Confused about kitchen knives? I’ve put together a beginner’s guide that should help you understand this most vital tool of the amateur and professional chef alike.
From understanding the knives you actually need, to storing, cleaning and disposing of them safely, this article will walk you through the essentials.
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The Different Types of Kitchen Knife
The kitchen knives you need will largely depend on where you are in your cooking journey.
Here are the most common types you’ll encounter as you develop your skills over time:
Chef’s Knife: A broad and very sharp knife that’s ideal for completing a variety of kitchen tasks. An essential part of any kitchen knife collection.
Paring Knife: A smaller knife with a shorter blade. These are used for fine cutting, dicing and peeling.
Utility Knife: Slightly larger than paring knives, the utility knife is another essential kitchen tool. Used for chopping vegetables and slicing meat.
Bread Knife: A serrated blade, designed for cutting through bread and cakes without requiring downward pressure (which can squash the item).
Carving Knife: Designed for slicing and carving larger, denser meat preparations.
Slicing Knife: More flexible than a carving knife, the slicing knife is suited for cutting thinner meats, fruit and vegetables.
Cleaver: A large and hefty knife, with a strong blade designed to cut through bones while chopping meat.
Boning Knife: Designed to separate meat from bones, yet it can also serve as a paring knife in a pinch.
Fillet Knife: Similar to the boning knife, but thinner and more flexible to help you cut thin slices of fish more easily.
Santoku Knife: The Japanese equivalent of the Western chef’s knife. Designed to fulfill three jobs: slicing, dicing and mincing. Has a flat blade and so won’t rock on the chopping surface.
If that list looks a little intimidating, rest assured you don’t need to spend a fortune when you’re starting out.
If you’re just cooking on a daily basis (and only very occasionally entertaining with grander meals), the following knives will serve you perfectly well as a starting collection:
- Chef’s Knife
- Paring Knife
- Bread Knife
- Utility Knife
- Carving Knife
You can then add to this collection as your cooking skills and meal repertoire grow over time.
The five blades listed above will give you a great starting point though, and without breaking the bank.
Cleaning and Caring for your Kitchen Knives
Can your knives last a lifetime? Unless you’re buying extremely high-end kitchen knives, it’s likely you’ll need to replace them at some point.
With that said though, a little care and attention will go a long way towards keeping them in great working condition.
As soon as possible after cooking, rinse the blade under hot water.
Point the blade away from you and gently use a kitchen cloth to clean both sides of the blade. Be very careful here, and wipe slowly and away from your body.
If there’s any stubborn residue on the blades, be wary of scrubbing too hard as you might cut yourself. Instead, let the knife soak in water very briefly, then continue gently wiping until it’s clean.
When you’ve finished, leave the knives to dry in the rack or very carefully dry them with a cloth.
Couldn’t I just throw them in the dishwasher?
This is definitely not a good idea!
It’s hot in there, you’ll likely having chemical detergents swirling around inside, and the knives will inevitably collide with other items during the cleaning cycle.
Do this and it won’t take long at all for the blades to go dull. If they have wooden handles then you also risk them cracking prematurely too.
The blades aren’t good for your dishwasher rack either. If they cut away at the dishwasher shelf coating, you’ll expose metal which can lead to rust.
All in all it’s much better to just do a little of the hard work yourself.
If you clean your knives quickly after cooking with them, you really shouldn’t find it too much hassle and they’ll repay your care a thousand times over.
How to Sharpen Kitchen Knives
As well as regularly cleaning your kitchen knives, you’ll also need to sharpen them from time to time.
Not only will this keep them in good working order, they’ll be safer to use as well. Dull blades require more force to do their job, and you increase the risk of slipping and cutting yourself.
Do my knives even need sharpening?
The classic sharpness test involves running the blade down a folded sheet of paper.
If it cuts through cleanly, then it’s still in good working order.
If not though, it’s time to sharpen up the blade using one of the following methods:
The sharpening steel is a metal rod that you’re likely already familiar with.
By repeatedly sliding the knife down the rod at a slight angle, it’s possible to realign the blade’s edge and get it back to its original sharpness.
Here’s a video which explains how to perform this method safely:
Although simple to use, electric knife sharpeners are a more expensive option.
They are very convenient though, and the investment might encourage you to take better care of your equipment.
Each appliance will have its own instructions that you should follow. In simple terms though, you just need to lightly pull the blade through the sharpening slot.
Manual sharpeners tend to cost less than their electric equivalents and are often smaller too.
The principle remains the same though, and you just pull the blade through the slots with a little more pressure than you would with an electrical device.
How to Store Your Kitchen Knives
For obvious reasons it’s important that you store your knives safely. They’ll also last longer if the blade is adequately protected from the usual wear and tear of the typical kitchen clutter.
Here are some popular options:
If you’re buying a set of knives, it’s possible they’ll come with a wooden block for safe storage.
That’s definitely a viable option, but the problem here is that you might end up buying knives you really don’t need as part of the set.
It’s a perfectly viable solution though. If you’re buying one separately from your knives, you’ll of course want to make sure they’ll all fit and that you have enough slots to accommodate your collection.
Magnetic Knife Holder
This is a very popular choice, and simply requires you to fix a shop-bought magnetic holder to the wall.
The blades then attach to the magnetized edge, keeping them safely out of harm’s way until they’re needed.
If you have enough space to spare in your cutlery storage drawer, you can buy a dedicated knife drawer that’s designed to protect the blade’s edge.
Simply place it alongside your other cutlery, and slide the knives into position.
These drawers are readily available online. If you have the space, it’s a pretty cost-effective solution.
There’s another low-cost solution which will keep your blades safe – and sharp to boot.
Called blade guards, these simply slide over the blade and provide a protective barrier between the knife and whatever else it’s being stored alongside.
Just check the dimensions carefully before buying these. You want to be absolutely sure they’ll cover the entire length and point of the blade.
How to Dispose of Kitchen Knives
If your knives are beyond repair and you plan to invest in a new set, it’s important to dispose of the old set carefully.
Can they be recycled?
It’s hard to give a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Different regions will have different rules and regulations about what can and can’t be recycled.
The knife itself may be made of multiple materials as well, which can make processing them more challenging.
In the first instance, I would recommend taking the knives to your local recycling center and asking if they can be accepted.
Can they be donated?
Some charity outlets will accept used – but still serviceable – kitchen knives, while others won’t. It’s best to check ahead before trying to deliver them.
Exercise caution in how you transport them as well. Wrap them up securely – not loose – or you may find yourself answering difficult questions about why you’re traveling with them…
That should be everything you need to start choosing and caring for your kitchen knives. Look after them well and they’ll provide you with many years of service
If you have any questions, let us know in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer them for you.
Mark’s a lifelong food fanatic and spent ten years working as an entertainment journalist. He now combines his love of food, drink and writing as the founder and editor of Viva Flavor. Read more