From slicing and chopping to carving and paring, everyone who loves cooking needs a professional set of knives. Whether you’re ready to add to your own collection of Japanese knives, or simply looking for a place to start, this guide will help you make the right choice and learn about different types of kitchen knives.
Parts of a cooking knife
Let’s start with simple things. If you do not need to know every single part of a knife it is ok. But being familiar with the parts can help you decipher various instructions (and opinions) on knife use. Here we describe all the parts of a knife and present information about the different types of kitchen knives and their shapes.
The edge or “cutting edge” is the sharpened part of the blade. It does the actual cutting and slicing. It consists of three sections for different uses: the tip, belly, and heel.
It is the end of the blade. This area of the blade is useful for fast and easy chopping such items as mushrooms or for slicing even larger food. The tip also serves to create a pivot point used in several different cutting methods.
It is the part of a knife between the tip and heel. Western chef’s knives tend to have a more pronounced curve at this part of the blade. However, some knives, such as the Japanese Santoku, can be nearly flat in profile.
It is the end of the blade just before the handle, opposite the tip. Some blades have the heel blended into an extended bolster for more protection at the cost of versatility. The heel allows for high leverage providing strength for heavy cutting chores.
Why is the bolster needed? It adds strength where the handle joins the blade. It protects the blade from high shearing forces that may cause failure. The bolster also keeps the hand from slipping. It provides more comfort and adds weight to the back of the blade which helps to create balance. Bolsters can make sharpening the entire blade more difficult.
It is the back of the blade opposite the cutting edge. The blades of higher quality kitchen knives, such as chef’s knives and utility knives, become thicker as they approach the spine. This is called a full flat grind and produces less resistance when cutting, along with better balance. Some lower-end knives, however, maintain essentially the same thickness throughout, except, of course, for the beveled edge of the blade. This is called a saber grind and is less expensive to produce.
The tang, handle scales, and pins
As you may know, some knife handles are made of one piece of injection-molded plastic or solid metal. A lot of knives have two-piece handles of stabilized wood, plastic, or other materials. Each piece of the handle is a scale. The tang is the metal part of the knife extending from the blade to the butt. The tang is located between the two scales, forming the handle. This tang runs the full length of the handle in a great knife. Metal rods called pins are inserted in the holes. The pins reinforce the handle from lateral pressure, and then everything is epoxied together so that the scales and tang never separate. Some knives have hidden tangs. In such knives, the handle is a solid piece with a hole drilled through the center. The tang is inserted into the hole so that no portion of the tang can be seen. This is commonly seen in Japanese kitchen knives.
Finally, the butt or pommel is there to serve as a reference point for the hand. It is commonly seen indexed to aid in grip and so the user can identify the blade orientation by feel.
A knife blade is made up of different metals, plus, there are different kitchen knife styles. Some of the common ones and their effects are mentioned below.
An alloy of iron and carbon, carbon steel is used in almost every knife and is easier to reshape. However, it is vulnerable to rust and stains. It may impact the flavor of food due to the presence of iron.
It is the second most popular material that is used for making knives. It is an alloy of iron and they resist rust and corrosion efficiently, unlike carbon-containing knives. High chromium stainless steel is often used in flatware. These do not discolor or stain and can maintain a sharp edge for a long time.
They are the ones that are hard and brittle and possess good edge steel but the limitation is that they get easily chipped and ruined. The hard steel tends to get a better grind and will stay sharp for a longer time.
This is also used in knife making. It is not as hard as steel but these knives are definitely lighter in weight and do not get worn easily. They do not affect the taste of the food in any way. It is an expensive material and hence not preferred for cutlery.
Knives made from ceramic are really hard. They are made from sintered zirconium dioxide and retain their sharp edge for a long time. They are light in weight, do not impart any taste to food, and do not corrode. Good for slicing fruit, vegetables, and boneless meat. Ceramic knives are best used as a specialized kitchen utensil. Because of their hardness and brittle edges, sharpening requires special techniques.
Damascus steel was the forged steel of the blades of swords smithed in the Near East from ingots of Wootz steel. Pattern-welded steel is made by layering iron and steel and forging the metals together by hammering them at high temperatures to form a welded bond. Forge welding multiple layers produce the watery effect characteristic of this type of Damascus steel, although other patterns are possible.
These blades are usually not very sharp and are mainly used to cut through vegetables without causing discoloration. They are not sharp enough to cut deeply into the flesh but can cut or scratch the skin.
Steel blades can be manufactured either by being forged or stamped.
- Hand-forged blades need a multi-step process to make them skilled manual labor. The alloy is heated to a high temperature and pounded while hot to form it. The blade is then heated above the critical temperature (which varies between alloys), quenched in an appropriate liquid, and tempered to the desired hardness. Commercially, "forged" blades may receive as little as one blow from a hammer between dies, to form features such as the "bolster" in a blank. After forging and heat-treating, the blade is polished and sharpened. Forged blades are typically thicker and heavier than stamped blades, which is sometimes advantageous.
- Stamped blades are cut to shape directly from cold-rolled steel, heat-treated for strength, then ground, polished, and sharpened. Stamped blades can often, but not always, be identified by the absence of a bolster.
Type of edge
The edge of the knife can be sharpened to a cutting surface in a number of different ways. There are a lot of different types:
- the grind – what a cross-section looks like;
- the profile – whether the edge is straight or serrated, and straight, curved or recurved;
- away from the edge – how the blade is constructed away from the edge;
- sharpening - the edge of a knife gradually loses its sharpness, which can be restored by sharpening. For many types of knives (e.g., butter knives) this is not relevant. Knives with smooth edges can be sharpened by the user; knives with any form of the serrated edge should ideally be sharpened with specialized equipment, although the useful life of a serrated knife can be extended by simple sharpeners, even if they damage the edge.
- indentations - away from the edge, a knife most simply has either a rectangular or wedge-shaped cross-section (saber grind vs. flat grind), but may also have indentations, whose purpose is to reduce adhesion of the food to the blade. This is widely found in Japanese knives, and in the West is particularly found in meat carving knives, though also in knives for soft cheese, and some use for vegetables.
Forged vs. stamped knives
The two types of knives are made in different ways, which results in the distinctions in their characteristics. The main reason why a lot of people prefer forged knives is that they are generally much more durable. In addition, they usually come with full tang. A lot of cheap stamped knives typically have a half or even a third of a tang. This makes them extremely prone to breaking where the blade and the handle meet. But good stamped knives are also made of good materials, and with a long tang running all the way through their handles. It’s then more a matter of your budget and preference rather than the quality of the knives. Some people prefer forged knives because they like the weight in their hands, as well as the firm, sturdy feeling when doing heavy-duty cuts.
Knife handle materials
The handles of kitchen knives can be made from a number of different materials, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. Let’s talk about them in detail.
- Wood handles are the most attractive and provide a good grip. However, it is rather difficult to care for wooden handles because they need to be cleaned thoroughly and treated with mineral oil. Most wood handles of ordinary varnished hardwood do not resist water well and will crack or warp with prolonged exposure to water. Therefore, they should be hand-washed.
- Plastic handles are the most easily cared for handles and do not absorb microorganisms. However, plastics may become brittle over time and start to crack/lead to cracking. Moreover, some plastics are also slippery in the hand. As this material is too light, this may cause an off-balance. Moreover, for some tastes knives with plastic handles are too lightweight.
- The best choice for many chefs is composite handles. The main reason is that they are as easy to care for and as sanitary as plastic. Such a handle has the appearance, weight, and grip of hardwood. Moreover, composite handles are durable and sturdy. Plus, you can find the wide range of colors of composite handles and they often have a laminated, polished appearance.
- Stainless steel handles are the most durable if compared to others. Plus they are of the most sanitary. However, a lot of chefs consider stainless steel handles extremely slippery in the hand, especially when wet. To resolve this issue, a huge amount of premium knife makers make handles with ridges, bumps, or indentations to provide extra grip. One disadvantage of some all-metal handles is that knife weight usually goes up considerably, affecting the knife's balance and increasing hand and wrist fatigue.
Different types of kitchen knives and their uses
There are a lot of different types of knives that can be used for various tasks. Therefore, sometimes it can be difficult to understand which knives are essential for your kitchen. We broke down the knife types into most common types and specialty types. We will tell you about each type and what they’re used for.
A lot of people like to call it a cook’s knife. This knife is a must-have for everyone in any kitchen. The chef’s knife is a multipurpose tool and is perfect for any task in the kitchen. It cuts сheese, chops vegetables, and slices steaks. That is why it is the must-have item in every kitchen knife set collection, small or big.
This is another commonly used knife. It’s often sturdier than a chef’s knife, which means it can be used for things like coring produce, trimming the fat from meat, and slicing bagels in addition to dicing and chopping. A heavy-duty version of the utility knife is helpful for cutting thicker foods, like squash or cured meats.
This knife is a must for people who love to bake. It is perfect for leveling cakes as its long blade can slice through an entire layer in just one pass. A bread knife is also a great choice for large, thick-skinned foods like melons, squashes, and other tough fall vegetables.
The curved blades of a meat knife are ideal for trimming fat off ribs or breaking down a large cut of beef. With the right meat knife, you will feel like a total pro just by slicing with this fantastic tool. Notably, this knife has a slightly curved edge to assist in the slicing process. There are a few types of meat knives.
A carving knife is a large knife for slicing thin cuts of meat, including poultry, roasts, hams, and other large cooked meats. A carving knife is much thinner than a chef's knife (particularly at the spine), enabling it to carve thinner, more precise slices.
A meat cleaver is a large knife (most often rectangular) for splitting or "cleaving" meat and bone. It has a heavy blade that is thick from the spine to quite near the edge. The edge is sharply beveled, and the bevel is typically convex. The knife is designed to cut with a swift stroke without cracking, splintering, or bending the blade. Cleavers are an essential tool for any restaurant that prepares its own meat.
A slicing knife serves a similar function to a carving knife, although it is generally longer and narrower. Such knives often incorporate blunted or rounded tips, and a Granton edge to improve meat separation. Slicers are designed to precisely cut smaller and thinner slices of meat and are normally more flexible to accomplish this task. As such, many cooks find them better suited to slicing ham, roasts, fish, or barbecued beef and pork and venison.
It is a special type of slicer, with a long blade and rounded tip, that is offered by some manufacturers. They are specially tailored to cutting ham, as they are generally thinner and more flexible. Another use can be for bigger fruit, like watermelon or cantaloupe.
This knife is perfect for breaking down cuts of meat or trimming the fat. You definitely won’t find these knives at any home (haha). But butcher knives are a must in butcher shops and restaurants. This type of knife has a slight curve, which helps with cutting through meat. Many types of butcher knives also feature Granton edges, which allow you to easily slice through meat without tearing or shredding it.
Stylish design and a good look definitely play a part. But that’s not all that can make Japanese knives so expensive. The high cost of such knives has a few reasons. It includes the high-end materials cost, extra labor of forge welding together multiple layers, and the fact that most of the high-priced knives are forged on a small scale and they make them by hand.
Cheese knives are designed for — try to guess — slicing cheeses. Yeah! Knives designed for soft cheeses will have perforated holes, which keep the cheese from sticking to the metal; sharper knives are used for harder cheeses.
In the event that you love making garnishes for your dishes and serving drinks, a paring knife is an unquestionable requirement. The best paring knife has 3 – 4 inches cutting edge and a very pointy tip. It can be used for cutting and stripping fruits, veggies, and cutting excess fat from meat. The most widely recognized styles of paring knives include the sheep’s foot, and bird’s beak, named after the type of the point.
Specialty knives are good at — no, great at — one thing. These knives are designed to do one specific task very, very well. They're a worthwhile purchase for their functional and aesthetic purposes.
Designed to make elaborate cuts, decorating knives have a simple pattern in the blade. One of the most common decorating knives is adorned with a zigzag shape, which is about as much fun as it sounds.
Sometimes utilized as table knives, steak knives are not only for cutting meat and fish, they are also helpful for cutting servings of mixed vegetables, other (mostly cooked) foods, and spreading margarine. Steak knives can have serrated or non-serrated edges. Serrated steak knife blades are commonly more prominent, as they can remain sharp for a prolonged time without sharpening or honing.
The grapefruit knife has a long, flat, dull blade that looks kind of like an artist’s palette knife with a serrated edge. This is used in the kitchen for separating the fruit of a grapefruit from the peel and pith. Some fancy versions have a double blade — one on either side of the handle — with one for the peel and the other for the inner membrane.
As the name suggests, a vegetable knife is primarily, or even exclusively, used to cut vegetables. Though most kitchen knives, particularly paring knives and chef’s knives, are used to cut vegetables, the straight-edged Japanese Nakiri Bocho are designed specifically for the task.
7 tips for taking care of your kitchen knives
Now that you know all about the essential knives to keep in your kitchen, here are some tips for how to keep them in perfect working order.
Knives and kitchen sinks
It is not only dangerous for your family member who washes the dishes, but it's also bad for your knives. The blade can get scratched, or worse, the tip can bend or break. As soon as you're finished using your knife, wash it, dry it, and put it away in a safe place.
Where to store your knives
The worst thing you can do is to store your knives in the utensil drawer with other things. Mixed in with other utensils is not an option. This will scratch the blade and everything will jostle around in the drawer every time you open it. If you don't have any other place to store your knives at least use a knife sheath to guard the blade.
Hand-washing of knives
The dishwasher is definitely a convenient device. But there's a high risk that the blade will get dinged during the wash cycle. Wash your knives by hand and the blade will thank you.
Don’t use a dish rack for knives
You run the risk of dulling the blade when the knife shares space with other utensils in the utensil bin. Dry your knife immediately after washing, to prevent any mold or mildew from forming, and put it away.
Always cut on cutting boards
Don't cut on your countertop, it will damage not only your knife. Just don't do it. Marble, granite, or any solid surface is too hard for the blade too. Such surfaces will dull the knife extremely quickly. Stick with bamboo wood cutting boards, they're the gentlest. To learn more about the best cutting boards you can read our article.
Sharpen them regularly
It a must for every knife. There are many ways to do this: using a honing steel, a knife stone, or even send it out to a professional.
Choosing the right knife for the task at hand
Every knife has its own task! Choose the correct knife for the cooking task. Using a bread knife to slice ham or cheese seems like a good idea – a knife is a knife, right? But each knife type is designed for different things. Blades are reinforced differently, and shapes lend themselves to different things. A cleaver is better for hacking, whereas a pointed paring knife is better for digging the eyes out of a potato.
Knife storage and transportation
One of the best ways to take care of your knives is to store them properly. While it’s easy to just throw your knives in a kitchen drawer with the rest of your utensils, eventually that practice can cause them to dull and potentially chip.
Wooden knife block
Most home cooks have a knife block on their counter for holding a variety of knives. To sanitize the knife block, chefs recommend soaking the block in a mixture of one gallon of lukewarm water and one tablespoon of household bleach for about two minutes, then let it air dry completely on a clean, dry towel.
Pros: Knife blocks can hold everything you need in one place. It’s easy to organize your knives, as each has a designated slot, then grab them on the fly. Of course, knife blocks also look attractive on the counter and can show off your impressive collection.
Cons: Depending on the model and number of slots, knife blocks are the most expensive. They also may harbor bacteria if you don't properly wash and dry your knives before sliding them back in, so don't forget that step.
Magnetic knife bar
A magnetic knife bar holds all of your knives at a vertical angle and is popular among professionals. When you do a lot of food prep in your kitchen (or in a commercial kitchen) a magnetic bar is a great way to keep knives out and quickly accessible for the faster-paced environment. Pros: Perfect for a small kitchen to organize the space. They also serve as an attractive way to display your knives and you can easily see the knives to choose the right one for the task. Magnetic knife bars can be easily installed on a wall and do not require a lot of space. If you have a small kitchen and want to get more tips about organizing your workplace you can read our article (link). Cons: Unlike blocks or plastic guards, magnetic knife bars do require a little bit of DIY to ensure that it is level and secure on the wall. But it is not a huge disadvantage, right?
Plastic knife edge-guard
A plastic knife edge-guard is an inexpensive choice if you are looking for something simple.
Pros: It is a perfect tool for those who do not have a lot of knives. You can buy them individually for less than $10 and they can protect everything from the smallest of paring knives to the largest chef knife in your arsenal.
Cons: Because they’re made of plastic rather than metal or wood, plastic knife guards are the least environmentally-friendly option.
Different kitchen knives
There are many different types of knives that are used for various tasks, and it can be difficult to know which knives are essential for your kitchen. As a dedicated cook or professional chef, it is not unusual to have big sets of more than a dozen different types of kitchen knives in use at once. Sharp kitchen knives are among the most basic and most important tools every home cook should own. And as everyone likely has more than a knife or two, it doesn’t hurt to learn about the types of knives and how to use them as intended.