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.
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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.
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‘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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