The first step is choosing the right knife for the task at hand. Using a rigid blade when a flexible blade is more appropriate will make it more difficult and slow you down. Whereas one too large won’t allow for the control needed and can cause an accident.
Bread / Long serrated (or scalloped) knife
Similar to a carving knife, with a serrated edge. Uses include: slicing loaves, bagels and crusty bread, and a good one will cut food with soft, easily bruised skins such as tomatoes and peaches. It will keep its edge despite heavy usage as a result of the curvy parts of the blade not being drawn repeatedly across a cutting board as opposed to a straight-edged blade.
Cook’s knife / Chef’s knife / French knife
A broad, strong, rigid blade suitable for a wide range of jobs. Available in different sizes from 12.5cm/5inch to 30cm/12″ long blades and varying blade depth but at least 4cm/1½” at the widest point. Most say a 20cm/8″ or 25cm/10″ blade is a must have but others find a 15cm/6″ invaluable for everyday task as it feels like an extension of their hand thus being easier to wield. French-style chef’s knives appear almost triangular with a shallower, sleeker blade to allow for higher clearance when slicing big items. The shape encourages you to slice forward, rather than rock back and forth. German-style chef’s knives have a deeper blade with a gentle curve that’s great for back-and-forth rock chopping.
Uses include: dicing, chopping, mincing and trimming vegetables, meat and poultry; chopping fresh herbs; and the side of the blade to crush garlic cloves, peppercorns, and ginger slices. Once you learn to use one, you’ll soon gain speed, control and confidence. A longer blade may require more time to get used to but the additional blade length makes it more efficient for slicing and chopping as smaller ones can limit and tire when chopping large amounts.
Palette knife / Baker’s knife
A flexible blade rounded at top with either a plain or serrated edge. Uses include: icing cakes and pastries; turning food over during cooking (such as fish fillets); moulding and smoothing food; and carving (serrated only).
Carving knife / Meat knife / Slicer
A long, thin, round or pointed, narrow blades with either a serrated or plain edge. Uses include: carving whole meats, and slicing fish.
A semi-flexible, very strong, straight or curved blade for small and large butchery. Blades are long and thin with a narrow width. They will not bend or break easily and are responsive and small enough to manoeuvre around bone, fat and tissue. Curved ones make it easy to cope with irregular angles and the swiping cuts butchering requires. Uses include: removing bones from meat joints and poultry. Indispensable if you do a lot of butchering.
A thin-bladed, flexible and very sharp knives varying in length. Similar to the boning knife except longer and specifically designed for fish. Uses: filleting fish by separating delicate flesh from skin and bones.
A medium sized knife with a straight or serrated blade ideal for slicing, peeling, chopping and dicing all types of fruit, vegetables and boneless meats. It is also useful for smaller items such as chillies or garlic.
Paring knife / Peeling knife
A small knife with a pointed, short blade – 5-10cm/2-4″ long and approximately 2cm/¾” deep at the widest point. The thin and slightly flexible blade is ideal for hand-held work. Uses include: paring and peeling vegetables, slicing vegetables, removing cores, shaping mushrooms, and small-scale tasks such as trimming chicken breasts, scoring thin cuts of meat and making cuts in pastry dough.
Turning knife / Bird’s beak paring knife
A tiny knife with a hooked blade tip. Uses include: trimming and shaping vegetables into attractive and/or uniform barrel shapes.
Serrated fruit (tomato) knife
A small knife similar to a paring knife but with a thin, serrated blade. Uses include: slicing soft fruit and tomatoes.
Clam knife / Oyster knife
A small, sturdy knife with a round-tip blade used for opening live clams/oysters.
A large, wide, thin, square blade used for butchery with an axe-like appearance. Some types are heavy but also evenly weighted. Japanese cleavers are similar to Chinese cleavers but usually more expensive due to finer craftsmanship. A good cleaver cuts through bone just as easily as vegetables. Its flat sides can be used for pounding, tenderising and crushing garlic. The butt end can be used as a pestle.
Cleavers which are not as heavy and meant for delicate chopping and slicing of vegetables, herbs and soft meat are becoming more popular in Western kitchens as a substitute for the chef’s knife. These knives should not be used for bones. Overall uses: chopping large quantities of meat and vegetables, cutting meat and fish, and pounding.
A scissor-like appearance generally spring-loaded with one serrated blade designed to cut poultry. Other features can include slip-proof handles, slightly cured blades for getting in and around tricky areas, and a serrated and notched edge for gripping flesh and cutting bones.
Uses include: cutting through bone and cartilage such as chicken carcasses, snipping out the backbone of poultry, trimming seafood and fins from whole fish, and cutting vegetables such as artichokes.
Kitchen shears / Scissors
Unlike regular scissors, they are specifically designed not only for opening packages but also light kitchen tasks. Choose sturdy, good quality ones with sharp blades preferably made of stainless steel. Moulded, slip-proof handles allow for comfort and better gripping. Uses: snipping herbs, cutting butcher’s twine, trimming smaller vegetables (e.g. green beans), shearing parchment paper, slicing pizza, chopping smaller foods (e.g. anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes and spring onions) and depending on quality chopping bacon and trimming fat from meat.
Sharpening Steel / Butcher’s steel
A long, round, rough and pointed tool usually made of high carbon and some of diamond steel or ceramic. Used to sharpen a knife. Choose one with a safety guard at the hilt to protect the hand while sharpening. Sizes vary but are ideally 30cm/12″ long — an inch longer than the longest knife in your collection.
Whetstone / Oilstone
Rectangular block consisting of extremely hard carborundum (a composition of silicon carbide) generally with a fine grade side and coarse side.
Knives for table service
They are usually named after their use, e.g. dinner, luncheon, fish, butter and steak knives.