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5 Common Kitchen Knives—and When to Use Each One

Any way you slice it, you need a few types of kitchen knives in your arsenal. We look at five common options—paring, mini santoku, serrated utility, bread knife and chef’s knife—and break down when to reach for them to make mealtime easier.

7 min read

Though they are suited to different tasks, knives all have one thing in common: They should feel like an extension of your hand. Try a few knives out to see if you like the handle, weight and length. Comfort is key because, as the saying goes, “The best knife is the one you’ll use.”

Once you’ve found your bladed bestie, vow to keep it sharp. It makes prep work safer because it requires less effort from you. You don’t want to force a knife when cutting, because the blade can slip and harm you. Let the blade do the work—it’s why you want the knife in the first place.

When to Use a Serrated Utility Knife

Every home cook will utilize a utility knife. The blade is generally 5 to 6 inches, which is shorter than the average bread knife, but the serrated utility knife is still a great choice for small loaves. The sharp teeth slice through baguettes and bagels—as well as tender fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, peaches and summer squash—without crushing them.

A serrated utility knife will also be your go-to for slicing salami and thick-skinned citrus like oranges and grapefruit. Bakers love it for slicing tender cakes and quick breads, like banana bread, and leveling cake layers.

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When to Use a Paring Knife

This little guy is a big help around the kitchen. It’s the right choice for peeling, paring and handling fine knifework. Grab it when peeling a baked potato or prepping an artichoke. Use it to hull strawberries, trim Brussels sprouts or segment citrus. It’s also handy for deveining shrimp or slicing smaller foods like garlic and ginger.

Because paring and peeling work is often done in the hand, you want to make sure the handle feels comfortable and that the blade is the right size for you to feel agile and dexterous. A blade of 3 to 3.5 inches works well for most tasks. It should also have a balanced weight for using on the cutting board.

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When to Use a Santoku Knife

The Japanese-style santoku knife has a flat cutting edge that makes it ideal for working with meat, fish and vegetables. The flat shape is akin to a cleaver and designed to allow efficient chopping. Santoku knives also have a fine angle on the blade, which delivers clean, thin slices. It’s a great choice for mincing herbs, with a wide blade that makes it easy to scoop ingredients off the cutting board. The santoku is recognizable for its blade indentations, which reduce drag while chopping and also prevent food from sticking to the blade.

Santoku knives are often smaller than chef’s knives and have an even weight distribution, so they can appeal to users with smaller hands. A mini santoku—4 to 5 inches compared with the 6 to 8 inches of a full-size santoku—has the advantage of working in paring knife territory while still delivering on more chopping capabilities.

Reach for a santoku when you need thin slices of starchy foods (read: sticks to the blade) like potatoes. It’s also a great choice for prepping onion since it’s good for dicing and for transferring the veg to the pan. Try it when slicing beef for a stir-fry or avocado for toast.

When to Use a Bread Knife

Chewy peasant loaves, fluffy sandwich bread, crusty sourdough, homemade focaccia: They all benefit from a bread knife. The long blade and serrated edge lets you slice through bread without smashing or tearing it. Look for a blade that’s roughly 8 to 10 inches so you can take on large loaves.

Keep in mind that affordable options are the goal here: Because bread knives are hard to sharpen, you will eventually need to welcome a new knife into your kitchen. But while they’re with you, you’ll use them on cakes and tomatoes—and even to carve roasts, if you don’t have a slicing knife. Bread knives also come in handy for veggies like behemoth butternuts. They can easily peel away the tough skins and often provide the blade length you need to get through the large squash.

When to Use a Chef's Knife

Ah, the chef’s knife. Sure, it’s great for chopping, dicing and slicing. But the smart construction of a classic chef’s knife truly delivers on function. The graceful curve lets you rock through herbs for a fine mince. The wide blade can be used to smash garlic for chopping or olives for pitting. The fine point is helpful for thinly slicing a shallot before dicing and for cutting between the joints on meats. The long blade—an 8-in knife is fairly standard, but some are up to 10 inches—means you can prep large heads of lettuce, cabbage or cauliflower. A chef’s knife is also good for peeling watermelon and carving chicken. It’s a versatile workhorse that every cook will use again and again.

Once you've got your arsenal of kitchen knives, grab a cutting board and learn how to mise en place like a pro for better results in the kitchen. Plus, discover the 12 basic cooking skills everyone should learn.


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