Types of Knives and Their Uses in the Kitchen

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A good kitchen knife can make all the difference in food prep. But there are so many types of kitchen knives, it can be quite the challenge to know which ones are really necessary.

This article will break down some of the most common types of knives, what tasks they’re designed to tackle, and where to find the best ones. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to decide which knives to include in your kitchen set.

Ready to get started? Let’s get going.

Must-Have Kitchen Knives

Trying to decide which kitchen knives are must-have pieces? The following types of knives are the ones I would consider essential. Ultimately, it depends on what kitchen tasks you perform on a daily basis, but these give you a good idea of where to start.

Chef’s Knife

Kitchen knife on a white surface

If I had to pick just one kitchen knife to have, a chef’s knife would probably be it. Also referred to as a cook’s knife or chef knife, this is one of the most important blades in the kitchen.

The chef’s knife has a broad blade with a pointed tip, perfect for rocking back and forth. The typical blade length is anywhere from 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm). The best size for a chef knife depends on what you’re cutting and how large your hands are.

The chef’s knife can be forged or stamped, but forged knives are generally better quality. It comes with a full tang, meaning the blade extends through the whole length of the knife handle. This adds to the knife’s durability and stability.

Chef’s knives generally feature stainless steel or high-carbon steel blades. Sometimes the blade is Damascus steel, which refers to the process of applying layers of iron and steel over the core.

The result is a distinctive wavy pattern and an incredibly sharp, durable blade. For some examples of a Damascus chef’s knife, check out my list of the best Damascus chef’s knives.

The chef’s knife is one of the most versatile types of kitchen knives. You can use a cook’s knife for practically every cutting task in the kitchen, from chopping vegetables and mincing herbs to trimming boneless meat and dicing fruits.

A chef’s knife is a workhorse, so it’s a must-have in any kitchen knife collection. But that means you’ll have to sharpen it on a regular basis. If your chef’s knife has a stainless steel blade, you can run the blade over a honing rod after each use for everyday sharpening. But you’ll want a more thorough sharpening from time to time.

Utility Knife

Five whole red tomatoes with a knife on the side

A utility knife lives up to its name. I use my utility knife for any food that’s too small for a chef’s knife or too large for a paring knife. I especially like using this knife for slicing tomatoes and trimming boneless meats.

A utility knife has a blade between 4 and 7 inches (10.2 and 17.8 cm) long. You’ll find more variation in the blade types among utility knives, but they generally have straight blades and a pointed tip.

Utility knives can have straight edges or serrated edges. I prefer a serrated knife for cutting tasks that require a sawing motion, like raw meat prep or slicing veggies.

There is a trade-off, though. You can’t sharpen a serrated blade with a regular kitchen sharpener. If you prefer to have an easy time sharpening, then I recommend finding a standard knife edge.

A utility knife is not as concrete in its definition as other types of knives, but it tends to have straight handles and a small tip with a sharp point.

I use my utility knife for numerous kitchen tasks, but it is a “jack of all trades, master of none.” It’s a must-have, in my opinion, but it’s not a speciality knife. The utility knife is a stopgap for tasks that can’t be covered by other types of kitchen knives.

A utility knife is not designed for cutting vegetables that are large or have a thick skin. It’s also not suited for cutting large pieces of meat. But for smaller jobs, the thinner blade is perfect.

A utility knife can be a forged knife or a stamped knife; it depends on the manufacturer. This blade ranges widely in quality and price, so you’ll want to consider what’s most important to you. If you’re looking for a good quality but affordable knife, you might like this Mercer Culinary 5-Inch Utility Knife.

Paring Knife

Avocado sliced into two

The paring knife is small in size but big in usefulness! It’s perfect for peeling fruits or chopping herbs. It’s also great for making garnishes for food and drinks.

Paring knives have thin blades that are much shorter than a chef’s knife, typically 3-4 inches in length (7.6 to 10 cm). The nimble blade has a very sharp point. It can be used for peeling or dicing fruits and trimming fat with precision.

I use my paring knife for everything from peeling apples and hulling strawberries to slicing garlic and deveining shrimp.

A paring knife handle must be comfortable and offer a non-slip grip, even when wet. Control is of the utmost importance when paring and peeling, so the handle is crucial.

The most common styles of paring knives include the spear point, sheep’s foot, and bird’s beak peeling knife. They all have straight edges and similar sizes, but the shape of each blade is different.

The bird’s beak peeling knife has a curved blade designed to hug the curves of foods like ginger, strawberry, citrus fruits, and more. It’s an incredibly sharp knife that’s also agile and easy to control.

A lot of large knife sets might have a standard paring knife and a bird’s beak paring knife included, like this Sabatier 15-Piece Knife Set. You might also like this Victorinox 4-Piece Paring Knife set. It has excellent reviews, and it’s color-coded so you never have to worry about cross-contamination.

To keep your paring knife sharp, pull it through a standard knife sharpener or use a whetstone.

Santoku Knife

Santoku knife with sharpener on the side

The Santoku knife is a Japanese version of the Western-style chef’s knife. It’s another multipurpose knife that can handle a wide range of cutting tasks. I use my Santoku almost as much as I use my chef’s knife.

The word Santoku means “three virtues,” an allusion to the three uses of this knife–cutting, slicing, and chopping. Santoku knives are highly versatile and suited for both professional and home kitchens.

Santoku knives have slightly shorter and thinner blades than chef’s knives. The average length is between 5 and 8 inches (13 to 20 cm). For people with small hands, this is an advantage. It’s also ideal for those who prefer a lighter blade.

The blade has a flat edge, so it doesn’t rock on the cutting board. Rather, you use a push cut where the blade touches the cutting board heel to tip. This makes it more challenging to mince herbs, but helps get thin slices when Julienning veggies.

There are two distinct characteristics that make it easy to identify a Santoku knife. First, a Santoku knife features a sheepsfoot blade that curves down to a point.

Secondly, a Santoku knife features dimples along the blade. This is referred to as a hollow edge or a Granton edge. Granton edges create air pockets that allow the knife to cut through meat, fish, and veggies without the food sticking to the blade.

You can find some of my favorite Santoku knives (and other types of kitchen knives) in my best vegetable knife review.

Bread Knife

Sourdough bread

If you don’t eat a lot of bread, you don’t technically need this knife. But if you’ve ever seen a dull knife destroy a beautiful loaf, you know the difference a good bread knife makes. That’s why I consider it a must-have in any kitchen cknife collection.

Bread knives are used for cutting bread, cakes, sandwiches, and more. They allow you to saw through bread without smooshing or tearing it.

A bread knife will typically have a blade between 7 and 10 inches long (17.8 to 25 cm). I prefer a longer blade to handle larger loaves with ease. The blade is narrow and straight with a serrated edge.

The teeth in the serrated edge cut through bread and other fragile food without tearing it. This makes bread knives suited for cutting all sorts of food, even veggies like tomatoes. If you have an artisan loaf with a crunchy exterior? No problem. A bread knife can handle a thick crust without tearing the soft interior.

I don’t use my bread knife on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There’s just no match when cutting a cake or even separating rolls. No other knife in my collection would be a sufficient substitute.

Some people are intimidated by the length of the blade, but don’t let that deter you. Bread knives are quite safe when used properly. I recommend a knife block or sheath for safe storage.

Looking for a high-quality bread knife? The Wusthof Classic Ikon Bread Knife is one of the best ones out there.

Table Knives

Unlike paring, utility, or chef knives, table knives are just what they sound like–knives used at the dinner table. I’ll only cover two types, the bread knife and the steak knife. But you’ll find them both indispensable come dinnertime.

Steak Knife

Steak knives are frequently referred to as table knives. You will find a lot of function packed into this small knife.

A good steak knife is great for serving melt-in-your-mouth prime rib, sizzling pork chops, or even chicken breasts. Steak knives are the only types of knives that you’ll use at the dinner table, other than butter knives.

A steak knife features a flat blade with a very sharp edge. You can find straight blades, but most steak knives have a serrated edge to help saw through steak and other meats.

A steak knife can be forged or stamped, although many are stamped knives. They are most often stainless steel, but you can occasionally find a carbon steel blade.

The handles are smaller than those you’ll find on food prep kitchen knives. Many kitchen knife sets include a set of table knives. The steak knife handles might be different than the other knives.

You can find several examples of knife sets with steak knives in my review of Chicago Cutlery. Need a good steak recipe to test out your steak knives? Check out my Cast Iron Skillet Steak Recipe.

Butter Knife

Person spreading butter on a bread

A butter knife can refer to a table knife used for spreading butter or jam. It might have a slightly serrated edge but is relatively dull. This tool is also called a dinner knife. You can find these blades in serving utensil sets.

A butter knife can also specifically refer to a dull-edged knife used to spread butter on dinner rolls or other bread.

Neither the dinner knife nor the master butter knife are used to prepare food. These knives are strictly for table use.

Nice-to-have Knives

The following knives are nice to have if you have extra room in the knife block and the budget, though they are not considered essential pieces. Consider your cooking habits to determine if these blades would make a good addition to your kitchen.

Carving Knife

The carving knife is a special occasion knife that’s great for carving the Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham. But there are other times a carving knife might come in handy, such as cutting up pork belly or beef brisket.

It’s common for a carving knife to come in a set with a matching carving fork. A carving knife has a long blade for wider pieces of meat. The narrow, serrated edges are ideal for the sawing motion needed to easily slice meat.

The carving knife is closely related to a slicing knife, but there is a difference. Carving knives have a pointed tip, whereas slicing knives are blunted and longer. A carver is more versatile and is useful for poultry like chicken and turkey.

In short, a carving knife is one of the more useful types of knives, especially around the holidays. If you’re in search of a carving knife, you can find them in one of my top Japanese knife sets.

Fillet Knife

A fillet knife, also called a filet knife or fish knife, is primarily used to separate the skin from the flesh of fish. It has a thin, flexible blade that’s curved with a sharp tip. This design allows you to get long, steady slices. A filet knife is best for fish but should not be used for other meat or poultry.

A fillet knife has a narrow, curved blade anywhere from 4 to 10 inches long (10 to 25 cm). The general rule is your blade should be 2 inches longer than the fish you’re filleting.

Unless you’re filleting large fish like tuna or halibut, you should be fine with a short to medium blade. There are electric fillet knives that are convenient for filleting large quantities of fish, but most people can get by with a manual knife.

Looking for a fillet knife? Check out my list of the best fillet knives.

Boning Knife

A boning knife is technically different than a fillet knife, but the differences are rather subtle. You might want both knives if you’re an expert in sashimi or an avid hunter/fisher, but the average casual home cook won’t need both blades.

The boning knife is used for separating meat from the bone, filleting fish, and cutting meat. In contrast to the flexible blades of fillet knives, a boning knife has a thicker, stiffer blade. This makes boning knives able to withstand more force. You can use some muscle with a boning knife.

A boning knife will have a narrow blade between 3 to 8 inches (7.6 to 20 cm). The sharp point and extra sharp edge help deliver precise cuts. You can use a boning knife with meat, poultry, and fish.

Some boning knives have a slightly curved blade, whereas others have a straight blade. They can have flexi, semi-flexi, or stiff blades, but the stiff blades are the most common.

While you’ll find handles in a variety of materials, I prefer a polypropylene or synthetic handle that won’t get slippery when wet. Meat and fish are notoriously messy, so a good boning knife will have a slip-resistant handle.

To keep the blade sharp, periodically run the knife over a sharpener or honing rod. You can send the knife to a professional sharpener, as well.

Nakiri Knife

Person slicing tomatoes using nakiri knife

A Nakiri knife is a Japanese-style knife used for mincing, dicing, and slicing vegetables. A Nakiri knife has a long rectangular blade and a straight cutting edge.

Unlike the rocking motion of a Chef’s knife, a Nakiri blade is best for an up-and-down motion. That means Nakiri knives are great for cutting celery, carrots, onions, zucchini, and chopping herbs.

Nakiri knives are generally forged knives with full tang construction, but that can vary among specific brands. They should not be used for tougher cuts are great for precise or delicate cuts.

You can technically accomplish the same tasks with a chef’s knife, but if you’d like a Japanese knife for cutting thin strips of peppers, carrots, or other vegetables, the Nakiri is an optimal choice.

Check out my Nakiri knife review if you’re ready to try out this handy blade. For other vegetable knives, visit my article on the best vegetable knife.

Kitchen Shears

Kitchen shears

This is a bonus. Even though shears are not a type of knives, they can be used for a lot of kitchen tasks. Kitchen shears are scissors with thick, strong blades designed for food use. These are not the same thing as your office supply scissors used for paper. Not even close.

Kitchen shears are great for snipping herbs, trimming and sectioning chicken, or even slicing pizza or quesadillas. Two of my favorite uses are cutting broccoli stems and florets from the stalk and snipping green onions or other herbs.

Shears should have a safe and secure grip. They should feel natural and comfortable in your hand. I prefer a serrated edge for “gripping” slippery foods like poultry or shellfish.

Some shears might have extra features, like a bottle opener or a locking mechanism. These features are nice, but they’re generally not must-haves. I like shears that detach and go in the dishwasher for easy cleaning, but many shears are hand-wash only.

These Cutco Kitchen Shears are my personal favorite, but they’re rather pricey. If you need kitchen shears on a budget, I like these Henckels Kitchen Shears.

Specialty Knives

There are a few knives that are solely designed for a single purpose. These types of kitchen knives might be great to have, but they aren’t necessary except for professional chefs or avid cooking enthusiasts.

Meat Cleaver/Butcher Knife

Savernake meat clever

The butcher knife is the heavy-duty beast of kitchen knives. Even though a meat cleaver is a familiar kitchen knife, you only need it for butchery. Unless you’re chopping frozen food or bone-in meats on the regular, you can get by without one. But they’re super fun to use. This knife makes halving a watermelon a snap. It has a strong “don’t mess with me” vibe.

A butcher knife has a heavy blade with a straight edge. The iconic cleaver has a wide, thick blade with full tang and a thick spine for maximum heft and durability. This design allows the blade to cut through meat, bones, and hard materials such as squash or pumpkin.

Butcher knives are also great for pulverizing meat, poultry, and smashing garlic. You’ll want forged blades that can withstand the forceful chopping motion. To keep butcher knives sharp, use a whetstone or honing steel regularly.

Chinese Cleaver/Chinese Chef’s Knife

This is one of the most misleading types of kitchen knives. Although the appearance and namesake of a Chinese cleaver might lead you to think it’s for bone-in meats, this blade is actually designed for cutting vegetables and boneless meat. Plot twist!

It’s similar in purpose to Nakiri knives, but it’s a Chinese knife as opposed to a Japanese-style knife. It has a thin, flat rectangular blade with a straight edge. A Chinese chef knife can achieve thin slices and delicate cuts of raw fish or vegetables.

Due to the size of the blade, it’s not a good idea to use a Chinese chef’s knife for peeling fruits. Other knives are better suited for that, specifically a paring knife.

You can find the best Chinese cleaver in my previous review. You can also find a Chinese chef knife in my review of the best vegetable knives.

Oyster Knife

Remove meat from the oyster shell with ease with an oyster knife. This small knife is short and dull with a sharp point so you can gently loosen the hinge of the oyster without damaging the shell and ruining the meat.

Most oyster knives look like a short paring knife or letter opener with a fat handle. There are different styles, such as the New Haven or Providence blade style. Oyster knives have blades anywhere from 2 to 4 inches in length (5 to 10 cm).

The oyster knife is the only knife on the list that is supposed to be dull! The good news is that you can toss them in the dishwasher without fear of dulling or damaging the blade.

Salmon Knife

Salmon knives are solely used for cutting thin slices of fish, specifically smoked salmon. Some salmon knives are hollow-ground with those pockets to keep fish from sticking to the blade.

A salmon knife has a long, flat blade with a straight edge and a rounded tip. Some people also use a salmon knife to slice sushi. This is definitely not on my list of must-have kitchen knives, but if you prepare a lot of cooked or raw fish, you might find it useful.

Tomato Knife

Sliced tomatoes on a yellow plate

Growing up in the South, this handy kitchen knife was a household staple. After all, you can’t make a tomato sandwich or a tomato pie without perfectly sliced tomatoes.

A tomato knife is a small serrated knife designed to slice through tomatoes. It has a distinctive blade shape with a forked spear point that allows you to lift and move the tomato slices after slicing them.

Many tomato knives are stamped knives, so they’re lightweight and easy to maneuver. But they aren’t the most durable or long lasting knives. You can use them for slicing fruit or even slicing bread rolls, but this is not for heavy cutting tasks.

Sometimes you’ll find combination tomato and cheese knives, like this Tuo Knife. Cheese knives have holes in the blade to prevent the cheese from sticking to the knife. If you’re not a fan of the forked point, you can get a dedicated cheese knife with a rounded blade tip.

A Note: Japanese Knives vs. German Knives

There are several different types of knives, but most can fit into one of two categories: Japanese-style or Western/German knives. The primary difference between the two groups is in their steel hardness and edge angle.

Although there are many knife materials available, most blades are made with stainless steel or a high-carbon steel blade. Stainless steel is a steel alloy comprised of iron and carbon. The higher the carbon content, the harder the blade.

Japanese knives usually have a higher carbon content than German knives, making them harder but also more brittle. Japanese high-carbon stainless steel knives require more frequent sharpening than Western-style German knives.

A Japanese-style knife has a thinner blade which allows for a super sharp angle. You’ll find knives that are single-bevel, meaning the knife is sharpened on one side of the blade. Some are also double bevel, meaning the knife is sharpened on both sides of the blade. Single bevel knives are sharper and more precise but more difficult to sharpen.

Most German knives have full tang construction, so the blade runs to the end of the handle. They can be forged for stamped knives. Japanese blades taper inside the handle for a lighter, front-weighted knife. It takes a higher level of knife skills to use a Japanese-style blade.

It’s important to note that you can find a chef’s knife, Santoku knife, and other types of knives in both Japanese and German styles. While there are some blades that are specific to a certain type (i.e. Gyuto or Yanagiba knives), most are available in either style. Compare two of the best Japanese and German brands by visiting my Wusthof vs. Shun review.

If you’re a beginner but want to use solid kitchen knives, I’d recommend a Western-style chef’s knife. If you have advanced knife skills or want a knife used for precise delicate cuts, I’d recommend a Japanese knife. Find the best Japanese knife sets in my in-depth review.

Types of Knives: Wrap-up

Kitchen knife set

With so many different types of knives, it can be a challenge to choose which blades you need.

If I had to pick the most essential kitchen knives, I would get a good chef’s knife, Santoku knife, utility knife, paring knife, and a bread knife. Those five pieces can cover practically anything outside of butchery or highly specialized cutting tasks.

If you’re searching for a kitchen knife set on a budget, check out my top picks for Knife Sets Under $100