It’s a great question – especially if you are the sort of person who likes to invest in quality but doesn’t have deep pockets. And the answer is “it depends…”. It depends on what kind of cook you are. Are you the type that buys a whole Salmon then skins and debones it yourself? If the answer is “yes” then you might need a special knife designed for filleting. Do you spend a lot of time peeling kiwi fruit? Then you might need a special curved paring knife. Like to prepare your own joints of meat? Then you could benefit from having a meat clever in your collection. Most of us, however, seldom attempt such specialist tasks – in which case just three good quality knives should be sufficient for our requirements.
For most of the time a chef knife will be your go-to option. It will have a blade of between 6 and 10 inches that’s curved all the way to its pointed tip. The chef knife is a must-have as it is suitable for virtually every kitchen cutting job - slicing, dicing, mincing and chopping almost all types of food.
The other option is a Santoku knife, the Japanese equivalent of the western chef knife. It has a long, slightly tapered blade with a drop point to allow for more precise, intricate cutting work. The blade has hollows either side to prevent food from sticking to the metal. The name, literally translated, means “three virtues” and derives from the fact that it has the versatility to cut fish, meat and vegetables.
This is a short knife with a slim bade that is typically between 2.5 and 4 inches long. It’s ideal for smaller tasks that require control and where a chef knife is a bit too big – for instance, peeling fruits and vegetables, trimming, coring and de-seeding. It can be used with a chopping board but often the item being worked on is held in the hand. It’s a versatile multi-prep knife that really is indispensable.
Cutting things like bread with a chef knife or a paring knife really doesn’t work – it tears or flattens the loaf. For this task you really need a blade with a serrated edge. Although you probably won’t use it as much as your chef knife or your paring knife, it is a must-have. It also does a great job of slicing things like tomatoes, thick-skinned vegetables and fruit.
What knives would be next in line after these three?
While most cooks can get by quite happily with just the three knives described above there may be situations where an extra knife would be helpful.
If you like preparing whole fish or butchering your own joints of meat then a filleting or boning knife (with a thin and flexible 4 to 9 inch blade and sharp point) would come in handy. If you like serving up big roasts then a long thin slicing/carving knife will be a useful addition to your collection. If there are two of you working in the kitchen then a second paring knife might be called for.
Finally, a second chef knife, slightly smaller than your regular one (with a 6 inch blade) is good for fiddly jobs, like mincing garlic – and useful if you are sharing the food preparation.
Less is more
When you realise that you probably only need three kitchen knives it’s a very liberating feeling. For one thing it makes it easier to invest in top quality knives without breaking the bank. And if you already own six or seven knives you can concentrate on using just three of them - which saves a lot of time on sharpening!