The Right Knife for the Job

Take the guesswork out of prep work by matching the right tool to the task.

By Pilar Guzman
Kitchen knivesFormula Z/

Chopping a carrot with a paring knife instead of a chef's knife is about as effective as mopping a dirty floor with plain water: It can take four times as long and double the elbow grease. Here's how to use a few good blades.

Chef's Knife
While chopping large or very firm vegetables, a good 8- to 10-inch chef's knife throws its weight around―literally. If you use it properly, its heft does most of the work for you. "A big hammer lets you put a nail in a beam with fewer strokes," says Norman Weinstein. "The same principle applies to a chef's knife."
Best for: Onions, carrots, potatoes, peppers, celery, meat.

Serrated Knife
An 8-inch serrated knife is the most efficient (and safest) way to slice. It also cuts cleanly through crusts without crushing delicate fillings. "It isn't meant for chopping―the jagged blade won't cut all the way through vegetables as a chef's knife would," says Suzanne Dunaway, a professional baker and the author-illustrator of Rome, at Home.
Best for: Tomatoes, bread, citrus fruits, pies, quiches, pizza.

Paring Knife
The fine, small blade of a 3 1/2- to 5-inch paring knife is "for delicate precision work on all kinds of small food items," says chef Jacques Pépin. It slices soft fruits without crushing the flesh. With apples, it slips under the thin skin for paring and easily carves out the core. It's also good for mincing fresh herbs and small items, like shallots.
Best for: Apricots, plums, berries, apples, shallots, garlic, fresh herbs.

What to Look for in a Knife

A "fully forged" knife―one with blade, bolster, and tang forged from a single piece of high-carbon stainless steel―has optimal stability. You should see the tang (or metal) sandwiched between the handle material along the spine. (Handles are a matter of choice. Hardwood is more handsome; high-impact plastic, more durable.) Also, the knife should be neither blade- nor handle-heavy: If you place your finger under the curve of the bolster, the knife should balance perfectly.

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Supermarkets may carry watercress or a similar spicy green called upland cress (often labeled hydroponic cress); either is deliciously peppery.