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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
Kitchen knives are a subject near and dear to my heart. I’ve never been one to collect things, for the most part, but there’s something about kitchen knives that calls to me. Likely it’s their utility; most things you pick up to collect don’t really serve much purpose, but you can never really have too many kitchen knives. Different types, shapes, sizes, materials: they all contribute to different performance and usage metrics.
But the most important thing is the usage: different kinds of knives are better for different tasks. Here’s a quick and easy guide to the most common types of knives and how they’re supposed to be used.
1. Chef’s Knife
If you own only one kind of knife, buy a chef’s knife. Chef’s knives are designed to be highly versatile and are used for general preparation purposes.
Whether you need to slice, chop, julienne, or otherwise prepare a vegetable however you please, a chef’s knife is there for you. Chef’s knives aren’t too bad for chopping up meat as well, getting the job done with minimal effort.
They come in three standard sizes: 8 inches, 10 inches, and 12 inches. I personally prefer the 10 inch design over the 12 inch ones, and like 8 inch ones almost as much. They’re simply a little easier to wield, and if you need a longer, heavier blade you could use a more specialized knife.
2. Santoku Knife
This Japanese knife is equivalent to the chef’s knife, and is usually a bit shorter (6 to 8 inches on average), with a more rounded top and flatter, though still rounded edge.
This is probably my favorite knife, and is the one I use the most around the kitchen, primarily for preparing vegetables. The lack of length makes it harder to deal with meat, but it can get the job done in a pinch.
3. Paring Knife
This small, nimble knife is usually not longer than 4 inches, and is used primarily for peeling vegetables and fruits, or small, delicate tasks you can’t trust to a longer and less wieldy knife.
While not my most commonly used knife (I eat most of my fruits with the skin on), it’s always great to have one around. If nothing else, a small knife like this is your perfect replacement for a potato peeler in a pinch. It’s an easy to pickup knife, not requiring some basic knife skills to use.
4. Carving Knife
Also known as a slicing knife or brisket knife, these knives are perfect for all your large scale meat slicing needs, after the cooking has been done, for the most part.
If you want to carve up a turkey, a ham, a brisket, or anything else, a carving knife is your best bet. They’re usually a bit thinner and sharper than a chef’s knife, but still have enough heft to them to slice through meat with ease. Most clock in at around 10 to 12 inches, similarly to a chef’s knife, but are characterized by either having a fully rounded or a forked end.
I prefer the latter as it makes serving easier, but if you’re afraid of scratching up the bottom of your roasting pan or what have you, the rounded end ones are great too.
5. Bread Knife
The bread knife is a long (9 to 10 inches, generally) serrated knife that is used for slicing, well, bread. They also sometimes have a prong on the end, like a carving knife, and can actually double as one in a pinch if you don’t mind the rough tearing action it will do to the meat (great for something you’re going to break down into a pulled meat for sandwiches, actually).
The bread knife is an interesting beast in that it’s one of my least used knives, but also one of my favorites for its versatility. It can take the place of a lot of knives around your kitchen, and a particularly well made one (or a really cheap one you don’t mind ruining…) is quite good as a replacement for a hand saw in a pinch; many a DIY project of mine has been saved by careful application of a bread knife in spaces too tight to maneuver a proper saw.
6. Steak Knife
Also known as a table knife, these little suckers come in a variety of sizes, and are often used as a catchall for “filler knife” in sets. That’s not to say they’re bad; if you want to cut something at the table you need some, but there is very little standard or restriction on the size and shape of a steak knife.
They can be as short as 4 inches and as long as 9 inches, serrated, straight, or even partially serrated (with the serrated ones being further broken down into fine and roughly serrated knives) and overall serve the task of the knife you use when you don’t know what other knife to use.
If you’ve bought more than one knife set, you likely have a million of these and only use half of them at most, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
7. Less Common Knives
The ones mentioned above are what you’ll typically find in a standard knife set here in the US, but they’re far from the only knife. There are plenty of other, less commonly used knives that will help bring out your knife skills. Two big examples are the kiritsuke knife (a Japanese chef’s knife variant used for delicate tasks) and the butcher’s knife (a large, heavy, and blocky knife used for cutting up large volumes of meat, usually with the bone in), but chances are if you need one of those you already know what you’re doing and don’t need me to tell you about them.
8. Serrated vs Straight Edge Knives
A quick note on this, as it’s somewhat of a divisive topic. Serrated knives are easier to maintain and tear food, while straight edge knives need sharpening and slicing food.
Which is better is a matter of preference, and for the most part doesn’t matter. Just don’t use a serrated knife on anything you don’t want to be torn or leak juices.