Santoku. Nakiri. Bird’s Beak. There are so many knives out there these days that you can get in the weeds trying to decipher which is best for breaking down cauliflower, deboning fish, or slicing a tomato. Our cutlery department created a finely diced guide to knives, but we also wanted test kitchen director Belle English’s expert take.
Here are Belle’s top-five, desert-island knives, plus her knowhow about a couple of oddball slicing situations.
Which 5 Knives Should I Own?
CHEF Classic for a reason, the chef’s knife is at the top of Belle’s list. Pick “6-inch or 8-inch depending on your comfort level,” suggests Belle. If you can safely shop in-person, carefully hold each size knife to figure out what’s best for you. An alternative is to try one out at the home of a pal who knows how to cook! Ideally they’ll let you chop a carrot or an onion or two.
SANTOKU “I was hasselbacking squash the other day,” says Belle, “and used a Santoku and it saved the squash.” Use it for “the dimples! For less drag!” she exclaims. The Japanese knife has signature dimples that keep food from sticking to the knife as you go. (Some cooks love the feel of this knife so much that they use it as their go-to chopper instead of the chef’s knife.) Genius move: Belle also slices iced cakes with a Santoku or a Nakiri “since, again, the dimples prevent the food from sticking.”
SERRATED BREAD KNIFE Belle reaches for her serrated bread knife for bread, of course, but “also tomatoes or citrus, cutting a cake layer in half, and frozen cookie dough logs!” The sharp teeth help penetrate the exterior of whatever you are cutting, she points out, while the sawing motion allows for a delicate slice. Nice tip!
PARING KNIFE Pause to break out a smaller paring knife for smaller work; your fingertips will thank you. “It’s key for any precise work,” says Belle. “Think: deseeding a jalapeño; hulling strawberries; peeling the skin off an apple.” You have lots of control with this little, sharp implement.
BONING KNIFE Carve! Bone! The sky’s the limit. In an ideal world, Belle would have both her carving and her boning knife. Since this is a desert island, however, she’d use her boning knife to “remove the meat from whole chickens or ducks, or remove the bones from a fish fillet.” It has a long, tapered tip and is mighty maneuverable.
They’re both Japanese, and they’re both dimpled, but that’s about it. “I use my Nakiri primarily for veggies, especially when I want them to be perfectly cut,” says Belle. “It has a really straight symmetrical edge which is ideal for precision when it comes to veg prep. Think: slicing, dicing, and chopping. You will get the perfect diced onion when using a Nakiri.” The Santoku is more of an all-purpose go-to for Belle. “I love the shape and the dimples along the blade, which reduce drag so food doesn’t stick to your knife. I use it primarily for meat and fish, or hard-to-handle fruit veggies like watermelon or squash.” The Santoku’s slightly rounded blade also encourages an easy rocking motion when the knife is used for the repeated up-and-down movement of chopping or mincing.
It’s a slightly confusing distinction, but a rounded-tip slicing knife is what you might see for brisket or ham. Pointed-tip, straight-blade carving knives are ideal for slicing roast meats and poultry; the tip helps cut into joints and navigate around bones. Belle prefers the latter. “It tapers to a sharp point, which is ideal for precision carving (around a bone or off a carcass).”
What’s the Difference Between a Fish Knife and a Boning Knife?
Tricky. “The biggest different here is that fish knives are delicate and designed to remove bones from fish,” says Belle. (Consider a whole fish; you want to take all the bones out at once.) A boning knife, she explains, “is designed to remove the meat (and skin) from the bones. (Think: removing chicken breast from the ribcage of a chicken.” A boning knife is also a hardier knife. The fish knife—with its long, thin curved blade—is a little more delicate, too, because fish is delicate and requires precision, says Belle. She loves that fish knives are generally curved from their tips to the base of the knives. That way, “I won’t accidentally cut the flesh when deboning a fish as the blade is pointed up.”
Sometimes called a “tourné”, this is one you may not have spied outside of cooking school or your favorite culinary show. (Cook’s Illustrated has a neat bit on its history over here.) Used to make roses from tomatoes or radishes, the bird’s beak paring knife is ideally used for “any food that follows the shape of the knife.” Belle likes it for peeling apples, celery root, getting the rind off citrus, or even peeling alliums like garlic and onions.