A full set of kitchen knives has become one of the classic gifts on wedding registries, and many of us have a sturdy wooden block sitting somewhere on our counters.
If we’re honest, though, there are some knives nestled in that block we never touch. In fact, most of us reach for the same trusty three over and over — the chef’s knife, the santoku knife, and the petty knife.
In this post, we’ll discuss what makes these three the essential knives every kitchen needs and what to look for when you’re in the market.
What to Consider Before Buying Any Kitchen Knife
Before we get into the specifics of the three types of knives people reach for most in the kitchen, let’s look at some details you’ll want to consider in determining the quality of any knife you’re buying.
Type of Steel
At the most basic level, of course, any knife operating in a kitchen environment should be made of stainless steel to help protect it from corrosion. To get the best performance and longevity from your blade, you’ll want to look particularly for high-carbon stainless steel.
Knives made from high-carbon stainless reach a higher hardness than lower-quality stainless blades, allowing them to achieve a finer edge and keep that edge sharp for longer.
Most commercially made kitchen knives don’t have that extra carbon content, so they lack that level of hardness and edge stability. They have to be a little beefier on the edge and require sharpening more often.
This is why MKC chooses to make our chef knives from high-carbon, high-performance stainless steel. The material is a little more expensive, but we want our knife owners to experience the satisfaction of a quality knife that stands up to regular use and still keeps its edge.
The key to high performance is in the thickness of a knife’s edge. When a blade is made from high-carbon stainless steel, you can push for much thinner edge geometry. The hardness of the steel means the edge can get quite thin while still maintaining stability that resists bending or chipping.
Lower-quality stainless steel requires a more robust edge that sort of wedges into food, while a thin, sturdy edge falls through food effortlessly.
When it comes to sharpness, you’re not actually looking for a razor’s edge in a kitchen knife. In fact, you’ll want your blade to be a bit on the coarser side with a series of micro-serrations along the edge, like microscopic saw teeth.
If these serrations are too fine, they more easily bend over with time and use. You might fly through a few slices of tomato, but soon you’ll be lucky to get a clean slice into anything.
With a coarser edge, maybe close to 1,000 to 1,200 grit, you have fine serration that’s still robust enough to ensure stability. You’ll be able to blast through tomatoes or anything else you’re working on in the kitchen without stopping. The blade still has an incredibly fine appearance, but it gets the work done without the need for constant honing, realigning, or sharpening.
Shape and Point
It’s tempting to think you’ll want a long, flat area along your blade for chopping, but a flat blade actually diffuses the force of your chop across a large area. Instead, look for blades that have a continuous curve along the edge. It doesn’t have to be dramatic; a gentle curve is enough. This concentrates the force of your chop into a narrow area, getting a complete cut through anything from tiny herbs to larger fruits and proteins.
A lot of western-style chef knives also have a very high, upswept tip, which isn’t really necessary. The tip just need to be off the board enough to facilitate rock chopping and slicing while still allowing you to use the point at a convenient angle.
We designed our MKC chef knives with these insider insights in mind based on my experiences working in the restaurant industry.
Type of Handle
The blade is the business end of the tool, but the handle is where your relationship with that knife exists. Two important factors to consider in a kitchen knife handle are the material it’s made from and how it feels in your hand.
As far as materials go, wooden handles can look nice, but the problem is that they’re absorbant. They soak in moisture from your hand, sink water, or even juices from produce and raw meats. These juices and their germs embed in the material and create an environment for bacteria to grow.
Synthetic materials resist absorption to help maintain a cleaner handle. MKC uses an incredibly durable synthetic material called G-10 for its handles, preventing any moisture uptake and standing up to constant use.
You’ll also want to look for a knife handle that’s comfortable in your hand, without edges or hot spots that will dig in and cause discomfort after a lot of cutting. There are some good-looking knives out there with really nice profiles, but if the handle material, contours, or ergonomics are off, it doesn’t matter how good the blade is — you won’t enjoy using it.
MKC has invested a lot of time in the ergonomics of our handles because we believe the handle should feel like a natural extension of your hand.
3 Essential Chef Knives Every Kitchen Needs
When I ask people which blade they typically reach for in the kitchen, these are the three knives they name. If you have all three handy, you’ll be able to accomplish just about any task your meals require.
The factors that determine which you knife you use for any task are mainly the size of the job and your comfort level with the size of the blade.
The chef’s knife is a general purpose knife, usually around 8 inches long, that covers a wide range of cutting needs. It can do the small work of a paring knife on one end, the large work of a slicer on the other, and every job in between.
The chef’s knife spans the middle portion of the cutting spectrum, enabling users to accomplish as many tasks as possible. It’s also great for larger kitchen tasks like cutting a watermelon or breaking down a roast. A lot of people who’ve gotten comfortable handling longer blades love a good chef’s knife.
So, why use anything else? The longer blade of a chef’s knife means you have little less control over where the tip ends up. Many people prefer to use shorter knives for smaller tasks since those don’t require the last few inches of a larger blade anyway. And if you’re doing a lot of really fine, small work, you’ll definitely want the control of a shorter blade.
The santoku knife is the go-to blade of choice in most kitchens. Coming in at 6 inches long, the santoku provides the same amount of blade you actually use most on a chef’s knife, unless you’re slicing a melon. It’s fantastic for prep work like cutting fruits and vegetables, and because it’s shorter, you have far more control.
The petty knife, also called a utility knife or paring knife, is perfect for smaller tasks that need a lot of tip work. You can use it as a boning knife for breaking down poultry or fish, since it can curve and cut around small areas due to its narrow tip and short length.
It’s also good for finer work, like peeling potatoes or cutting apples, radishes, or cherry tomatoes. You can do that with a chef’s knife or a santoku, but a smaller knife is a better tool for smaller jobs.
Get High-Quality Essentials
In the restaurant business, I used all three of these knives regularly — but I dreaded working with low-quality tools. They hurt my hands, make prep work a drudgery, and caused so much frustration I wanted to toss them by the time I was done.
MKC believes cooking should be a great experience, so we’ve purposely designed a chef’s knife, santoku knife, and petty knife to the highest level with the best ergonomics. You can watch how fun it was for me to cut up a ton of food with these knives in our video. Kitchen knives should make cooking a more enjoyable experience, not a frustrating one.
While we know people love a good knife block, it really is difficult to need more than these three knives offer in the kitchen. So instead of ceding counter space to knives you probably won’t use, maybe think about a sleek magnetic strip to hold three high-quality essentials within easy reach.
by Mareko Maumasi, Master Bladesmith and Founder of Maumasi Fire Arts