We’ve all seen the big promises made by culinary publications and equipment businesses, such as “the only three knives your kitchen needs” or “you can cook anything with these four basic knives.” It’s an enticing offer: the world is your oyster as long as you have a consistently sharp chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated bread knife. At least until you have to shuck an oyster.
When you need to shuck an oyster, deb-one some chicken wings to stuff with shrimp and pork, or segment a grapefruit without penetrating through the fruit’s tough skin and mistakenly losing all of its juice, having the correct tool for the job can come in handy. “Until the advent of ‘Western’-style blades in the twentieth century, all Japanese knives were task-specific,” explains Chubo Knives founder Jeremy Watson. “Creating and perfecting knife forms that do one job in the kitchen excellently has been part of the knife-making DNA here.”
Triangular-bladed honesuki knives, specifically made for deboning, are a fantastic example of this, especially if you’ve ever tried to spatchcock or break down a whole chicken into sections with nothing more than a pair of kitchen shears. According to Watson, “the heavier weight and robust blade allow the knife to cut through poultry bones without chipping, and the triangular form and pointed tip make it easier to cut cleanly and navigate through the many joints and portions of a chicken.”
Reem Kassis, author of The Arabesque Table, believes that having a small, curved deboning knife on hand is essential when purchasing entire birds to stuff or break down into bits. Kassis chooses a $12 Mercer knife that can be easily replaced when the blade becomes too dull. “Because this isn’t a knife I use every day, it also allows me to sample a few various sorts and see one I like most before deciding on one I want to buy in,” she explains.
A long slicing knife, or sujihiki, has become an unexpected MVP of the kitchen for Portland-based cook and blogger Matt Trueherz. “When I was about 20 years old, I witnessed Thomas Keller utilize both interchangeably,” he says. “The slicer encourages a more deliberate cut for me—you can be sure to achieve a clean slice on something like a carrot instead of splitting it with a less nimble knife, resulting in a rough surface that will cook differently.”
Trueherz also enjoys his bird’s beak knife, a small, razor-sharp paring knife with a curved blade and pointy tip that is useful for scraping dirt around the stem of a carrot or radish or hulling strawberries. The exquisite tiny tool can be had for as low as $10 and takes up very little space; I’ve used mine for gutting sardines and other fine, accurate cutting operations.
Aside from their basic practicality, these ultra-specific knives may also make cooking a lot more fun. A knife can become necessary simply because it is a keepsake from a memorable trip or because of the tale it conveys. My colleague Matt Rodbard raved about the $40 plastic-handled vegetable cleaver he purchased a few years ago at Tokyo department store Tokyu Hands. Clarissa Wei, a writer from Kinmen Island, has discovered several uses for her cleaver constructed from recovered bomb steel, from peeling garlic to slicing vegetables.
For some home cooks, the greatest knife is simply the one that is most enjoyable to use. “The mezzaluna simultaneously cuts and mixes with an effortless downward roll,” Danielle Bernabe wrote for TASTE a few years ago about a double-handled mezzaluna she inherited from a relative.
The two-handed grip enables for quick pivots to grab any stray items.” The rhythm and feel of the motion are as important as the outcome while cutting through a pile of herbs with the crescent-shaped blade. The author of Pizza pedia, Dan Bransfield, prefers a comparable rocker knife for “not just pizzas, but occasionally slicing meat in quick, guillotine form.” “Extremely satisfying!”