best when making drawing cuts straight through meat or produce, instead of using a rocking motion to finish the cut.
A real kitchen all-rounder, the utility knife is a favorite of minimalist home cooks thanks to its do-everything size, shape, and construction. Measuring in somewhere between a paring knife and a chef’s knife, you’ll find them in a range from 4 to 7 inches long.
The tradeoff of a utility knife being a jack of all trades, however, is that it is truly a master of none. They lack the chopping power of the larger and heavier chef’s knife, and can’t perform tasks quite as delicately as a paring knife.
Even so, a quality knife like the Henckels Classic 6-inch utility knife can be a great starter knife for the home cook, allowing them to practice knife skills without having to choose the right blade for each use.
Have you taken up a bread-baking hobby lately? I certainly have. My lust for fresh out of the oven bread was just too much to be sated by store-bought loaves. And while my first loaves were far from spectacular, it took me a while to realize that a proper bread knife was the real trick to keeping fluffy loaves looking great after the first slice.
Measuring between 6 and 10 inches long, the bread knife’s serrated edge makes it perfect for slicing bread without crushing it, leaving each piece just as lofty as the next. The serrated edges make it a real bear to sharpen, but even an inexpensive knife like the OXO Good Grips bread knife will keep an edge for up to a year if you’re only using it to cut bread.
Even though it’s usually laid out alongside your fork and spoon at the table, the butter knife deserves a mention among other types of kitchen knives. Their dull edges make them poorly suited to preparing fruits and vegetables — but an ideal way to spread butter, jam, or preserves on fresh-baked rolls.
The closely-related sandwich spreader is an upgraded version of the humble butter knife, with a wider blade and scraper edge that makes it an absolute pro at scooping and spreading butter, mayonnaise, preserves, and chicken salad.
Large, heavy, and rectangular, the cleaver is the cutting tool of choice for butchery. Designed specifically to cut through bone, its thick blade adds weight and heft that allows chefs to “drop” the blade, making strong cuts easier on the hands and wrists.
Depending on their country of origin, cleavers may have different degrees of curve to their blades. Chinese-style cleavers feature an almost completely straight blade, German cleavers usually feature a more exaggerated curve. I prefer the straight Chinese-style cleaver blade for its balance, though I know a few chefs who prefer a curved blade for its ability to rock over smaller poultry bones.
Longer than a chef’s knife, and featuring a slimmer blade, carving knives are a staple of the Thanksgiving table. True to their name, these knives are designed to carve thin slices of meat off of large roasts of turkey, ham, and the like.
The thin blades of these knives allow for finer control of the cut than a chef’s knife, while their length (8 to 12 inches) and slight flexibility allow for long, precise cuts. In my kitchen, this knife only comes out a few times a year to cut roasts — but when it does, it’s the only knife for the job.
Similar to a carving knife, but even longer and thinner, the slicing knife is immediately recognizable for its blunt tip. You’ll find them with either a plain or serrated edge, though I’m partial to plain edges as they make cleaner, prettier cuts in large roasts, fish, or smoked meats.
Slicing knives are the second most flexible type of kitchen knife, right behind boning knives. This makes them a useful alternative to the carving knife, which I often use interchangeably with a slicer.
Measuring 5 to 6 inches long and featuring the most flexible blade of any type of kitchen knife, a boning knife is a specialized tool for one task: Taking the bones out of meat, poultry, and fish.
If you’re regularly buying bone-in cuts of meat or whole chickens to cook at home, a boning knife will revolutionize your meal prep game!
A good boning knife doesn’t have to set you back a lot either, as the flexible blades are inexpensive to produce in comparison to stiffer, hand-forged steel blades. Victorinox’s Swiss Army boning knife is a great example and comes outfitted with a must-have non-slip grip.
Another member of the boning knife family, filet knives are the tool of choice for preparing cuts of fish. Featuring long (6 to 11 inch), thin, and flexible blades, they’re perfectly capable of sliding under the skin and cleanly separating it from the fish’s flesh.
The pointed blade of a fillet knife transitions to a pronounced curve in the blade, allowing for easy entry into the skin of a fish and smooth cuts along the length of the meat. Stainless steel is the metal of choice for filet knives, as it provides corrosion resistance that’s important for the wet environments these knives are used in.
Among the many types of knives available in the Western kitchen, none quite matches up with the Japanese nakiri bocho. Made specifically for cutting vegetables, it’s one of the most unique knives that you can add to your kitchen, allowing for precise and decorative cuts of fresh produce
Nakiri knives feature thin and lightweight blades with a perfectly straight blade edge, meaning that you can cut straight down into vegetables without needing to push or pull to complete the cut. That can be hard to visualize, so check out this video for a demonstration of the nakiri’s precision cutting abilities.
Italy’s specialty “half-moon” knife, the mezzaluna, is named after the curved shape of its blade(s). Instead of slicing and dicing in a single direction, the mezzaluna is rocked back and forth over your ingredients, chopping and mincing with minimal effort.
The invention of the mezzaluna was inspired by the incredible density of minced herbs and garlic that show up in Italian cooking. If you love making fresh pasta, pesto, and sauces, this blade can seriously cut down on your prep time when used for cutting all of your herbs and garlic.
The only sharp knife that you’ll find in modern place settings, the steak knife is used for cutting — you guessed it — steak! Their blades usually measure around 4 inches long, are made of stainless steel, and can be straight or serrated.
If you love a backyard barbecue as much as I do, investing in a good set of steak knives will bring your grilling experience to the next level. You can find steak knives in an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes, and handle materials, but I’m partial to the classic wooden handles of knives like Cuisinart’s walnut steak knives.
Owing to the wide variety of textures in fine cheeses, you’ll find a similarly wide variety of specialized knives used to cut them. Three styles particularly stand out:
- Soft cheese knives are made with holes along the centerline of the blade, keeping soft cheeses from sticking to the knife while you’re cutting.
- Hard cheese knives feature a forked tip for spearing cheese pieces and a sharp, rigid blade that makes it easy to cut through denser cheeses.
- Parmesan knives are built to break through the hardest of hard cheeses. They resemble a garden trowel with a sharp edge. Instead of cutting through the cheese, they are meant to be wedged in and pulled back, separating chunks of parmesan at a time.
And while it’s not a knife, it’s worth mentioning here that wire cutters are a popular option for cutting cheese, as well.
What’s better than one kitchen knife? How about two, connected together with a handle! At their most basic, that’s what kitchen shears are — and they’re definitely one of my favorite additions to a home kitchen.
Ideal for chopping herbs and salad greens, kitchen shears can also make quick work of segmenting portions of cooked chicken for salads, all while opening your food’s plastic packaging. Be sure and get a pair of kitchen shears that can separate at the handle, like OXO’s Good Grips kitchen shears, as this makes them so much easier to clean (and more sanitary).
Wrapping Things Up: The Essential Kitchen Knives
Now that you’re familiar with all the types of knives and their uses, you may be wondering: how many different types do I really need?
If you’re cooking at home and hoping to build your skills, a simple knife set that includes a sharp chef’s and paring knife will handle the most common cooking tasks. If you’re slicing sourdough on the regular, then you may also consider adding a serrated bread knife to your collection.
As your skills develop and you want to try new dishes, there are nearly infinite possibilities to branch out into different types of knives, knife materials (like ceramic and steel), constructions, and countries of origin (most notably Japanese and German knives). Pair a few knives, essential cookware, and a heat source and there will be no stopping your kitchen.
I recently wrote a guide that dives deeper on this topic. In it you’ll learn about what I consider the five most essential knives and why each one deserves a place in your kitchen.