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A cut above: How to choose, use and care for the workhorse knives that make kitchen prep safer and easier

Do you know what is it is to julienne? Can you chiffonade?

We won’t mince words here: These terms describe how a particular food should be cut. And the key to doing so is using the right knife.

Because of their shape, edge or blade length, certain knives are best suited for certain tasks like deboning meat or poultry, mincing garlic or cutting carrots julienne-style. Knowing which knife to use and how to use it will make prep work safer and easier. It will also show in the dishes you make. Foods that are cut uniformly look nice and cook evenly.

Prices for knives vary greatly, depending on the materials they’re made with. At Sur La Table, resident chef Steven Delidow says a chef’s knife there can cost as much as $140.

Generally, a knife made with high-carbon stainless steel costs significantly more than one made of basic stainless steel because its carbon content helps keep it sharp.

When shopping for a particular knife, he says, try it out before you buy it; consider its weight and the feel of the handle. Only when you have a comfortable fit will you have the “right tool for the right job,” Delidow says.

There are lots of knives out there, many with niche uses. But for home cooks, there are a handful they’re likely to use most often. Here are five knives every cook should have in their kitchen:

Serrated knife

It’s best used for cutting breads and other baked goods like cakes. It has a long blade with a serrated edge. It also works like a charm for cutting fruit and vegetables that have a firm skin but a soft inside. The serrated edge cuts through the skin without harming the inside.

Tips: Use it in a sawing motion; there’s no need to apply pressure. Use a serrated knife to cut chocolate or slice tomatoes and eggplant.

Price: $10 at mass retailers to $70 at a specialty kitchen store.

Chef’s or french knife

It’s considered the most important, go-to and versatile knife to have in the kitchen. It comes in several lengths, but an 8-inch is a good standard size to have. The blade is wide at the heel end (near the handle) and tapers to a point. A common style of chef’s knife for home use is the Santoku, says Shawn Mac, executive chef at Holiday Market in Royal Oak, Mich. The blade is usually shorter and has a row of grooves near the sharp edge. “It’s more manageable and is a size people are more comfortable with. ... The grooves are what makes food not stick to it,” Mac says. Use a chef’s knife to chop, slice and dice just about anything.

Tips: Place your thumb and forefinger on the blade at the heel end for greatest control. Use the tip for delicate work, the center for general slicing, and the heavier heel end for slicing foods that require more pressure such as the end of a stalk of celery.

Price: From $16 at mass retailers to $190 at some kitchen stores.

Slicer or carving knife

This knife is best used for cutting big pieces of meat like a roast or whole turkey. The blade is typically 8 to 10 inches long, but its width can vary. A wider blade allows you to slice the meat and then use it as a serving tool. “The thinner the blade, the easier it is to get thin slices,” Delidow says.

Tip: Don’t use a sawing motion. Instead, place the tip on the food to be cut and draw the knife toward you using downward pressure.

Price: $20 at mass retailers to $140 for high end at kitchen specialty stores.

Boning knife

It’s used for deboning chicken and meats, trimming down pieces of meat and removing silver skin, sinew or pieces of fat. A boning knife has a thin blade about ø inch to 1 inch wide and 5 to 6 inches long. It narrows at the tip. “The narrow tip is what makes it easier to get closer to the bone,” says Jim Buckley, meat manager at Holiday Market. “The narrow tip helps make exact cuts easier.”

Tip: Practice, practice, practice with this knife and you will debone a whole chicken in no time. This blade is flexible, so grip the handle firmly, but you also can allow your index finger to rest on the side of the knife to guide it.

Price: $40 to $115 at specialty kitchen stores.

Paring knife

Use this for small, intricate or detailed work, such as peeling thin-skinned fruit and vegetables or trimming them. The blades are thin and short, about 2 to 4 inches long. Ken Coker, general manager of Cutco Stores Inc. in Novi, Mich., says to use a paring knife for “anything you cut while holding it in the air or in your hand.” Use a paring knife for peeling, paring, coring and pitting or removing the tops of strawberries, he says, “or any small slicing jobs as well.”

Tip: To peel fruit, slip the tip of the knife under the skin and peel in long strips.

Price: $7.99 for a three-piece set at mass retailers to $60 for a high-end version at department stores or specialty kitchen stores.

How to clean and store knives

• Don’t put your knife in the dishwasher – it will take the edge off the blade. Wash in warm soapy water with a sponge.

• Never allow knives to sit in a sink where the blade may get damaged by other utensils.

• Keep the edge on your knife sharp by running it over a steel (a long metal sharpening tool) or using a whetstone. But most experts say really dull knives should be professionally sharpened.

• Store knives separate from other utensils. Do not store knives in a crowded drawer where their blades can become nicked or dulled. Many knife sets come in a wooden block holder; keep them in there. Magnetic wall-mounted holders are convenient for holding knives that aren’t too heavy.

Sources: “Things Cooks Love: Implements. Ingredients. Recipes,” Sur La Table with Marie Simmons (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $35); the Free Press Test Kitchen

A slice of terminology

Here’s a guide to terms associated with using a chef’s knife:

• Chop: To cut food into œ-inch, uneven pieces (or smaller for a fine chop). Coarse chop means to cut into larger, ½-inch irregular pieces.

• Dice: To cut food into small (œ-inch, ø-inch or ¾-inch) squares or cubes. The easy way to do this is to cut ends off, square off the food and then cut into desired-size planks. Stack the planks and cut into desired size strips. Turn the strips and cut to desired size dice.

• Mince: To cut food into pieces smaller than a chop. The pieces are so small that they can almost dissolve in the food.

• Julienne: To cut the food in matchstick-size pieces. Cut the food in planks about ¼-inch thick and 2 inches long. Stack the slices and then cut them into thin strips.

• Chiffonade: To cut leafy vegetables (basil, lettuces, greens) into thin shreds. (In French, this translates to “made of rags.”) Stack the leaves, roll them up and slice through them, making a pile of shreds.

Don’t chop down on them or you will bruise delicate herbs like basil.

Sources: “Professional Cooking 4th edition” by Wayne Gisslen (Wiley, $65); “Things Cooks Love: Implements. Ingredients. Recipes,” Sur La Table with Marie Simmons (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $35); the Free Press Test Kitchen