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Restaurant Resource Center

Choosing the Right Knife Saves You Money

Like salt and pepper enhance the flavor of food, speed and precision enhance the kitchen's operating costs. A small adjustment can have a dramatic effect. What if every piece of fish sent to a diner was one ounce larger than specified? Wasted product. Or if it took twice as long to prep produce due to a dull, improperly sized prep knife? Wasted labor.

“You've got to have the right knife for the job,” says Sarah Stegner, chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, IL. “It makes a tremendous difference to both your food and labor costs.”

Check out our guide detailing popular knives for the kitchen and the jobs they are best suited to do.

Chef's Knives: Doing It All

If you had to choose just one knife for the kitchen on your proverbial desert island, the chef's (or French knife) would be it. “A good French knife is essential in the kitchen,” says Stegner. This versatile tool is used for chopping, dicing and slicing. In a pinch, it can also peel, filet and bone. Chef's knives have blades varying from 6 to 9 inches; blade length is a matter of personal preference based on how the knife handles for each individual.

Cleaver: Butchering Meat

Used primarily for separating large pieces of meat, the cleaver has heft and a sharp blade for splitting through bone and performing other physical knife work, like breaking down whole chickens or cutting through shanks and ribs. Cleavers take a beating. Find a solid one that's not terribly expensive, so you don't wince every time a new knick appears in the blade or handle.

Pro Tip: Watch out for the Chinese-style cleaver, which is really more of a rectangular chef's knife, and perfectly useful as such. A thinner, less dense blade makes it unsuited to the physical force needed to cut through thick meat and bone.

Paring or Prep Knives: Handling Detail Work

The paring knife's 3- to 4-inch blade makes it a nimble kitchen performer. The small size allows for easy manipulation on curved surfaces, like potatoes, eggs and citrus. Peeling, dicing and mincing are its special skills. “These [knives] are good for more detailed items,” says Charles Ramseyer, culinary director of seafood research and development for Tai Foong USA in Seattle, WA. For instance, turning potatoes or mushrooms? The paring knife has you covered.

Boning or Filet Knife: Boning & Trimming Proteins

“My boning knife is the one knife I don't let anyone else use,” says chef Alma Cocer-Thomas of El Alma Restaurant and Bar in Austin, TX. “It's my favorite for cleaning fish.” The sharp point and narrow blade provide the precision necessary for removing bones. Meat with a small bone structure, like fish, chops, ribs, neck or poultry, benefit from a boning knife versus even a chef's knife. The work is cleaner, reducing waste.

Serrators: Slicing Breads & Meats

Serrated knives are great for bread, whether hard-crusted or soft. The dimpled sides create a series of “teeth” similar to a saw blade, providing traction while slicing through a brittle crust. They also prevent the knife from sticking to the loaf's tender crumb while cutting through it. Serrated knives can be used for slicing through proteins as well; however, use requires caution.

Pro Tip: “Beware the serrated blade,” warns Hugh Acheson, chef/owner of 5 & 10 and The National in Athens, GA, as well as Empire State South in Atlanta, GA. “It's responsible for more trips to the emergency room than anything else in the kitchen.” Improperly handled, its grippy teeth can shred fingertips just as easily as slicing through a loaf.

Slicing & Carving Knives: Finished Meat Products

“You mainly use your slicing and carving knives on a finished roast or side of fish,” says Ramseyer. “A slicing [blade] can be more of an all-purpose knife and it's traditionally shorter and a little squarer,” he says. Carving knives are longer and tend to be more purpose-specific, used mainly on cooked meats.

Purchased as a set or individually, knives are essential kitchen supplies. Carve out some time to learn how to best use them and you'll gain both speed and precision in the kitchen—something you and your bottom line will appreciate.

Anne Nisbet has spent her career working with chefs in restaurants, catering and event production, absorbing their tips, tricks and tales along the way. She is the culinary director for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, OR, where she lives and dreams of some day having chickens and honeybees. You can find her at Google +Anne Nisbet.