Kitchen 101: Knives & Basic Cuts
If you’ve ever been to a kitchen store you are aware of just how many knives are out there. If you’ve spoken to a suave, fast-talking salesman you might believe you need them all. In my opinion there are only four knives you need: the chef’s, a utility, a paring and a bread knife. They are the basics and they are general, all-purpose knives.
That being said, I am still going to tell you a little about all the other western knives out there – well, most of the other knives. There are certain kitchen tasks, that if performed on a regular basis, warrant a special knife (such as filleting fish, deconstructing poultry, opening clams, etc). And then there are some super-specialized knives that I find so silly I am not going to bother bringing them up.
Knowing the types of knives and what to do with them is only half the equation. Knife handling, care and the basic cuts are just as importantly.
This post is a little long, so if you want to jump to a particular section just click one of these links:
Anatomy of a Knife
Before we get into the types of knives, let’s look at what makes up a knife.
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Knowing the parts will help you familiarize yourself with proper cutting techniques and can help you in finding good knives.
Tip – The tip of the knife can refer to the point at the very end, or the last third of the cutting edge. The tip of the cutting edge is often used for delicate work such as slicing and scoring.
Heel – The heel, or the lower third of the cutting edge, is used for more taxing duties such as chopping, especially dense objects like carrots or potatoes.
Bolster – The bolster is the thick part of the knife where the blade meets the handle. A knife with a bolster is a sign that a knife has been forged versus stamped or last cut (both of which have no bolster). Bolsters add weight, strength and balance to a knife. Look for knives with bolsters over those without a bolster – it is typically an indication of a better product. I prefer knives with bolsters that do not reach the cutting edge as this makes the heel of the knife more usable.
Tang – The tang is the metal extension of the blade that extends into the handle. The tang adds strength and balance to a knife. A full tang refers to a tang that extends all the way to the butt of the knife. Always buy a knife with a full tang.
Rivets – Rivets connect the wood or plastic portions of the handle to the tang. Be sure they are flush with the handle. Avoid knives without rivets (this could lead to a handle popping off down the road).
Blade – the blade is everything from the bolster (or handle) up.
Cutting Edge – The cutting edge is just that, the portion of the blade you use to chop, slice, mince, etc. The more rounded a cutting edge, the easier it is to chop and mince with a rocking motion. Straighter cutting edges support slicing and sawing motions.
Spine – The spine gives the cutting edge strength and helps balance the knife. Depending on the type of knife this can be as thick as or much thicker than the cutting edge.
Handle – Next to the cutting edge, this is the most important part of a knife because this is the portion you will be handling. Choose a knife with a handle that is comfortable, fits your hand well and helps balance the knife.
Blade Material – There are four basic materials knives are made from: carbon steel, stainless steel, high-carbon stainless steel and ceramic. Carbon steel has a very sharp edge though it dulls easily and can stain. Stainless steel does not get a very sharp edge but can hold the edge much longer than carbon steel. High-carbon stainless steel combines both of best worlds; it allows for a very sharp edge and can hold that edge fairly long. High-carbon Stainless knives can be expensive though. Ceramic knives, while incredibly fragile and inflexible- they can chip or snap in half if dropped and are not made for rough chopping – are incredibly sharp knives that hold an edge up to 10 times longer than any metal alloy.
I prefer high-carbon stainless as it is a very durable material that can hold a sharp edge for a long time. I also use ceramic knives though and am constantly amazed at how sharp they are without the aid of honing or sharpening.
Types of Knives
There are more types of knives than there are stars in the sky. Ok. Maybe there aren’t that many but there sure are a lot. Below is a graphic looking at the different kinds of knives (western knives) and then a more in depth look at the knives you will most often encounter in the kitchen.
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These are the four knives that every chef or cook needs. In fact, these may be the only four knives you need. Of these knives, I use the chef’s and paring knife 90% of the time. If you are going to splurge, those are the two knives with which to spoil yourself.
Length: 8-12 inches
Uses: All purpose, specifically chopping, slicing & mincing.
This all purpose knife is most likely what pops into your mind when you think of kitchen knives. Rightfully so as this is the workhorse of the kitchen. This knife is perfect for chopping, slicing and mincing. Look for a forged knife with a full tang. Be prepared to shell out some serious cash for this knife as a good chef’s knife is not cheap.
In baking, the chef’s knife is perfect for most all large tasks.They are great for cutting fruits and vegetables in half or into wedges, chopping nuts or chocolate and dicing or mincing any matter of ingredients.
Alternatives: Check out a Japanese Cook’s (Santoku) or Chinese Cook’s knife.
Length: 5-8 inches
Uses: All purpose, specifically slicing, peeling, carving and cutting.
This all purpose knife bridges the gap between a french knife and a paring knife. Look for a forged knife with a full tang. As with the chef’s knife, a good utility knife will not be cheap. This knife is perfect for cutting lettuces, slicing, peeling, carving and other cutting duties.
In baking the utility knife can handle a number of functions including sectioning or slicing fruit and citrus, cutting smaller fruits like berries or cutting tasks that require a bit more fines than a chef’s knife.
Length: 2-4 inches
Uses: Delicate work, specifically peeling, trimming & paring.
This small knife is necessary for delicate work and small cutting tasks. Look for a forged knife with a full tang. Despite its small size, a good paring knife can be quite expensive – surprisingly expensive for their size. This knife is perfect for any small or delicate task in the kitchen where a chef’s knife or utility knife would be impractical.
In baking the paring knife (and it’s other small cousins) are great for peeling fruits and vegetables, cutting and slicing small fruits and berries, creating decorative cuts and shapes and removing blemishes from produce.
Alternatives: Check out it’s specialized cousins: The Tourné, The Clip Point & The Sheep’s Foot.
Serrated Slicer (Bread Knife)
Length: 8-12 inches
Uses: Slicing delicate items like bread and cakes.
This large knife is necessary for cutting airy baked goods. Unlike the three other basic knives, a stamped blade will work fine here. You should still look for a knife with a full tang though. This is the one knife where you can go for a cheaper variety.
In baking this is your go to slicing knife for breads and cakes.
While I have one of each of these specialized knives in my kitchen, I rarely use them. In fact, unless you do a specific task frequently, you may not need any of these knives as one of the basics can be improvised to handle the jobs of these specialized knives.
Slicer & Flexible Slicer
Length: 8-14 inches
Tip: Rounded or Pointed
Rigidity: Rigid or Flexible
Uses: Slicing and carving cooked meats and other items.
These long knives (some of the longest in the home kitchen) are usually very thin and incredibly sharp, making them perfect for carving cooked meats, especially tough, sinewy red meats. The offset serrated slicer, or deli knife, fits somewhere in this family and is perfect for cutting through sandwiches and other delicate items – the offset handle gives your hand room so you can cut level through the sandwich.
Boning & Filleting
Rigidity: Rigid or Flexible
Uses: Removing raw meat from the bone or filleting fish.
These medium-length knives are designed for working with raw meat and fish. Similar in size and appearance, the filleting knife is typically thinner with a more flexible blade.
Tourné, Clip Point & Sheeps Foot
Length: 2-4 inches
Uses: Tournéeing, peeling, slicing, removing blemishes & delicate chopping
Similar in size to a paring knife, these three small knives are all designed to handle a specific delicate task. The tourné has a distinctive inversely curved blade which allows it to create the highly-specific tourné cut. The clip point has a distinctive tapered tip making it perfect for removing the eyes from potatoes and small blemishes from fruits or vegetables. The Sheeps Foot has a flat cutting edge making it useful for peeling and slicing small items.
Length: 5-10 inches
Blade: Very Broad & Heavy
Tip: Rectangle Blade
Uses: Cutting through bone.
Without a doubt the most menacing knife one can have in the kitchen, this massive, heavy knife is made to cut through bones in raw meat. If you deconstruct your own meat you may want to consider a good cleaver.
Knife Handling & Safety
There are certain rules you should follow when wielding a knife. Not only will this keep your kitchen safe, but it will give you more control over the products you are cutting.
Sharp & honed – You should always keep a knife sharp and honed (more on how to do this below). Dull cutting edges require more force and have a tendency to slip or bounce off objects. This forced, jerky, unpredictable movement could direct the blade towards your hand.
Grip – Grip the spine of the blade, just above the heel nearest the bolster, between your thumb and forefinger, wrapping your hand around the handle. This technique, called the pinch, will give you precise control over the blade and keep your fingers out of harm’s way.
Chopping, Slicing, Dicing – Guide the knife with your other hand, keeping your fingers curled in. The blade of your knife should rest and slide against your knuckles (take care not to lift the cutting edge higher than your knuckles). This will give you precise control over the size of the cut and by curling your fingers in, it will keep them out of harm’s way.
Instead pushing straight down into an object, slide the knife towards or away from you. This delicate sawing motion will let the knife do all the work – a good knife will naturally “fall” into an item with little effort.
Mincing – When mincing, keep your other hand flat and place the tips of your fingers on the spine at the tip of the knife. You can now use the tip as a pivot point for the blade. This will allow you to mince quickly without your hands being in the way.
Peeling – Hold the bottom of the fruit with one hand. Wrap your other hand around the handle of the paring knife, placing the thumb on the bottom of the fruit – at the point closest to you. Guide the blade carefully and slowly towards your thumb, keeping the cutting edge just below the layer requiring removal. Take care using this technique. You can also cut the bottom of produce so it will sit flat on a cutting board, then hold the top of the item and slide the knife down from top to bottom to peel.
Scooping – Despite the ease in turning a knife sideways and using the blade to scoop up freshly diced items, it can be quite dangerous and can dull or damage a blade. If you do this, get in the habit of sliding the knife against the spine, instead of the cutting edge.
Cutting Breads & Cakes – When cutting horizontally through breads and especially cake layers, it is tempting to put your hand on the side of the product and cut towards it. This is dangerous. It is best to place your hand flat on the top of the product and move the knife through the product in a slow back and forth sawing motion. When cutting vertically, keep your hand on top of the object, next to where you’re cutting, making sure to keep your fingers our of harm’s way.
The key to all cutting methods is to know where your hands and fingers are at all times (making sure to keep them out of the way) and to keep your eyes on the object you are cutting. Also, take your time. There is no need to speed through any cutting task – no matter how “cool” it may look or feel.
Knives are highly specialized kitchen tools that require some care to preserve longevity and to support safe kitchen practices.
Cutting Boards – You should only ever cut on soft surfaces such as wood or plastic. Never cut on tile, stone, glass or cement. These harder surfaces will dull and even damage a knife. They can also be dangerous to cut on.
Straightening/Honing – Everytime you see a chef running his knife along the long metal pole (the steel) he is not actually sharpening the knife, but rather honing it. This is a necessary task that should ideally be done before each knife use. The cutting edge of a knife – which is often thinner than a human’s hair – can curl in on itself. Honing a knife will keep the edge straight, making cutting an easier task.
Sharpening – In addition to curling, the cutting edge does eventually wear down. Test an unsharpened six month old knife next to a brand new knife and you’ll see just how dull knives can become. If you don’t feel confident sharpening your own knives, have a professional do it. Otherwise, it is a simple task, but should only be done with a sharpening stone. Keep the blade at a 20° angle to the sharpening stone and move the cutting edge from heel to tip over the stone. Repeat on the other side. How often a knife needs sharpening depends on the material of your knife and how often you use it.
Washing – Knives should be washed by hand with mildly soapy water. Avoid letting a knife sit in water and never wash a knife in the dishwasher. This can dull and damage a blade.
Storing - Knives should be stored in a knife block or knife roll, somewhere where the blades will be protected. Never store knives haphazardly in a drawer. This can dull and damage the blades.
Basic Knife Cuts
Cutting food into uniform shapes and sizes ensures they cook evenly. Knowing the differences between a fine brunoise and a large dice could mean the difference between an overcooked, mushy potato or an undercooked, tough potato. Knowing the difference between a recipe calling for your to chop versus dice could mean the difference between a rustic and professional appearance – not to mention time saved.
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Enjoy! And remember, cut safely!
Note about this post: The post is meant to be used as a reference and has been researched and collected from numerous sources including but not limited to: Wayne Gisslen of “Professional Cooking”, The Culinary Institute of America of “The Professional Chef”, The Gastronomic Committee of “Larousse Gastronmique” and from Bi Friberg of “The Professional Pastry Chef, Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry”.
Check out the other Kitchen 101 posts.
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