4 Kitchen Knife Essentials
Chefs love them. So should you. Unsung but essential, meet the four workhorse knives you need now.
Bird's Beak Knife
“My team is spread out across five restaurants, and I can’t carry all my knives to every one of them. So the front left pocket of my apron always holds a bird’s beak knife—aka tourné knife or turning knife. French chefs use this hooked little tool to “turn” vegetables, making seven-sided football shapes that cook evenly. Though the tourné cut isn’t so popular anymore, the knife is still the best for trimming beans, pitting stone fruit, hulling strawberries, or any job you do by turning fruit or vegetables in your palm. I enjoy these meticulous tasks. If I need to jump in on prep, I like to grab something that doesn’t take up too much space and allows me to keep an eye on the crew. I generally go for a case of mushrooms. When making mushroom fricassee (recipe at right), with the curve of my blade, I can scrape grass off caps, peel skin from stems, and clean dirt out of gills without damaging the ’shrooms.” —Michael Poiarkoff, The Osprey, New York City
The Robert Herder Windmillknife, from an artisan German knifemaker, comes in stainless steel or carbon ($19.99; amazon.com). At less than 3 inches, the blade is easy to maneuver, and the 4-inch handle is long enough for a secure grip but keeps items close to your wrist for control.
Keep it Sharp
Hone it frequently on a flat diamond sharpening steel, drawing the blade down and backward across the steel, applying gentle pressure, about half a dozen times. Repeat on the other side. Store and carry the knife in a sheath or a dedicated edge guard that is curved to fit the blade.
Get the recipe: Mushroom Fricassee
Also Use it For
“Never peel carrots. Nuh-uh. That’s like roasting chicken without the skin. Wash them and use the bird’s beak to pick out the dirt from spots like the top where the greens were.” —Jeremy Fox, Rustic Canyon and Tallula’s, Los Angeles
“I clean artichokes by positioning my tourné knife near the base and turning the artichoke to remove the leaves down to the heart. Then I slide the knife down the stem to peel it.” —Katie Button, Cúrate and Nightbell, Asheville, North Carolina
How to Tourné
The old-school, fussy-feeling French technique for turning vegetables into seven-sided football shapes is, in reality, essential for young chefs to practice knife control. Slice off the top and bottom of a small potato, and then, holding the potato in your left hand and anchoring your right thumb on the bottom cut end of the potato, follow its natural curves from top to bottom with the blade. The action isn’t slicing; it’s squeezing your fingers, and the knife, toward your thumb and turning the potato as you go.
“I got my first all-purpose Chinese cleaver—a medium-weight one that can handle all sorts of jobs—years ago when I was living in Shanghai. Once I got comfortable with rocking the cleaver back and forth on a cutting board and positioning my free hand close to the blade, always with my knuckles tucked under to protect my fingertips, I found that it was excellent for all sorts of jobs. Take a dish with a lot of ingredients, like moo shu pork (recipe at right). I section the pork, hammer it flat, and julienne it with the cleaver. I slice the vegetables, push them into piles for my mise en place, and scoop and move them to the skillet. Chopping, hammering, scraping, and carrying—it’s the only tool I need.” —Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco
The blade of the Chan Chi Kee Large Slicer ($110; chefknivestogo.com) has less curve than a meat cleaver, so it makes more contact with the cutting board. The thin carbon steel sharpens easily and does delicate work.
Keep it Sharp
Sharpen cleavers with a 1000-grit whetstone, then polish with a 3000- or 6000-grit whetstone.
Big and Tall
The tall blade rides against the knuckles of your guiding hand as you chop, and it’s great for scraping up and carrying foods.
Use the spine to crack crab and lobster shells.
Get the recipe: Moo Shu Pork
Also Use it For
“I put a clove of garlic under the flat side of the cleaver, hammer the other side, and—voilà!—instant minced garlic, all while feeling like Thor.” —Isaac Toups, Toups’ Meatery, New Orleans
“Spatchcocking a chicken is a fantastic way to cook it evenly while having some fun with a cleaver. Place the chicken on a cutting board, backbone up. Hold a leg, and tap the cleaver through the bones on either side of the backbone so the chicken lays flat.” —Stephan Bogardus, North Fork Table, Southold, New York
“I grew up in Turin, Italy, where the heart of our home was our old-fashioned kitchen: ancient stove, enamel sink, and my mother steadily rocking her mezzaluna, with its half-moon blade, back and forth on the cutting board. Now I own mom’s mezzaluna, and I use it to dice onions, carrots, and celery for sofrito, the aromatic base of my white chicken ragù (recipe p. 99). My mezzaluna is tremendously efficient. With its two-handed movement, the long blade can chop very fast. But rather than a machine-style uniformity, it also leaves some bits uneven and coarse. I like that rusticity. It feels like home.” —Silvia Baldini, Strawberry and Sage, The Secret Ingredient Girls
Rosewood handles help hands stay above the blade, out of harm’s way.
R. Murphy’s 13-inch mezzaluna ($75; rmurphyknives .com) covers a lot of ground. High-carbon stainless steel holds its edge.
Keep It Sharp
Store your mezzaluna wrapped in a kitchen towel in a drawer. A couple of times a year, bring it to a professional knife sharpener.
Double blades make a mess, restrict the length of your cut, and can’t be sharpened properly on a whetstone. Go for a single blade instead.
Get the Recipe: Sofrito
Also Use It For
“Rough chop tomatoes, jalapeño, cilantro, and onions as fine as you’d like and break up avocado in large chunks with a mezzaluna. It’s also great for breaking down nuts or chocolate for baking.” —Ali Banks, R&D manager, Chopt
“Sure, you can chop garlic, lemon zest, and parsley individually with a knife, but processing them together with this ultra-efficient tool seems to make it taste better!” —Jodi Liano, San Francisco Cooking School
I love using a mezzaluna to quickly mince herbs when I crave simple dishes with fresh, bright ingredients. It’s especially nice because you never need to worry about nicking your fingers in the process.” —Erin Shambura, Fausto, Brooklyn
“In Alsace, where I grew up, bread was a staple. But it didn’t have to be fresh for us to enjoy it. We soaked slices of day-old bread in milk, fried them, and sprinkled on sugar and cinammon for pain perdu. We grated old bread for crumbs to coat schnitzel. And we created croutons out of leftover baguette, rubbing the baked slices with garlic. Of course, you can’t slice good bread without a good bread knife. Chef’s knives grow dull if you use them on bread crust, and they tend to rip the loaf. Where I’m from, we respect a good baguette or boule, so we cut it with a knife that has teeth, sawing back and forth, rather than pressing down, to achieve a clean slice.” —Gabriel Kreuther, Gabriel Kreuther Restaurant, New York City
Reverse serration, also called a scalloped or wavy edge, makes the Tojiro ITK Bread Knife ($60; chef knivestogo.com) gentler on foods than a regular serrated knife. Extra-hard steel keeps its sharpness and helps the knife last.
A gently swooped blade provides knuckle clearance and better sight lines than straight blades.
Keep It Sharp
Sharpen the unbeveled side of the blade on a whetstone, or follow Kreuther’s lead and take your bread knife to a professional sharpener.
Also Use It For
“A serrated knife does amazingly well for slicing tomatoes, and it’s great for vegetable prep.” —Marianne Bondad, Scampi, New York City
“Pork ribs can form a tough but thin layer of bark from the sugary glazes. The serrated teeth can gently saw through the caramelized layer for a neat finish without tearing the meat.” —Jess Pryles, author of Hardcore Carnivore
“It’s quicker, cleaner, and easier for taking the scales and heads off big fish like bass and to cut through the fish’s thicker rib bone. Then I don’t feel terrible that I’m using one of my nice fillet knives.” —Nicholas Elmi, Laurel, Philadelphia
“I use a serrated paring knife to clean and break down oranges. I dehydrate their peels for infusions or spice mixes, squeeze juice onto fish for crudos, and texture dishes with the flesh.” —Jaime Young, Sunday in Brooklyn
“Cut both ends of a large melon with a serrated knife, and prop the fruit on one flat end. Working top to bottom and around the melon, slice the skin away until all the flesh is exposed and you can cut it in half from top to bottom. You now have manageable pieces that you can cut into slices or big chunks.” —Maribel Rivero, Yuyo, Austin
How to Slice a Boule
1. Using a sawing motion, and without exerting downward pressure, cut the boule in half.
2. Working with one half at a time, turn half cut side down. Starting at one end, lightly press fingertips into the crust 1 to 2 inches from where you’re slicing.
3. Gently but firmly, without pressing down, saw back and forth to cut bread into ¾-inch-thick slices. Repeat with the remaining half.