As a member of Generation X, one of the first things I learned to do as a child was to cook meals. Both of my parents worked a ton of hours each week and weren’t home much as a result. So, early on I was taught how to make simple things, such as scrambled eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches. 

The chef’s knife is the undisputed workhorse of the kitchen.

The chef’s knife is the undisputed workhorse of the kitchen. Photo © james/

As I got older, I expanded that repertoire quite a bit, trying out recipes I’d find in magazines or that were given to me by grandma. All of this meant I was destined to be the cook in my own family, a role I generally enjoy. My dad had a great set of kitchen knives that I put to good use when I was young, and I eventually put together my own set as I could afford to do so.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a bazillion different knives in the kitchen. Heck, if you’re determined, you can get by with just a good steak knife, if it’s sharp and you’re very careful. However, the saying, “use the right tool for the job” has a place in the kitchen just as much as in the workshop.

Let’s drill down the five knives that are essential to success in the well-equipped kitchen.


If funds are limited, as they often are, and you can only afford to purchase one knife at a time, go in the order we’ve listed them here, as they’re more or less ranked in order of importance or frequency of use. One approach that might be worth considering is to invest in one high-quality knife, then pick up the rest at a secondhand store or thrift shop. As funds allow, replace the substandard ones with better quality.


In most kitchens, the chef’s knife is the workhorse. If you’re buying your kitchen knife set one blade at a time, this is where to start. It is used for a wide range of tasks, including slicing and chopping vegetables as well as cutting meat.

“In most kitchens, the chef’s knife is the workhorse. If you’re buying your kitchen knife set one blade at a
time, this is where to start.”

There is a learning curve involved, as you might expect. Many people aren’t used to wielding such a large knife on a regular basis in the kitchen. The ideal chef’s knife has a blade somewhere around 8 to 10 inches long. As a general rule of thumb, measure the distance from the inside of your elbow to your wrist and that’ll be the blade length best suited for you.

As you shop around, note that the length given is just the blade, not the entire knife. For example, if you see a knife labeled as an 8-inch chef’s knife, that means the blade is 8 inches long. Add
the handle and you’re talking probably a foot or
so, all told.

The width of the blade is a key consideration. The proper technique for chopping or dicing is to hold the food with your non-knife hand, with the fingers curled in and the side of the knife blade against the knuckles. If the blade is too narrow, this could be problematic.

The Henckels Classic 8-inch Chef’s Knife is a good example of a quality knife that will see lots of use in the kitchen. Zwilling photo.

Pay attention to the heel of the knife as well. This is the part of the blade that extends from the handle to the cutting edge. The heel is what keeps your knuckles from hitting the cutting board or butcher’s block. If you have thick fingers, you’ll want a deep heel.

As useful as it is, the chef’s knife isn’t ideal for everything, though. You’ll want something else for handling things such as peeling fruit or dealing with very dense meat. That said, you’ll find yourself reaching for it more often than not, once you’re accustomed to using it.

Recommendation: Henckels Classic 8-inch Chef’s Knife

With great balance and a razor edge, this knife will make short work of everything from carrots to potatoes and more. The handle is 4.72 inches long, making this a bit more than a foot in total length. It has a deep heel to protect your knuckles when you’re dicing veggies for dinner. The handle is a little boxy, which helps to keep the knife indexed properly in your hand.

$69.99   ·


I’ll be honest. I tend to use my utility knife for way more than its intended purposes. It is just incredibly handy for so many things.

With a blade length of anywhere from 4 to 7 inches, it falls between the chef’s knife and the paring knife in size. The blade is thin and narrow, granting it great agility and making it perfect for a wide range of tasks, including slicing herbs, trimming meat, and preparing vegetables. If you’re wanting to create charcuterie boards for entertaining, this knife will be your new best friend.

The WÜSTHOF Classic 6-inch Utility Knife, sized between a chef’s knife and a paring knife, has many uses in food prep. Wusthof photo.

Sometimes called a “sandwich knife,” it is an all-purpose tool and an excellent knife for general food prep. However, it isn’t well-suited for heavy chopping or for carving larger meats like roasts or whole birds.

You’ll sometimes hear a utility knife referred to as a petty knife. While similar in use, these are actually two different styles of the same knife, more or less. The traditional petty knife is simply the Japanese version of the utility knife. The design is more triangular, with a deep and well-defined heel. The Western utility knife has a narrower shape. Over the years, the two styles have blurred a bit and you will sometimes see a model that’s a hybrid of the two.

The Kanso Paring 3.5-inch is a fine example of a knife you can use for fine detail cutting tasks. Shun Knives photo.

The primary consideration when buying a kitchen utility knife is length. I tend to like them a little long so favor the 6-inch models. However, many prefer the shorter 4- or 5-inch knives. Honestly, this is strictly a matter of personal preference. There’s no real advantage to having a longer or shorter knife, other than simply reach.

Recommendation: WÜSTHOF Classic 6-inch Utility Knife

A narrow blade with a needle-sharp point, this utility knife is well-suited for just about any kitchen task. The contoured handle is quite comfortable, even after an entire day spent cooking. The company’s Precision Edge Technology produces a blade that is 20% sharper than competitors’ blades, and it will retain that edge twice as long.

$100   ·


All the slicing and chopping chores described thus far are done in conjunction with a cutting board of some sort. However, there are some chores that are best performed while you hold the item in your hand, such as peeling an apple. Trying such a maneuver with a chef’s knife is a dangerous proposition, to say
the least.

Enter the paring knife. It is the perfect tool for dealing with small fruits and vegetables, including peeling the aforementioned fruit, as well as segmenting oranges and removing stems from strawberries.

Here you can see the difference between a petty style knife and a classic utility knife. The top is the Petty Z from Bark River Knives, the bottom is the WÜSTHOF Classic Utility. While this is more of a hybrid style, notice the deeper heel on the Petty Z. Author photo.

Paring knives are small, typically running 4 inches or under for blade length. I’ve found a 3.5-inch blade to be my sweet spot for a paring knife. It’s long enough to get the work done without being cumbersome when dealing with small things such as garlic cloves.

Something to watch for when shopping for a paring knife is handle size and shape. If you have large hands especially, you’ll want something with a full-size handle. Otherwise, the knife might feel lost in your grip. A too-narrow handle can also lead to hand cramping after extended use.

Recommendation: Kanso Paring 3.5-inch

If you’re peeling and sectioning fruit, you could do far worse than this Kanso knife. The 3.5-inch blade is extremely sharp and the wood handle provides a solid grip. The overall size of the knife is useful without being clumsy, allowing you to do fine detail work without trouble.

$88   ·


As the name might imply, this is the knife you’ll reach for when you’re dealing with large cuts of meat. With a long and thin, semi-flexible blade, it isn’t meant to cut through bones, but rather to get around them.

 “With a long and thin, semi-flexible blade, it isn’t meant to cut through bones, but rather to get around them. ”

It is perfect for trimming fat and skin away from meat, such as pork tenderloin, prior to cooking. You’ll also use it when carving your Thanksgiving turkey, as well as when breaking down whole chicken.

The Benchmade Meatcrafter is a great boning knife, making easy work of cutting chicken breasts and more. Author photo.

Because you’ll be dealing with blood and juices when you’re carving meat, it is important the boning knife has a good bolster. This is what keeps your fingers from sliding up off the handle and onto the blade. For the same reason, make sure the handle has good traction, so you can maintain a solid grip.

The Benchmade Meatcrafter 15500 would be a good choice for both camp and kitchen food prep. Benchmade photo.

The blade on a boning knife is typically around 5 to 7 inches long. If you cook a lot of roasts or large birds, then go for something on the longer end of the spectrum, just to make your life easier.

Recommendation: Benchmade Meatcrafter 15500

Featuring Benchmade’s SelectEdge technology and a very ergonomic Santoprene handle, you’ll be ready for anything. Designed to transition easily from field to kitchen, the Meatcrafter can help you with all your, well, meat crafting needs.

Cost: $160



Of all the knives on our list, this one is probably going to see the least amount of use in the average kitchen. But, by the same token, the jobs it is designed to handle can’t be easily accomplished any other way.

Sometimes referred to as a “bread knife,” the serrated blade is indeed perfect for slicing up a loaf of hand-baked bread. It will saw through the hard crust without crushing the whole thing into a pancake.

This serrated knife from Victorinox has a great handle, with excellent texturing for a solid grip. Author photo.

The serrations also make it a good choice when slicing something that has resistance rather than toughness, such as the skin of a tomato. The basic idea behind serrations is divide and conquer. All the little points and gullets, which are the spaces between the points, divide the work of cutting and space out the force involved. The end result is being able to cut material without having to exert a lot of downward pressure to do so.

The Victorinox Swiss Classic Bread Knife can see lots of use before its serrations will need to be resharpened. Victorinox photo.

Because this is a knife that’s used less often than your other kitchen cutlery, I don’t recommend spending an arm and a leg on it. In fact, if you ever reach a point to where your serrated knife is dull, you can probably just toss it out and get a new one, given that it’ll probably take a decade or more for that to happen. Sharpening a serrated knife isn’t impossible, of course, but it is a bit more labor-intensive than many might want to tackle.

Opt for something with about a 10-inch blade, as that will give you plenty of cutting edge for bread and other foods. Remember, you’ll be sawing the knife back and forth, so you want enough blade length to make that process easy.

Recommendation: Swiss Classic Bread Knife

The serrations are shallow with wide gussets so you get a lot of work done with each movement of the knife. The handle is contoured for comfort as well as to provide a secure grip. The blade stretches just over 8 inches, giving you plenty of steel to get the job done.   

Price: $53.99  




Another option worth considering is to look at Eastern-style kitchen knives. The two most common of these are the Nakiri and the Santoku.

These three selections from Shun give your kitchen some Eastern flair. L-R: Kanso Paring 3.5-inch, Santoku, and Nakiri.

These three selections from Shun give your kitchen some Eastern flair. L-R: Kanso Paring 3.5-inch, Santoku, and Nakiri. Author photo.

Nakiri: This is a Japanese knife that’s designed for cutting vegetables. It has been in use, largely unchanged in design, since the 17th century. The Nakiri has a rectangular shape, with a straight, flat edge. It is made for chopping with a straight up and down motion rather than rocking the blade. Because the entire edge makes contact with the vegetable and thus the cutting board under it at once, the cuts are clean from end to end.

Santoku: Designed in the 1940s, this was Japan’s version of an all-purpose kitchen knife. The blade edge is usually straight, though some have a little bit of a curve, and the spine curves as it dips down to the edge at the front of the knife. Where the Nakiri excels with vegetables, the Santoku is ideal for almost everything from meats and cheeses to fruits and more.

Both knives typically have blades around 5-7 inches in length, with thin edges to make for great slicing capability. In my experience, the best around for both are made by Shun Knives.


There are several reasons why you should avoid using plastic or glass cutting boards and stick with wood.


  • Wood is better for your knives. While any knife will dull with use, wood isn’t as damaging to the edge as harder surfaces.
  • Wood is cleaner. Knives score the surface of plastic cutting boards, and those cuts and scratches are hard to clean, allowing bacteria to proliferate. Wood, on the other hand, appears to naturally contain antimicrobial compounds, as well as being easier to wash.
  • Wood is renewable. For the environmentally conscious, this is an important consideration.

Use your culinary skills on this 7-6-5 PORK TENDERLOIN Recipe


Pork tenderloin

This recipe is a simple and easy way to make a meal that will melt in your mouth. The tenderloin comes out juicy and tender and there’s almost no work involved. Plus, you get to use the grill outside, which is always a plus.

To be clear what we’re using, this is pork tenderloin, which is usually about a pound or so, not pork loin, which is larger. In my area, tenderloins are usually sold two in a pack. I’ve found one will feed an average family of four, along with the standard side dishes like mashed potatoes and a hot vegetable.

How to Make It

  1. Turn the grill on high and let it come up to temperature, about 450°F or so. Honestly, it doesn’t need to be precise.
  2. Use your boning knife to trim fat and silverskin from the pork tenderloin. Season it to your liking with salt, pepper, and other herbs and spices.
  3. Put it on the hot grill and close the lid. Set a timer for 7 minutes.
  4. When the timer goes off, flip the tenderloin and close the lid. Set the timer for 6 minutes.
  5. This time, when the alarm sounds, turn the grill off and set the timer for 5 minutes. At that point, the tenderloin is done. Check it with a meat thermometer and make sure it has reached 145°F at the thickest part, just to be safe.
  6. Take it off the grill and let it rest for about 8 minutes before serving.

Editor’s Note:
Got a hankering for more great recipes? Reserve your copy of Tread’s Grill Guide and get a 30% discount.