The 5 essential knives for any cooking beginners

Want to slice and dice with the best of 'em? Here's what you need

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published August 5, 2023 1:30PM (EDT)

Close up shot of kitchen knives on wall in kitchen (Getty Images/Thomas Barwick)
Close up shot of kitchen knives on wall in kitchen (Getty Images/Thomas Barwick)

It is genuinely impossible to become a "good cook" without some legitimately top-tier knives. You could have the most inordinately expensive, high quality ingredients, products and cookware — but if your knives aren't stellar, you will be undoubtedly disappointed.

In addition, the old adage is so incredible true: A dull knife is much, much, much more dangerous than a sharp one.

Actually, I'd say that this is the one area in which you really must spend some dough: A good knife might cost you, but it's immensely worth it, trust me.

My favorite tests for sharpening knives is the paper trick: Simply sliding a knife through a singular pice of printer paper and seeing if it slices cleanly — or merely cutting into a tomato. Many knives will do nothing but smoosh the tomato, while a properly sharp knife will slice through it with ease. Also, please take care of them! Keep them sharp! I often leave my best or favorite knives out and don't put them in blocks or drawers or elsewhere — you don't want the blades getting dulled or nicked by haphazardly sloshing around in the drawer with random whisks, spoons and the like. 

As I mentioned in my primer on cutting onions and alliums, it's imperative to carefully bend your fingers as you progressively cut through whatever it is you might be cutting: "Continue, firmly and decisively, holding the onion and curling or bending your fingers (the point of this is so that if you do happen to nick yourself, you'll make a slight cut on your knuckle as opposed to lobbing off your nail or something equally heinous)."

While doing so, make sure to have a firm hold on your knife itself, guiding it through the foodstuff with confidence and with force, ideally taking on a bit of a gliding, meditative or patterned repetition as you continue your work.

I've said before: Food prep can be genuinely meditative. It's one of the reasons I so love "mise en place."

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Also, please be careful! Watch some YouTube videos, sign up for a knife class, work on your knife cuts — it should go without saying, but you always want to your darnedest to remain as careful and vigilant as possible while prepping your food. No matter how stupendous your Bolognese or homemade Cobb salad is, it won't taste that great if your finger is bleeding under the table, right? 

Furthermore, it's also very important that you have a large, heavy cutting board — none of those flimsy plastic ones that slide all over the darn counter. I'm a huge proponent of a thick wooden cutting board with lots and lots of real estate so you can chop to your heart's content and there's enough room for everybody. 

Like with pots and pans, skip those knife "sets" or "kits" — they usually come with superfluous knives you definitely don't need. I think you can aim for a good four or five knives and have the bulk of your everyday kitchen tasks covered, but I also listed a few other options that might be good to have on hand for special events, particular uses, holidays and celebrations, certain gatherings and the like. 

Other good options to possibly have on hand: carving knives (for those large roasts, Thanksgiving turkeys, hams and foods along those lines), a whetstone or sharpener for keeping your knives in proper shape and of course, some good butter and steak knives. 

Now, here are the five knives you need in your kitchen: 

Santoku knife
I mainly use a Santoku, but will also use my chef's knife interchangeably. It's my "everyday" go-to knife and has been so since culinary school. 
I prefer the slightly more compact Santoku and feel like I'm more dexterous and able to work with it seamlessly. I remember once hearing that a good knife should feel like an extension of your arm or hand and when I'm hurriedly slicing onions for French Onion Soup or feverishly mincing garlic, that's precisely how I feel.
Chef's knife
I love a chef's knife and it's one of my most used kitchen tools, but truthfully, I'd pick a Santoku over it anyday.
I find that a chef's knife can sometimes get a bit unwieldy or cumbersome, while the Santoku feels more natural. Regardless, though, a chef's knife is ideal for cutting produce, prepping lettuce for a salad, chopping fresh herbs (look for clean, simple cuts, not bruised, quasi-cut leaves!) and so much more.


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Paring knife
For some reason, the automatic go-to in my head for a paring knife is cutting apples or supreming citrus, but they're really wonderful, economic tools for . . . almost everything.
Paring knives are considerably smaller than Santoku or chef's knives, which can help you get into little nooks and crannies, too. This can really come in clutch, much more often than you might think.
Serrated knife
The top two items for serrated knives are unquestionably tomatoes and breads, but you can use them for so much more than just that. Also, the way they do their intended job (of cutting tomatoes and bread) is so incredibly efficient that I'd recommend them for that reason alone. 
Flexible boning knife
This one isn't totally necessary, I'll be honest, but I have had such an affinity for it ever since culinary school. This knife, sometimes used for filleting fish, has a slight "bend" to it which can really come in handy in so many different kitchen and cooking situations. Try it out!

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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