An Expert Guide to the Different Types of Knives

Published on 07/30/2023 · 10 min readDiscover the world of knives with our expert guide. From versatile chef's knives to handy paring knives, find your perfect kitchen companion!
Jacob Lewis, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Jacob Lewis

Photo by Sehajpal Singh

TL;DR: Many kitchen tasks are accomplished with a few knives, and further nuance comes with specialty knives. Invest in knives that fit your hand and style of cutting. With proper knife care, storage, and sharpening, these tools will last for many years.

I’m Jake, and I’m a Curated Kitchen Expert with over 20 years of experience working in restaurants. I own only five knives. In this article, I’ll give an overview of the common types of kitchen knives, and hopefully, you’ll feel inspired to find the perfect types of knives for you.

What Is a Kitchen Knife?

Photo by Vitalii Borkovskyi

A good kitchen knife becomes an extension of your arm. Chopping, slicing, mincing, and carving become an action of the mind like the command of a wizard as your hand guides the blade through the ingredients and across the cutting board. The most renowned is the sharp-pointed chef knife, and its near companions are the bread knife and the paring knife.

Blades are made with high-carbon stainless steel for consistent durability and performance, while the handles incorporate wood, resin, composite, or plastic, depending on budget and aesthetic.

What to Consider When Buying a Kitchen Knife

1. What Types of Cooking Do You Frequently Do?

Consider the ingredients you prepare most. For example, if you are a vegetarian, then a santoku, nakiri, and utility knife might be the most practical. If you cook a lot of beef, turkey, pork, or chicken, then a carving and boning knife (and a pair of scissors?) might go best with a chef's knife.

2. What Material Is a Kitchen Knife Made Of?

How the alloy metals are sourced, prepared, and cured defines the quality, consistency, and performance of the knife.

Budget knives use stamped metals and aren’t heat treated, resulting in knives that dull easily (Rockwell hardness of 54-56). High-end knives are extensively forged and heat treated (Rockwell hardness of 58-62). Damascus or carbon steel blades (Rockwell 62-65+ on average) require particular care and maintenance.

3. How Comfortable Is the Knife in Your Hand?

An uncomfortable knife won’t be fun and will tire your wrist (dangerous). A knife might initially feel good, but over time can become uncomfortable. It’s okay to change your mind about a knife.

4. How Easy Is It to Care for the Knives?

Forged stainless steel is the easiest to sharpen. Low-cost knives dull easily, and high-end knives are higher maintenance than mid-range knives. For example, carbon steel knives require frequent honing and dry storage. Damascus steel knives have brittle material that easily chips, but they’re elegant and lightweight.

5. How Much Should a Kitchen Knife Cost?

Investing in mid-range knives avoids headaches. Low-cost knives ($15-40) should all be avoided, and mid-range knives ($50-150) offer the best overall value, performance, and durability. High-end knives ($200+) might feature wooden handles, a refined finish, and heat treating.

What Are the Different Types of Kitchen Knives?

Photo by Danilo Rios

Here’s the short list of the most common knives, their benefits, and downsides (I left the cheese knife, kitchen shears, and tomato knives off this list, sorry!)

1. Chef's Knife

With a long edge of 6-10 inches and a tapered point, this type of knife can slice, chop and even use the fine pointed end with careful precision for smaller cuts.

  • Benefits: Balanced and comfortable handling lends to its ability to smoothly perform most tasks in the kitchen
  • Downsides: Can be intimidating for beginners and difficult to master
  • Best For: Everyone who cooks deserves a quality chef’s knife

2. Paring Knife

A paring knife is compact and perfect for handheld tasks (trimming potatoes, carrots, or peeling small fruit), but it isn’t versatile due to a short 3-4-inch blade length. Many cooks do not use these on a cutting board.

  • Benefits: The short blade lightweight design encourages precision
  • Downsides: Limited to small tasks, quantities, and not ideal for heavy-duty tasks
  • Best For: Handheld tasks like peeling, trimming, herbs, decorative cuts, or soft cheeses. Also great for beginners and children learning how to use a knife

3. Bread Knife

The long serrated blade (8-12 inches) easily slices through bread and squash. Often made with a single-beveled edge (cuts unevenly), high-end bread knives are double-beveled and perform evenly.

  • Benefits: Great for slicing bread, soft fruits, and tomatoes
  • Downsides: Might require professional assistance to sharpen and is only suitable for slicing (not ideal for chopping)
  • Best For: Slicing or sawing through foods with a thick exterior and a soft interior

4. Utility Knife

Utility knives are fine-edged or serrated (4-7 inches) and perfect for the same tasks as a paring knife, but more suitable for use on the cutting board. Great for quartering potatoes, fileting fish, or deboning a whole chicken.

  • Benefits: Compact, lightweight, and versatile for many kitchen tasks. Skilled users can use this knife instead of a boning or fillet knife
  • Downsides: The all-purpose design is less specialized for many tasks, which can be difficult for beginners to use with confidence. Options with serrated edges are difficult to sharpen.
  • Best For: Sandwiches, slicing medium-sized fruits and vegetables, deboning chicken

5. Boning Knife

With a blade length of 5-7 inches, there are two main styles of boning knives, and both develop a unique skill set. The Japanese honesuki is perfect for poultry, while the European boning knife is more of an all-purpose design with a flexible blade.

  • Benefits: Ideal for handling meat products with precision and minimal waste.
  • Downsides: Options with a flexible blade require extra care as the knife can deflect off bones, risking personal injury. Not safe for cutting through bones.
  • Best For: Nuanced handling of poultry, fish, and tender steak.

6. Santoku Knife

A vegetarian favorite (next to the Nakiri), the Japanese santoku is compact with a slightly curved blade (5-7 inches) that excels at slicing, chopping, and dicing. They are typically considered safer for use than a traditional chef’s knife because the rounded ‘sheep’s foot’ of the blade eliminates the sharp point at the tip.

  • Benefits: All-purpose design is perfect for handling any vegetable and great for smaller cuts of meat
  • Downsides: For beginners, the omission of a pointed tip can be slightly less versatile for precision cuts, so having a paring or utility knife on standby can be essential
  • Best For: Beginners and anyone who prepares a lot of vegetables.

7. Nakiri

A Japanese classic with the shape of a small butcher knife and similar to the function of a santoku, the blade of nakiri knives are more delicate with thinner material that allows for meticulous and nuanced cuts.

  • Benefits: Ideal for precise and uniform slicing of vegetables and small cuts of meat. The flat blade design makes it perfect for push-cutting as well as chopping
  • Downsides: The delicate nature of the blade makes it less robust than other kitchen knives and should be reserved for light-duty kitchen tasks
  • Best for: High-end restaurant work or meals where presentation and texture are key to the dining experience

8. Carving Knife

A carving knife features a longer blade of 8-15 inches and is great for roasts, poultry hams, and other large pieces of cooked meat. A brisket knife is a variation of this blade but typically has a rounded tip to avoid accidentally catching the tip on a large piece of meat.

  • Benefits: Perfect for long, thin cuts on large pieces of meat
  • Downsides: Limited versatility, can be used on larger fruits and vegetables but isn’t ideal. The length can be difficult for some people to master.
  • Best For: Anyone who regularly cooks large cuts of meat

9. Cleaver

Large and heavy with a tall rectangular blade, the cleaver is ideal for chopping through hard vegetables and small bones without much risk of critically damaging the blade. Most cleavers also have a slight rocking edge which makes them good for mincing.

  • Benefits: Perfect for heavy-duty cuts that require extra weight and durability from the knife. The large flat side of the blade is ideal for crushing garlic and other small ingredients.
  • Downsides: The size and heft can be ergonomically uncomfortable, in addition to the knife already being poorly suited for precision tasks.
  • Best For: Breaking down large vegetables, separating or cutting through small bones (ideally poultry)

Additional Features to Look For in a Kitchen Knife

Photo by Debby Hudson

Overall, knives are pretty simple. But there are some key features that you may or may not want for specific applications.

  1. Full Tang: Quality knives use a full-tang forged construction which means the metal of the blade extends through the handle, resulting in improved balance, stiffness, and durability. However, this also adds extra weight.
  2. Granton Edge: Sometimes knives (santoku and carving knives) will have hollowed grooves on the side of the blade to help prevent ingredients from sticking. This can be especially helpful with meats, cheese, onion slices, and moist fruits.

Features to Avoid or Be Aware of in Kitchen Knives

Here are a couple of things to consider when shopping for knives, one is a dealbreaker, and the other is just an educational point that might sway your decision one way or the other:

  1. Dishwasher-Safe Claims: Knives are hand-wash-only and should never go in the dishwasher or sink (mainly to avoid damage and injury). The knife’s edge will rapidly dull when exposed to water, high heat, and dish detergents. Next, the likelihood of a knife colliding with another object inside the sink or dishwasher increases the chance of damaging the blade. If a knife claims to be dishwasher-safe, just take it as a red flag.
  2. Bolster: Bolstered knives are great for beginners. Knife bolsters can help strengthen the blade, balance the weight, and create a safe buffer at the heel between the blade and fingers. However, it also makes it more difficult to sharpen, affecting the ergonomics of a pinch grip-cutting style and reducing the active edge of the blade. Most chefs prefer knives with a half-bolster design.

How to Choose the Best Kitchen Knife for You

Here are a few examples of people I’ve helped find their perfect knife.

Mackenzie

Needs: Replacing their chef knife for work and wants the best option for the money

Features to look for: Durability, affordable and ease of maintenance

Products to consider:

  • Mercer Renaissance 8-inch Chef: One of the very best NSF-certified options for professionals, these knives are durable, affordable, and more refined than similarly-priced options.
  • Miyabi Evolution 8-inch Chef: Higher end, sharpest, and most durable, this knife also has a notably higher price tag than the rest of these options.
  • Cangshan Helena 8-inch Chef: Similar to the Mercer Renaissance, this knife is NSF-certified but is primarily designed for home cooks.

Erica

Needs: Would like to try a high-end knife with a good slicing edge for vegetables. Open to considering different lengths

Features to look for: Aesthetics, high-quality

Products to consider:

David

Needs: Wants to try a new bread knife for use at home with baking and preparing layer cakes

Features to look for: High-end, aesthetics, and durability

Products to consider:

Finding Your Perfect Knife

Please don’t feel discouraged if this article has only left you with more questions! If you’d like someone to bounce your ideas off of, please feel welcome to have a chat with me or one of the Kitchen Experts here at Curated.

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

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