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Dec 7, 2011 06:07 PM

knife noob has questions...

The two knives i currently use for basically all my kitchen tasks are mostly dead. One (and I'm not IDing what it actually is, because it's embarassing) is just about to fall apart and the other one, a Henckels chef's knife, is too heavy for me to use properly.

If you could have 3 knives, max, in your kitchen, what would they be (style, not brand)?

I am interested in Japanese knives and am leaning towards a santoku rather than another chef's knife. Possible bad idea?

Am also leaning towards a nikiri and a boning knife. Does 'boning knife', with reference to Japanese knives, mean everything or just fish (see, I know nothing)? I'd like a knife I can bone out pork and beef with as well as fillet fish. I'd also like to be able to very finely chop herbs and certain vegetables. And I need knives that can do many tasks, not super specialized ones.

Thoughts? Could I get away with 2, not 3? I am interested in general thoughts as well as specific recommendations. Thanks. :)

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  1. Chefs knife (whatever style you choose)
    Paring Knife
    Slicing knife (9-10 inches or so)

    Is what I would keep if I could only keep three knives

    5 Replies
    1. re: twyst

      What the hell is a 'slicing' knife? All knives slice or why would you have them?

        1. re: pdxgastro

          Google may yield a world of information for you.

          Alternately, you can read further down this very thread where it has already been explained.

          1. re: pdxgastro

            What the hell is a Chef's knife or a Cook's knife? Aren't all knives used by a chef or a cook?


            (Just teasing the situation, don't take it personally. A lot of knife names are not very descriptive, like butcher knife or utility knife or....)

          2. re: twyst

            I have an 8-inch chef's knife, a moderately price Chicago
            Cutlery, that's in fine shape after 30 years. Just about the only
            knives I use are a German steak knife that's partly serrated,
            and a 5-inch utility knife. Unless you spend a lot of
            timef illeting fish, I don't know what use you would
            have for a boning knife.

          3. Me personally -
            1- Gyuto (Japanese chefs knife - 240 mm long)
            2- Paring knife
            3- Honesuki (Japanese boning knife, especially geared toward chicken rather than fish)

            Standard advice
            1 Chefs knife/gyuto/santoku/Chinese cleaver/nakiri (any of those options can basically be used as a primary knife)
            2 Paring knife
            3 Bread knife (personally I don't cut all that much bread, and I find a longer straighter chef knife like a gyuto is able to deal with bread just fine when it's kept nice and sharp)

            A person can get away with 2 knives just fine if they don't do many specialized techniques. You can use a chefs knife to filet fish (as long as we're not talking big fish) or break down chicken. If you really bone out a lot of pork and beef, a boning knife may be more appropriate for you. The Japanese use the hankotsu and honesuki for boning out meat - they are sturdy, stiff, fairly narrow knives that tend to be quite assymetrical, but not single beveled (in other words, it's still possible to use one if you're left handed). Or of course a Western boning knife is an option.

            Any two knives are going to have some areas of deficiency, so the important thing is whether those areas are the kinds of things that you find yourself doing. As for a nakiri and a boning knife as a combo:
            -you won't have any especially good slicer for roasts and large boneless cuts of meat and such
            -you won't have a knife that's good at peeling or tournes or microsurgical little cuts
            -you won't have a knife that's good for bread
            -you won't have a knife that's good for cutting through bones larger than a chicken's
            -finally you won't have an especially great knife for filleting fish, though you can get the job done anyway.

            Do any of those things sound like problems for the way you cook? The upside is that the boning knife can function as a sort of utility knife as well.

            Finally my standard advice - sharpening is more important than which knives you have. Make sure you have a strategy in mind to keep your knives sharp. Japanese knives in particular reward one's sharpening efforts but don't work as well with some of the easier sharpening solutions.

            1. Three knives to take care of all possible tasks or three knives to take care of most tasks?

              To take care of all possible tasks. I would keep
              a) a meat cleaver
              b) a medium blade Chinese cleaver
              c) a paring knife

              To take care of most tasks in my kitchens:
              i) a thin blade Chinese cleaver/nakiri
              ii) a paring knife
              iii) a boning knife

              As for your leaning toward a santoku, it is a good choice, but before you make that choice notes that a typical Japanese Chef's knife (aka gyuto) is thinner and lighter than a German Chef's knife. So if you want a Santoku because of its shape, then go ahead and get it. If you want to get a Santoku because you had bad experience with the heavy weight German Chef's knife, then you may find what you like in the Japanese gyuto (Japanese Chef's knife).

              Nakiri is a very good knife. In general, it has a much flatter knife profile than gyuto or santoku, so it is very good for cutting up vegetables. As for your question about boning knife... it is a bit tougher to answer. There is a traditional Japanese boning knife known as Deba. Deba is really specialized for fish and possible poultry. There is another Japanese knife called the Honesuki which is much better for poultry. Here are the two images.




              Yes, you can get away with 2 or 3 knives. I think instead of getting all of these Japanese knives in one shot. Maybe you should get a gyuto or santoku first to see what you like and dislike before getting your second and third knives.

              cowboyardee's suggestions are excellent especially about knife sharpening.

              I have one more suggestion that is focus your energy and expense on your main knife. Let's say you only want to $150. There is no reason why you have to buy all three knives from the same brand or the same grade. It is perfectly fine to buy a $140 gyuto/santoku, a $10 paring. You should not have to spend too much for knives which you may not use often.

              1. This is all good info. I have some follow-up questions...if you don't mind:

                1. slicing knife - what tasks does this do?
                2. santoku vs gyoto - what is the main difference(s)?
                3. Chinese cleaver vs nikiri - again, main difference? I've seen Chinese cleavers being used well (i.e. by people with advanced knife skills) to do almost anything - can a nikiri do the same things? I assume based on what cowboyardee says, that they can't handle bones bigger than chicken? Does that mean a Chinese cleaver is a better all around than a nikiri?
                4. Of the list of possible problems with my original possible choices, these apply:

                "-you won't have a knife that's good for cutting through bones larger than a chicken's
                -finally you won't have an especially great knife for filleting fish, though you can get the job done anyway."

                Right now I am thinking santoku vs gyuto (I am not totally sure of the difference in performance here), paring, and a third, as yet unchosen knife. Leaning towards Chinese cleaver. Or boning/honesuki. Maybe I should just go for 4 knives and make sure 1 or 2 of them are really high quality?

                Btw, thank you for such detailed advice. It's exactly what I need. I spent a lot on that Henckels knife because I knew nothing about knives and thought expensive = good, and it really doesn't work for me, it just feels clunky and heavy, even to my untrained hand.

                Edit: re: sharpening - I have read a number of knife threads here and plan to have the knives professionally sharpened.

                3 Replies
                1. re: montrealeater

                  1 it's mainly for cutting slices of boneless meat. The extra length is useful for an efficient slicing motion. A Japanese slicer, called a sujihiki, has a heel and can be used as an all-around type knife, but this requires a little extra practice.

                  2 A gyuto is longer. It is better for slicing, a little bet at removing silverskin and other jobs that involve piercing, and more efficient for cutting large items or a large amount of items at the same time. A santoku is nimble and easier to learn to control. It's also better on a small cutting board or a very tight workspace.

                  3 Chinese cleaver is a good deal bigger and usually longer. It is better at slicing and cutting meat. It is also better at scooping up foods from a cutting board. It varies more than the nakiri in terms of weight and thickness (some Chinese cleavers are for rough work but most aren't; no nakiris are made for rough work AFAIK). A nakiri is more nimble and easier to adjust to. It's edge is also usually perfectly straight whereas a CC's edge is usually just a bit curved, so the nakiri is a little better at straight up and down chopping.

                  4. If you need to chop through large bones, you only real options are a Western meat cleaver, a thick and heavy Chinese cleaver (as opposed to the normal thin, delicate kind), a hatchet, or a saw. None of these options are much good for normal kitchen cutting where bones aren't involved.

                  As for filleting fish, it depends on what kind of fish you fillet. I use a thin gyuto to filet fish, but I don't break down especially big fish. A nakiri is less suited to the job, though it can make do. Some people who love Japanese knives still rely on a flexible Western fillet knife for fish, but that's because it's the technique they learned and there's no real equivalent among Japanese knives.

                  Chinese cleaver is a really great knife to have, but it covers a lot of the same ground as a santoku or a gyuto if you're just putting together your first few knives.

                  1. re: montrealeater

                    Chinese cleaver vs nikiri - again, main difference? I've seen Chinese cleavers being used well (i.e. by people with advanced knife skills) to do almost anything - can a nikiri do the same things? I assume based on what cowboyardee says, that they can't handle bones bigger than chicken? Does that mean a Chinese cleaver is a better all around than a nikiri?
                    Niether is meant to cut bone.

                    1. re: montrealeater

                      1) A slicing knife is for slicing especially large objects. Say a large roast beef.
                      2) A santoku is shorter and lighter. Often, but not always, a santoku has relatively flat edge. Its tip forms much closer to the edge, whereas a gyuto’s edge is form between the knife spine and the edge. A German Chef’s knife tip is usually closer to the knife spine. Santoku is not as good for “rock chopping” as the other two.
                      3) A Chinese cleaver is much taller (or wider) and can handle higher volume of foods than a nakiri. On the other hand, a nakiri is easier to handle and give you slightly better control. Most nakiri cannot handle thick bone because they are usually not very thick blade, but if you find a nakiri made with thick blade and not very hard steel, then I don’t see why it cannot cut bones. There are more than one kind of Chinese cleavers. There are the thin ones which are thinner than most nakiri, and there are very thick ones.
                      4) Your number 4 read more like a statement than a question, so I don’t know what to answer

                      “Maybe I should just go for 4 knives and make sure 1 or 2 of them are really high quality?”
                      Good idea. I would make sure your main knife (santoku or gyuto or whatever) is of high quality. The rest will fall into places.

                    2. I'm not a novice, but neither am I a knife wonk. I like good tools, and want them to last, but they don't have to be the high-end, which I do not consider to be good value for my needs.

                      Michael Ruhlman (The Elements of Cooking) writes that you only need two knives: a chef's knife and a paring knife. The chef's knife need not be a heavy forged blade — mine is a lightweight 8" stainless steel knife with a wooden handle. It feels good in my hand and holds its edge under the light use I give it, which are the main things. The parer, to limit yourself to only one, must be the right size and shape to do everything you want, and be of sufficient quality to stay sharp. I don't get by with only one and have three. My third knife would be a Chinese or Japanese style vegetable knife. I have a Chinese knife I've used for 35 years, and will probable use forever unless it breaks, even though it's not a very good knife. You don't really need a vegetable knife — you can use your chef's knife as some people prefer. I mostly use my vegetable knife and use my chef's knife rarely. If you cut up whole chickens often, you might prefer a stiff boning knife for your third knife. An ideal knife for fish is a little different, but you might find one which is a good compromise. I got by many years with no boning knife at all.

                      I don't see the point in setting an arbitrary limit. If you start with the object of getting a few good knives which will be the most useful and which will hold up over time, then that's sensible, in my opinion, and preferable to loading up with every conceivable knife you think you might need. But then if you take up oyster shucking, you're going to want an oyster knife. Nothing wrong with that.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: GH1618

                        "I mostly use my vegetable knife and use my chef's knife rarely"

                        Really? I thought you use your Chinese cleaver and Japanese nakiri (vegetable knife) as your backup, but now it sounds like you use your Chef's knife as your backup.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          I don't have an actual Japanese nakiri. My cheap Chinese vegetable knife, approximating the shape of a nakiri, was my only vegetable knife for many years. Then I found the light cleaver (apparently Japanese made) which has mostly replaced the earlier knife. I like it it better because of the depth, the weight, and the better quality blade. I have and use both, but if I have to limit myself to just three knives, the old one goes, and the light cleaver is my third knife. The chef's knife is not a backup — it's what I use on meat.

                          1. re: GH1618


                            Oh yes, you did tell me this before. Sorry, I have bad memory. You may find yourself telling me this again in the future. :)