Question of the day: Do you only need 3 Kitchen Knives?

My “Holy Trinity” of kitchen knives: Murray Carter Funayuki, Big Chris Steelhead, and Big Chris Bird and Trout.

Kitchen knives, while never out of style, are a bit of a thing right now. I have my opinions on the topic, and I can’t make up my mind if I agree with this article from Bon Appetit or not. They call out knife sets as a rip-off and instead suggest you only need 3 knives for most kitchen tasks:

We pay for a lot of things we don’t need…(like) knife sets, those 14-piece cutlery displays that sit in blocks of wood on kitchen counters across the world. The ones that are full of knives that we will probably never find a use for.

We get it though. The knife set seems like a great deal. All of those knives, including some that have no concrete purpose or name, in one convenient package, for a very reasonable price. But we’ll let you in on a little secret. The home cook, when it comes down to it, only needs three knives in the kitchen. You can accomplish just about everything with an 8” chef’s knife, a 3-4” paring knife, and a serrated bread knife.

You don’t really need carving knives or any number of other highly specific, purpose-built blades when you’re just starting out. Not that those knives aren’t useful or do what they’re built to do extremely well—it’s just that you probably don’t need a thin, flexible knife made for filleting fish if you don’t, you know, ever fillet fish. Knife sets seem to tack on things like kitchen shears, historically terrible steak knives, and bird’s beak paring knives in order to give you more bang for your buck. Really, you shouldn’t be paying for them at all. There is no bang; only your buck.

Don’t go dissing my Kitchen Shears. Those are fighting words. I love mine.

I also am quite fond of my workhorse Wusthofs, though I have added a set of 4 ESEE Ethan Becker Signature knives, and a couple of others to the block. I never regret buying the set, and they have served me through 14 years of marriage. I use all of them regularly, though I am admittedly a somewhat advanced home cook.

Sets are also not always a rip-off. If you have been a TTAK reader for more than a year you will have seen our Black Friday/Cyber Monday posts. 6-7 piece sets can be found from dozens of online retailers for really good prices. Last year there was a 6 piece Henckels set that was listed for only $99.

Moving on to their knife suggestions…

I am totally with them on the necessity of an 8″ +/- chefs and the paring knife. Both are indispensable. Where I am conflicted is if #3 should be a longer boning knife instead of a serrated bread knife. I can slice a roll with a boning knife. I can’t carve a turkey with a bread knife. That said, a serrated knife is useful for tomatoes similar produce in addition to bread.

So really, you need 4 knives if you want both a boning and bread knife, at which point you would probably be justified in adding the shears and block if you find a good deal on a 6 piece set.

In my case, I have significantly upgraded my “Big 3”. The triumvirate consists of my Murray Carter Funayuki, a Big Chris Steelhead boning/fillet knife, and a Big Chris Bird and Trout which is essentially a paring knife in profile and geometry. I feel that these 3 knives can hold their own against any triad in anyone’s block, drawer, or roll. I will probably swap out the Bird and Trout for something else at some point. Not because of any deficiencies in the knife, rather I am sure that I will pick something up from another maker whose knife I would like to own. The Bird and Trout will live with my bird-hunting gear. It does a great job breasting out a dove.

As far as a bread knife, I have both the 8″ Wusthof that came with my set, as well as a longer box-store class example. Frankly, while I am sure they were there, I don’t recall seeing many custom-made bread knives at BLADE Show. It is just not a knife that many people get excited about. Maybe I am wrong, and you all will point out some nice examples from custom makers. Feel free to correct me in the comments.

In summation, I both agree and disagree with the Bon Appetit piece. I think knife sets have their place, though they are not the only route to go. I also see 3 knives as being most important in the kitchen, but I would replace the bread knife with a good boning knife.

What say you? Do you only need 3 knives in the kitchen? Are knife sets a “rip-off”? Do you think a boning is a better choice than a bread knife if you are going to limit yourself to 3?

comments

  1. Ourorboros says:

    I’ve always been annoyed at the 3 knife recommendation. It really doesn’t take needs & usage into account – something I always recommend people consider first. I tell people to distribute their kitchen knife $$$ in terms of usage to get more bang for the buck.

    For instance, the bread knife. How many people actually need this? If you’re only making sandwiches, your chef’s knife can take care of it if it is kept sharp. If you make or get crusty bakery bread, sure. But bakers will want a different bread knife for finer crumbed/more tender cakes.

    I think a petty knife/utility knife/couteau d’office in the 5-6″ range is better than a paring knife & doubles as a boning knife. It’s fine for most meat trimming & break down when paired with a chef’s knife. Not everybody uses a flexible knife for this.

    So really you can reduce the list to two knives for most people.

    But do you do roasts for the holidays & occasions? That thickness & height of a chef’s knife will get in the way. A chef’s knife is fine for up to a turkey breast, but it’s far from ideal for thin slices of ham. A lot of slicers are decent bread knives, but I wouldn’t want the large teeth of a bread knife in a good roast.

    Also a knife that is good for winter squash isn’t the knife I want for day to day usage. That may be getting beyond basic though. But that means a beater/gyuto combo.

    And yes, I’d rather have shears to cut out chicken backs. The beater can be better there.

  2. HandyDan says:

    I just got rid of my knife block in favor of a two knife set. I don’t eat (that much) bread, so I only have a chef’s knife and a paring knife. Not once do I regret not having that huge knife block on my counter.

  3. I have 8 knives of my own making, one just for prying frozen elk steaks apart, one just for halving acorn squash for stuffed squash, one for chopping nuts, a 7″ chef, and a slim fillet for coring tomatoes and green chilies, and a Model#1 for all other tasks, including dressing game. If I had to pare my culinary collection down to just one, it’d be my Model #1 which I use mostly, anyway. It’ll even carve a turkey, and it has a sheath.

  4. Sam L. says:

    Three may not be enough, but a knife block as shown is pretty much overkill.

  5. HandyDan says:

    I think that people need to honestly evaluate their needs and the way they cook/eat. Three may be too few knives for some, but too many for others. If you haven’t touched a couple of the knives in your block for 6 months, it may be time to do done downsizing.

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Question of the day: Do you only need 3 Kitchen Knives?

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