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I consider myself a serious home cook. What knives are essential?

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Protecting this question, as it's starting to pick up a few too many spammy, duplicate, and/or off-topic answers. – Aaronut Jun 8 '13 at 22:23

12 Answers 12

Poll-be-poll, so here goes (vegetarian and not formally trained perspective, too):

Essential:

-One (or a couple of them) that is medium sized (~15cm), thin and can be made really sharp, and has a sharp tipped shape that supports rolling/piercing/slicing (Chef/Gyuto, Kiritsuke, labelled-Santoku-but-actually--more-Kiritsuke-like....). Best if no bolster, having a second piercing/scoring tool available in that spot is useful. Second, stainless one recommended if your primary one isn't. Huge isn't better because then it will be awkward to use for paring too, and will make more of your cutting board space unusable for storage or hand placing.

-One medium to big one that can stand abuse (hacking through an inch of something frozen, dealing with winter squash skin, cutting HOT materials... and damn, the can opener just packed it...) - medium-thick cleaver, inexpensive thick santoku or chef....

-A peeler

Nice-to-have knife block filler:

-Something ceramic for really reactive stuff (salsify, acidic fruit...)

-Selection of utility/paring knives (I don't like much off-board cutting so these get used rarely)

-Something really long

-Nakiri (see motivational clutter :)

-...yeah, bread and tomato knives if you happen to eat lots of these. A Chef knife can cut these things adequately too :)

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A more modern set...

Disclosure: I'm on the board of directors for a high end knife company.

The traditional advice given to young home cooks has been to get something like:

  • 8" chef's knife
  • 4" paring knife
  • Bread knife (performs a common task that the other knives cannot).

However, knife materials and home cooking skills have improved quite a bit over the last decade or two so I now advise serious home cooks to use the following:

  1. 11" or 12" chef's knife - Serious cooks typically know how to handle longer blades, and this gives you more workable edge length for cutting large vegetables and meat blocks, and also allows for fewer and cleaner cuts. The difference in working edge between an 8" and a 12" knife is enormous!

    • Contemporary steel allows knives to be made at these lengths without sacrificing precision or rigidity because the knife spine no longer has to be thicker to accommodate a longer length.
    • A properly designed, modern 10" or 12" knife will have an edge profile which allows for good, western-style push/chop-cutting action with good rebound, but still allow the entire edge length to be used effectively for slicing strokes.
  2. 5" to 6.5" utility knife - For most home kitchens, a utility knife in this range is far more useful than a paring knife. It's long enough to cut apples, onions, garlic, herbs, and many prep and one-off items, but also short enough that you can accomplish most paring tasks. The utility knife size is much more maneuverable than a full chef's knife for simple/one-off tasks, and the length allows for a thin and very sharp blade which you will love. For couples cooking together, this also allows for much better knife sharing since the utility knife has far better task range than a paring knife.

  3. Bread knife

The next few knives I'd suggest after the "modern trio" are:

  1. Long sujihiki or slicing knife
  2. Boning knife

My strong suggestion for those on a budget is to save money by not buying #4 and #5, buying a relatively cheap bread knife, and redirect the bulk of your budget to #1 and #2.

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I'm glad I spent more money on my chef's knife, but the paring knife I bought at the dollar store (sorry) has always performed to my complete satisfaction. What additional benefits might I discover, if I were to invest in a high quality paring knife? — Also, do you have any advice about vegetable peelers? In addition to everyone's "top three" knives, it's the one cutting device I wouldn't want to go without. – ElmerCat Dec 27 '15 at 18:45
    
@ElmerCat my counsel would be for a utility knife rather than a paring knife. A utility knife in the 5" to 6" range is great for slicing tomatoes, onions and fruit, deboning chicken and fish. WRT the peeler, I've been looking for about 10 years! I'm having my company patent a different design for a peeler because the retail designs are just awful! – tohster Dec 27 '15 at 18:50
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I have a 5.5" utility knife and a 3" paring knife and I use the utility knife significantly more often than the paring knife. – Catija Dec 28 '15 at 1:35

Everyone's stressing the chef's knife, but I'd be even more generic; when starting out, you can do almost every task with:

  • A large knife (8" Chef, 7" Japanese Santoku, or a Chinese Cleaver)
  • A small knife (Paring or similar)
  • A bread knife (serrated, 10" or longer)

As you add to your collection:

  • A boning / filet knife
  • Kitchen shears (for snipping herbs without a cutting board or cutting the back out of a chicken)
  • A carving knife (for slicing meats and large melons or splitting a cake into layers)
  • A heavy cleaver (so you don't mess up your main-line knives when hacking up bones; heavy enough to use the back of the knife for cracking a coconut)
  • A utility / tomato knife (mid-sized, serrated)

A few people have mentioned a larger chef's knife, but it's going to be harder to control. Develop good knife skills first, then move to something larger.

I know a few people who do everything but bread with a paring knife (and no cutting board, in their hand, cutting against their thumb), and I'd consider them "serious chefs" (southern, over 60 for the most part, but also a few apartment-living Europeans).

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kudos on answer completeness, sir. love the idea of building the collection. good mention of cleaver blade.. I've dinged up at least 2 santoko blades on bones when trying to trim a pork shoulder or beef rib steaks. horrible practice - comes about mostly when distaste for extra dishes overcomes good sense. – zanlok Dec 9 '10 at 22:48
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+1, especially for mentioning for sheers – David LeBauer Aug 22 '11 at 14:44
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Add a vegetable peeler and you're set. – Stephie Jan 2 '15 at 22:02
    
Definitely a cleaver. A serious cook will be making a lot of broth. And when you make chicken broth, you're going to have to chop up that chicken with a cleaver. Most people would say you don't need a utility knife but you do if you want to fillet fish. Also, you need scissors! I use them to cut chives. So much easier than a knife. – Danny Rodriguez Dec 29 '15 at 8:32

In order of importance (for me):

  1. Chef's knife (8 or 10 inches) - high quality
  2. Paring knife - Get it at the checkout for < $5.00, and replace annually
  3. Bread knife - I would go mid price on this one.
  4. Honing Steel - Longer than your longest knife.
  5. Carving knife - High quality.
  6. Shears - Either go high quality and sharpen, or low quality and replace.
  7. Boning knife (If you don't do much butchery, omit) - medium quality.
  8. Fillet knife (Increase in priority depending on how much fish you eat) -High quality.
  9. Peeling knife [a paring knife with a hooked peak]

High quality knives hold their edge, and will need sharpening once every year or two. Medium quality - need sharpening every 6 months or so, will be ground down in 5 - 10 years. Low quality - don't bother sharpening. The steel sucks, just replace it.

Generally, you need the first 3. Get the rest as need and finances dictate.

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Has anybody mentioned a steel? Buy a steel before you buy a good knife. You could buy the best quality knife of the planet but it won't make a lick of difference if you cannot maintain the quality of the edge.

I use a 33cm wooden handle Victorinox chef's knife for most of my work. I steel it several times a day and sharpen it on a wet-dry stone about once a month. Every chef I have worked with who has picked it up has loved it despite being a cheap brand.

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+1 because it's a good point that sharpening/honing tools matter more than the knife in the long run. I think a good ceramic steel/sharpening rod is the best choice, because it has a slight grit which sharpens the knife as it hones; in contrast a traditional grooved steel dulls the edge with repeated use. – BobMcGee Jul 3 '11 at 19:20

After the 3 that most of us agree on (chefs, paring, bread), my next choice would be a "tomato knife", which is a little longer than a paring knife, but serrated like a bread knife. Very handy for anything with tough skin.

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Sorry, but I disagree. If you need a serrated knife to cut a tomato, all that means is that your regular knives aren't sharp enough. (That said, if one has knives that can't be sharpened. a serrated knife is the way to go.) – Neil Fein Aug 23 '10 at 21:22
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@Niel - indeed. unless you mean a super-ripe tomato with extra slick skin, and you're too lazy to re-sharpen your knife set just for a lunch sandwich. @Michael - but, yes, I've been using my serrated Henckel steak knives for tomatoes at lunch for years, and it does work well, helping to keep the good set in the block waiting for larger preparation jobs (ie: dinner). – zanlok Dec 9 '10 at 22:52
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+1 for tomato knife. Some people don't like their regular knives that sharp due to hands not co-operating with brain as well as we would like – TFD Dec 9 '10 at 22:52

If you could only buy one knife, I would get a French Chef's knife or a Japanese Santoku, probably in the 8 inch size. These knives are both used differently (different techniques) so I would also research how to properly hold and use whichever one you go with.

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While I use my Santoku significantly more, it's terrible at some things that the French Chef's knife is good at. Conversely the French Chef's knife is pretty good at everything the Santoku is good at. For a newbie, I think the Chef's knife would be less frustrating. – Peter V Jul 22 '10 at 3:41
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I have friends who do everything they need to do with a 5" Santoku. They cook regularly, but aren't professionals, and love their knife. – justkt Aug 9 '10 at 18:41
    
@PeterV: examples on what the pros and cons are? – Vixen Jul 15 '14 at 8:37

There are three core essentials:

  • Chef's knife
    • 8" or 10" depending on your preferences
  • Paring knife
    • 3" or 4" depending on your preferences
  • Bread knife
    • As long as possible, 12"+
    • Feel free to go cheap here, it's serrated and thus largely unsharpenable

You may want to check out Alton Brown's book, Alton Brown's Gear For Your Kitchen. He spends a chapter on knives and where to go past the essentials. He also suggests which ones are worth spending money on and which should be throwaways.

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Cutco makes serrated knives that are phenomenal - and they can be sharpened. I use a long carving knife as my bread knife, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I also use that knife for trimming meats. – JustRightMenus Jul 17 '10 at 4:27
    
Those three are the only ones I use on a regular basis. I occasionally use the others, but those are definitely the MUST haves. In fact, I have more than one Chef's knife because I use that one A LOT. – Nick Jul 20 '10 at 21:50
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kudos on mentioning the bread knife. though perhaps not used as often in my kitchen, it's ridiculous how bad a Santoku blade is at cutting french bread! – zanlok Dec 9 '10 at 22:41
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@JustRightMenus Brands are highly subjective. I would recommend going to a place where you can lay hands on several different types of knives before deciding on which to purchase. A knife must first feel comfortable to the user. – Dan Esparza Nov 22 '13 at 19:38

I've got a 6" chef's knife that I find more useful than my 8" chef

I also love my 8" Santoku

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... and on the other end of the spectrum, I work in a professional kitchen and use my 8" Victorinox chef's knife more than my paring knife. A bigger knife lets you handle larger items comfortably, and in the end whichever knife you use most will become a natural extension of your body. – BobMcGee Jul 3 '11 at 19:22

I use three:

  • Chef's knife - sharp, straight blade
  • Bread knife
  • Sometimes a serrated knife for tough vegetables

But then I'm a vegetarian, so I don't need to cut meat.

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  • Chef's
  • Carving
  • Serrated/bread knife
  • Paring
  • Filet

There are plenty more you could use (I love my Santoku), but that will enable you to do just about anything.

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+1: Pretty much what I have in my kitchen, Chefs knife (about 9 inch) and paring knife (3 inch). I do wish I'd bought a longer chefs knife though, my rapid carrot chopping isn't perfect & would come off better with a longer blade :) – Binary Worrier Jul 9 '10 at 20:34

To me, the following are necessary:

  • A chef's knife (8 inch)
  • A paring knife
  • A bread knife

There are tasks for which other knives are more suitable, but these are the three I started with, and there's little you may need others for.

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protected by Aaronut Jun 8 '13 at 22:22

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