Types of Kitchen Knives Illustrated: Basic, Common, and Specialty

Gerard Paul
July 10th, 2021

If you poke around a kitchen store or your friend's well-stocked kitchen, you'll see that there are many styles and types of kitchen knives.

Knives are extremely interesting. I personally couldn't get a handle on the types until I had been cooking seriously for a few years.

Today I'll share some of that knowledge with you – including diagrams and descriptions of all types of knives. Let's cut to it!

Basic Kitchen Knives

Basic kitchen knives are the knives you'll see in nearly every home or apartment.

If you're serious about cooking at home, these are the knives you'll want to look into – no matter what type of food you prefer.

Chef's Knife

The Chef's knife is the centerpiece of the kitchen knives. It's an all purpose knife, rigid, and usually comes with a straight blade ending in a point. The shape of the blade makes it easy to 'rock' the blade back and forth to cut small items in a rhythm.

Chef's knives come in all sizes, but usually are 8 - 12" long.

For your first Chef's knife, I suggest a longer blade – it comes in handy when cutting longer vegetables and meat. It's a bit harder to wield a longer knife, but you can use your utility knife or paring knife when you need to do finer work.

Use a Chef's knife for almost everything: cutting meat and nuts, dicing veggies, and slicing up herbs.

Diagram of a Chef's Knife

Paring Knife

A paring knife is a rigid, short, roughly 3" - 4" long knife you can use for all your detailed cutting work.

Unlike a Chef's knife, its shorter length makes it very easy to wield with less risk of cutting yourself.

I'm much more confident with a paring knife than my Chef's knife. Sometimes I'll even use the paring knife while holding items in the air, such as carrots.

A paring knife is useful for many things you shouldn't do with your Chef's knife. Use it to peel fruits, cut smaller veggies, and slice slippery things like garlic cloves and grapes. Don't use it for cutting and slicing meat though - you have the Chef's knife for a reason, and you'd need to move a small knife back and forth too much.

Diagram of a paring knife

Utility Knife

A utility knife is a mid-sized knife, usually around 4-7" long with a serrated (wavy) cutting edge. It's also usually a bit flexible.

The utility knife sits in a weird spot: good at many things but great at none.

Most people who bought (or received) a knife set have a utility knife, but usually a Chef's, paring, or bread knife is better for what you want to do.

Take the advice from FuzzyChef at Cooking Stack Exchange: you can skip it if you don't have one. It's useful if you often cook with another person using the same set of knives, and, yes, it can cut a sandwich or tomato well!

Diagram of a kitchen utility knife

Long Serrated Knife (Bread Knife)

Every kitchen needs a serrated knife - and preferably a longer one! Long serrated knives – starting at 6" up to around 14" – are generally known as "bread knives".

Bread knives are long and mostly rigid. If you don't have one yet, I suggest getting one on the longer side, 12" or 14".

Befitting their nickname, long serrated knives are excellent for cutting bread and cakes (see my roundup of bread slicers, here). I also use mine sometimes to carve meats. They’re also amazing for cutting harder things, such as pineapples or not-quite-defrosted meats.

Diagram of a serrated bread knife

Kitchen Shears

You got me – kitchen shears aren't knives. Still, they're a staple of modern kitchen cutlery!

Kitchen shears are straight or curved bladed scissors which often lock shut. They're very sharp with well-aligned blades and usually around 5" - 8" long.

Use them to snip tough vegetables, trim fat from tough meats, and cut up your herbs.

Diagram of kitchen shears

Common Kitchen Knives

Once you get past the basics, peoples' kitchens differ quite a bit.

The next set of knives are pretty common. If you don't own them yet, not every knife here is necessary once you have the above basics covered.

Butcher Knife and Cleaver

When most people think of a butcher knife, they think of a cleaver – a Horror Movie mainstay.

Cleavers have a rectangular block blade with a straight edge usually around 6-8" long. Butcher knives are actually much different; they are usually 8-12" long with a curved blade and a straight edge.

Diagram of a butcher knife

Use either a cleaver or a butcher knife to slice meat and make sharp cuts. A cleaver is also useful for chopping veggies.

Diagram of a cleaver

Boning Knife and Fillet Knife

Boning and fillet knives are both flexible or semi-flexible curved blades used to separate meat along a bone. Boning knives generally are used for land animals while fillet knives are for fish. Fillet knives are slightly thinner and more flexible than boning knives, but they can mostly substitute for each other.

Diagram of a fillet knife

Boning knives are usually around 6" long while fillet knives vary a lot and fall in the 4 - 12" range. These knives are useful if you often carve fish or meat, but you can usually get away with other knives if that's uncommon.

Diagram of a boning knife

Slicing Knife and Carving Knife

Slicing and carving knives are a bit different but often substitute for each other in the kitchen. They are both between 8 - 12" long on average, with a bit of flex: carving knives on the stiffer end and slicing knives on the more flexible.

Both knives substitute for each other but are a little different. A carving knife comes to a point and is usually on the shorter end of the range. On the other hand, a slicing knife is rounded at the end and is usually longer.

Diagram of a carving knife

Use slicers and carvers to cut slowly cooked meat, such as roast beef, ham, or smoked meats. I like a longer slicer – 10" or more – with a scalloped edge (the divots on the side) which helps you avoid tearing meat while slicing.

Technical drawing of a slicing knife

Steak Knives

Steak knives are 4" - 6" long blades used at the table while eating.

Primarily, they're useful in cutting cooked meat like chicken, pork and (of course) steak. They're also useful for cutting smaller pieces of bread where your bread knife is too long.

The sharpest steak knives have a straight blade. However, you usually cut meat on top of hard plates made of materials like ceramic. Since hard plates dull your knives, it's more convenient to get serrated or micro-serrated blades on steak knives.

Diagram of steak knives

Butter Knife

Butter knives are small, 3" to 6" dull blades (sometimes with very small ridges) with a curved end. Most people consider them equivalent to a place knife or dinner knife – just know that there is a formal distinction.

They're good for spreading saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil as well as soft cheeses.

Diagram of a butter knife

Specialty Kitchen Knives

At this point we're getting to some of the rarer knives.

You might have a few of these already, or perhaps you heard of them somewhere. Know that they aren't required to be able to cook well at home – even if your chef friend insists!

At the end of the day, add these knives to your kitchen if you find yourself doing specific tasks often.

  • Santoku - A Santoku knife is a general purpose knife originating in Japan. It usually comes in 5" - 8" varieties with a slightly curved blade and a "sheep's foot" tip. Use it for general purpose slicing and chopping.
  • Nakiri - A Nakiri is a knife that originated in Japan that looks like a leaner cleaver with a squared off, angled tip. Nakiris are perfect for chopping and pushing vegetables and are usually 5.5" - 7.5" long.
  • Gyuto - Also from the Japanese cooking tradition, the Gyuto's closest Western comparison is the Chef's knife. Gyuotos usually are 8" or longer and can do whatever a Chef's knife can do.
  • Petty - The petty knife comes from the Japanese culinary tradition as well. It's a straight bladed general purpose knife similar to a utility knife (between a Chef's and paring). Blades start at around 4.5" up to around 6 or 7". Use it for chopping... or when someone is using your Chef's knife or Gyuto.
  • Oyster and Clam (and Scallop) - Oyster, clam, and scallop knives are 2" - 4" rigid knives made to – you guessed it – make it easier to open and eat oysters and clams.

    There are actually a number of oyster knife shapes: Boston, New Haven, French, Providence, and more. Grab Boston or New Haven oyster knives for general purpose oyster-eating.
  • Fluting - A fluting knife is a 2 - 4" straight bladed knife which acts like a smaller paring knife. When you need the most precise movements you can use a fluting knife - think peeling small fruit or cutting intricate decorations in pies or cakes.
  • Mincing - Mincing knives are roller-style 2 - 5" curved bladed tools which are... really good at mincing. You "roll" the blade over your vegetables and make quick work of mincing where you'd otherwise use your paring or Chef's knife slowly.
  • Specialized Paring and Peeling - There are a variety of short, 2 - 3" knives which come to a point which are great for paring and peeling fruit. They come with a selection of tips from a clipped point to a sheep's foot.

    You can even get the basic paring knife with other tips. While the standard tip (sometimes called "spear tip") is most common, some chefs argue for a paring knife with a sheep's foot tip.
  • Cheese Knives - cheese knives are more a category than a particular knife; you usually buy cheese knives in a set. Knives include flat edged 1.5 - 2.5" plunge knives, serving forks and slicers.
  • Cimeter - A cimeter or "scimitar" is a type of butcher knife, usually 10-14" long with a curved blade. It comes to a tip instead of the curved blade from a standard butcher knife.
  • Electric knife - Electric carving knives oscillate back and forth and almost always have a serrated blade. They come in straight or offset varieties, usually 7 - 12" long. They make quick work when you need to carve turkey, chicken, and ham.

    There are electric fillet knives as well (which can be used beyond fish). Electric fillet blades are a bit more flexible than standard blades.
  • Tomato - Tomato knives are similar to steak knives in length ( 4 - 6") and are serrated... but usually have smaller serrations than a standard steak knife. Conveniently, they often have a forked tip which helps you pick up the tomato pieces after slicing.

Knives You Need in Your Well-Stocked Kitchen

Selection of types of knives on a magnetic wall storage block

We just covered a lot of knives – but there are even more specialized knives out there for culinary specialists!

You can have a well-stocked kitchen before you even get through the list here. I personally don't even have everything in this post at home (and I use some other knives only once a year!).

Generally Useful Knives

To start, here are the knives you'll probably need:

  • Chef's knife
  • Paring knife
  • Bread knife
  • Kitchen shears
  • (If you often cook with someone else) Utility or Petty knife
  • Dinner knives

Good Knives for Meat-Eaters

If you eat a lot of meat, some others to strongly consider:

  • Steak knives
  • Boning knife
  • Carving and/or Slicing knife

Great Vegetable Knives

If you eat a wide variety of vegetables, take a look at:

  • Mincing knife
  • Nakiri

Personally, I also have a set of cheese knives and a cheese cutting board. They're great for serving cheese spreads with wine to visitors!

After you stock up with the essential knives, let your personal cooking direct where you go next.

As you get better with one style of cooking you'll use certain knives more often. This is when you should start to explore where specialty knives can help. After that, come back here and tell me about what you're using... and how its working out!

Gerard Paul
Prolific eater and founder of ManyEats.

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