Kitchen Basics: Knives

A standard wood handle chef's knife.
A standard wood handle chef’s knife.

A chef’s knife is the all-purpose knife used most in the kitchen. That’s why it’s called a chef’s knife.

Notice that the blade is fairly long and comes to a point at the end. The handle is off-set allowing the user to grip the knife firmly without scraping your knuckles. The spine of the blade and the tang (the part inside the handle) form a straight line. This is for balance and control. The curved edge from heel to tip means the knife can be rocked when mincing or fine chopping.

There are all kinds of chef’s knives at all kinds of prices. Most commonly, the tang will be riveted to a wooden handle. Sometimes a different material will be used to cover the tang and give the user a better grip. Wood can chafe when wet.

Knife set in block.
Knife set in block.

There are basically two kinds of knives: drop-forge and molded. Most of the knives you’ll find, and in your price range, are drop-forge. That means the blade and tang are stamped out of a sheet of steel. Molded knives are usually a lot more expensive because the blade and tang handle is all one piece of metal that’s been poured into a mold. That means there’s a lot more metal in the knife. Some say these knives are better balanced, but since they’re outside most people’s budgets, we’ll concentrate on drop-forge knives.

When choosing a chef’s knife, you want something that’s comfortable in your hand. It should become an extension of your hand and arm. Grip the knife like you’re shaking hands with it. Plant the heel of the knife, the part of the edge closest to the handle, on a flat surface and see if your knuckles touch the board. If it does, you need a larger or taller knife.

Paring knife.
Paring knife.

The other knife you’ll use the most is a paring knife. It’s used for — what else? — paring, meaning to make smaller. It is used for peeling or cutting up small things like fruits.

The paring knife has a much shorter, thinner blade and a smaller handle. This knife is usually held in the curl of your fingers, so the handle should be small enough to comfortably fit your hand. You can do more delicate work with this knife, usually holding the food in your hand. Because of that, care should be taken when using this knife. Note that the blade is not serrated.

A good chef’s knife will cost about $50. The paring knife runs for around $10 or less. If you buy a knife set in a block, both of these kinds of knives should be included.