Unless you're some sort of Ginsu master, capable of slicing, dicing, and jullienning an entire meal together with a single blade, food prep is a whole lot easier when you use the right knife. Here are the five most essential, versatile cutting implements in a cook's arsenal.
Meat cleavers are large, broad-faced knives employed to speed the dismemberment of carcasses. Its hatchet-like blade is thicker than other kitchen knives and typically constructed from softer steel. This prevents the blade from shattering or buckling—as harder, thinner blades would—under the stresses of butchering.
And like a hatchet, the blade itself is relatively blunt and doesn't even need to be particularly sharp. Instead, its cutting force is derived from the weight of the knife head combined with the momentum of the chef's overhand swing. There are limits to what a cleaver can do, however. While it may be great for separating baby-back ribs and chicken thighs, it probably isn't getting through beef bones. Or, you know, doing any fine-tuning.
Best Use: Chopping through thick chunks of muscle, sinew, and bone when butchering large cuts, and and chopping force is preferred over precision.
Originally developed to dismantle cattle carcasses without cutting through the bone, the chef's knife has since grown into the go-to piece of all-purpose cutlery. With a roughly eight-inch blade and slightly curved edge, the chef's knife can just as easily slice, dice, and mince vegetables as it can trim steaks and carve turkeys.
Chef's knives typically come in either the French or German style. German chef knives (second from top, above) have a more continuous curve to their blades, while the French style has a flatter edge and more pronounced curve right at the tip. That curve helps you rock the blade back and forth when mincing; neither design is inherently superior, so which one you use is just a matter of taste.
Best Use: Just about everything.
Cutting bread with an ordinary, smooth blade doesn't work all that well. The force you have to apply to get through the tough crust tends to crush the softer bread inside and you end up tearing, rather than slicing, the piece off. Same goes for tomatoes and sandwiches on rolls. But serrated utility knives act like in-home wood saws to shear off delicate slices without mangling the innards.
The serrations of these knives act like hacksaw teeth, providing downward cutting action without needing much downward force. And since the serrations are dug into the blade, rather than stick out of it like a wood saw, the amount of horizontal force needed to rake through the food's tough outer covering is reduced as well.
Best Use: Slicing bread, fatty meat, tomatoes, sandwiches, peaches, and anything else that has a hard crust or firm skin and squishy soft insides.
You wouldn't swat a fly with a sledgehammer, so why are you trying to de-bone a trout with a chef's knife? For delicate meats such as fish and small poultry, a high degree of precision is needed in their preparation that only a filet knife can provide.
These knives tend to be quite long—between 6 and 11 inches—and exceedingly narrow with a flexible blade. This allows the knife to easily curve under salmon skin, or remove the silver skin on beef tenderloins.
Best Use: Trimming fat from cuts of meat, de-boning small animals.
Just as the filet knife is used for delicate meat work, a paring knife does the same for fruit and vegetables. While they may look like miniature chef's knives, they perform very different functions. The paring knife's light and compact blade makes it ideal for precision work—peeling apples, slicing vegetables for salad, de-seeding bell peppers, de-veining shrimp, to name a few.
Best Use: Detail work, preparing fruit, vegetables, and seafood.
With these five blades in your knife block (or, in the cleaver's case, near it), you should be able to tackle just about any recipe regardless of its exotic ingredients. Just make sure to keep your edges properly sharpened.