If you’re building up a set of knives or are in the market to upgrade existing ones, where should you start? To answer that, I set out to figure out what are the essential handful of knives each of us needs in the kitchen — upgrading those could very well inform the rest of your cutlery-elevating journey.
Ask anyone — really, anyone — what two or three knives are essential above all others and you’ll get an answer based on that person’s specific needs. Rather than a global consensus on essential cutlery, it’s more of a to-each-their-own type of situation, as well it should be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ask some smart people where to start.
I turned to Pervaiz Shallwani, a Daily Beast senior editor, restaurant critic, and trained chef. First, he said you shouldn’t upgrade your knives all at once. Taking your tools to the next level a la carte is a fine practice and lets you focus in on your specific goals.
Shallwani noted that “some companies make knives that are better than others.” In other words, he said, it doesn’t make sense to rely on one company for all of them.
“I don’t love the knife sets, especially the cheaper ones. Think quality over quantity," he said. "Instead of buying a set, better to spend the money on a few superior knives, and build your collection from there.”
With that in mind and to begin your cutlery upgrade, Shallwani said he considers a good chef’s knife and a paring knife to be the two essentials any kitchen — and any cook — should have.
Chef’s Knife: The First Essential
When it’s maintained and sharpened well, the chef’s knife should be able to tackle most of anything you need it to — from steak to tomatoes to bread (yes, it can handle bread despite lacking a serrated blade, Shallwani said, though a bread knife certainly help). And what makes it so magically perfect to be the global multipurpose knife?
“It’s just the right size,” Shallwani said, adding that you want to get one that’s “solid quality.” And to get one, “you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on one of these.” No matter what, he advised to avoid a serrated chef’s knife since it’s hard to sharpen and specific to certain tasks. Otherwise, seek real quality here.
Here are some best-sellers to consider:
Sasaki’s Masuta Chef’s Knife, $50 on Amazon: More then several dozen reviewers left this Chef's knife a 4.6-star average rating. It's forged from a "single 67-layered Damascus high-Carbon stainless steel piece."
J.A. Henckels Chef's Knife, $40 on Amazon: Made in Spain from high-quality German stainless steel, this Chef's knife draws a 4.5-star average rating from more than 850 reviewers.
Victorinox Fibrox Pro Chef's Knife, $47 on Amazon: Lightweight and easy-to-handle, the Victorinox take on the everyday knife has earned a 4.7-star average rating from more than 4,800 reviewers.
Paring Knife: The Second Essential
Oftentimes, we have to cut smaller things — gathering up onions or herbs on the chopping block. I’m definitely guilty of sometimes using a chef’s knife to cut tiny foods like garlic when I need it sliced, but I also acknowledge the silliness (and danger) in doing that. A good paring knife can be both space-conscious and extremely useful, there when you need it and easily stored when you don’t.
At home, Shallwani uses his paring knife on a variety of everyday cuts. The paring knife is your tool to shave, shape, peel, and otherwise precisely cut anything. I asked him for examples:
“A perfect example is trying to cut a shallot,” he said. “Trying to do that with a [chef's] knife is really hard.” Other examples include halving baby tomatoes and coring strawberries.
Here are some other best-sellers to consider:
Chicago Cutlery Walnut Tradition Paring Knife, $13 on Amazon: This take from Chicago Cutlery relies on high-carbon stainless steel and a proprietary 25-degree Taper Grind edge for extra sharpness. More than 250 reviewers got the walnut-style knife a 4.2-star average rating.
J.A. Henckels Paring/Utility Knife, $27 on Amazon: Made in Spain of that German stainless steel mentioned above, the fully forged construction of this paring knife means it'll remain durable and stable handling. More than 350 reviewers left it a 4.7-star average rating.
Dalstrong Gladiator Paring Knife, $30 on Amazon: The blade of this German stainless steel, forged paring knife is hand polished at between 14 and 16 degrees on each side. It's got a 4.7-star average rating from more than 400 reviewers.
Kyocera Ceramic Revolution Paring Knife, $27 on Amazon: This ceramic take on the paring knife gives you a unique design paired with Japanese-made zirconia. More than 550 reviewers left it a 4.1-star average rating.
‘Don’t scrape the board with it’
After you invest in an elevated chef’s knife, you should treat it well.
“You spent all this time buying an expensive knife and then you spend all this time sharpening and honing it,” Shallwani said, and now it’s “not straight anymore. There’s a reason a knife goes up-and-down and not side-to-side.” If you must, flip the knife over and scrape the board with its top end.
- Don’t put them in the dishwasher
- Don’t leave them in the sink
If the tip of the blade break or bends, it can get “very expensive to fix.”
Shallwani’s final piece of advice is golden: “Don’t try to catch a knife if it falls off the table.” It just isn’t worth it. Whatever path you choose to take to upgrade and elevate your cutlery —and subsequently your culinary adventures — be sure you’re equipped with a chef’s knife and a paring knife that are both high quality and that suit your style.
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