Walk into any kitchenware or department store, and you’ll see knives sold in sets of 10, 15 — even a whopping 22. The problem is, they invariably include knives that you don’t need or want. It makes more sense to invest in the “Big Three” essential knives, and then build your collection piece by piece. That way you can find the brand you like best for each type of knife, and splurge or scrimp depending on your particular needs. Like to buy your chickens whole? You’ll want to invest in a good boning knife. Spend every holiday at your in-laws’ house? You can probably get away with an inexpensive (or even no) carving knife.
Boning knife The narrow, flexible blade of a boning knfe helps you follow the shape of whatever meat you’re butchering, keeping the edge right up against the bone, to cleanly cut away as much meat as possible. After a little practice with a boning knife, it’s easy to create your own boneless cuts, like chicken breasts that still have the skin on.
Carving knife Not just for turkey, a good carving knife comes in handy for prime rib, pork roast, even smoked fish. The blade is narrower than a chef’s knife — which makes it more maneuverable — but longer, to tackle large cuts of meat. Some carvers also have a granton edge: series of dimples in the blade just above the cutting edge, which helps the blade glide through meat effortlessly.
Santoku knife Think of the Japanese-inspired santoku as an alternative chef’s knife. The blade tends to be shorter — usually 5 to 8 inches — and the cutting edge is flatter than Western knives, while the back of the blade curves down to the tip. Many also have a granton edge, which helps keep food from sticking to the blade. Santokus are great for cutting, dicing, or thinly slicing vegetables and boneless meats, but the lack of a thick heel make then less suited to cutting through winter squashes or chicken backbones.
Ceramic knife Knives made from superhard ceramic are available in an increasing variety of shapes and sizes — chef’s knife, santoku, paring. But what they have in common are their thin, incredibly sharp, and precise blades. The larger chef’s or santoku-style ceramic knives are the most versatile, making it a breeze to fillet salmon, carve steak, slice squishy, ripe tomatoes, and dice vegetables finer than you ever thought you could. Just as impressive, ceramic blades hold their sharp edge longer than steel. But ceramic knives are still more of a complement than a replacement for steel blades. Like santokus, ceramics lack a bolster and a thick heel; you’ll want something heftier for hard squash, raw potatoes, and chicken bones.
Kitchen shears Okay, so they’re not, technically, a knife. But introduce them to your kitchen and you’ll find yourself using shears for lots of tasks you once delegated to knives. The strong blades, often serrated, make it a snap to cut out the backbone of a chicken. They’re also useful for snipping chives or scallions, chopping tough pieces of dried fruit, cutting parchment, and much more. Look for shears with take-apart blades, which make for easier cleaning, and rounded handles, which are more comfortable to use.
Tomato knife Ever notice how stubborn tomato skin can be? A tomato knife is the solution. It’s usually about 5 inches long with sharp serrations for slicing through the skin without mashing the flesh. Some versions even have a forked tip to help you maneuver slices onto your sandwich or platter. A tomato knife also slices beautifully through stone fruits and doubles as a sandwich knife or bagel slicer.
Cheese knife The square cutouts in a cheese knife’s blade minimize sticking and also relieve pressure on the cheese, so you’re less likely to squash it. Slices of soft cheese, like Brie and Camembert, come out more even. As with tomato knives, some have forked tips to help transfer slices to a serving plate.