When it comes to cooking, the right tools can make a world of difference and nowhere is this more evident than in knives. Try cutting a carrot with a blunt paring knife and you'll understand immediately. There are an endless choices on the market these days for all sorts of jazzy, recycled, colourful and super pro knives, but all you really need are five and you can do anything. Before diving in to what those are and when to use them, one key piece of advice from chef Angela Hartnett that applies to all knives: 'It’s not about buying the most expensive knife; it's about having a knife that feels comfortable in your hand and most importantly, that is sharp. Wash knives by hand, never in a dishwasher, and whatever you do, keep it sharp.' There are different ways to keep your knives sharp but the most low maintenance tool with big results is hands down Robert Welch's 'Signature Knife Sharpener'; it's easy to use, easy to maintain and will get even the dullest knife up to scratch in no time.
The chef's knife is to a home cook what a sous chef is to a professional: your wingman. It's a do-it-all knife and should be the one you use most and therefore keep in top condition at all times. From chopping carrots, onions and celery for a soffritto to dicing meat, slicing an apple wafer thin or shredding herbs, it does it all. Basically, unless you're doing a task that requires one of the knives below, you'll be using your chef's knife. New cooks can be wary of them and shy away from using them because they are big – most chef's knives are 20cm long but that's exactly what makes them multi-purpose and so long as you keep it sharp and keep your fingers tucked in as you chop, there's nothing to fear. Use the part of the blade nearest the handle for any vegetable work and the length of the blade for slicing.
This is the misunderstood little sister of the knife family. It may be small, but it's certainly mighty when used in the way it was intended, which is for vegetable prep work mostly. Prep work means all the fiddly bits like turning vegetables – something you're unlikely to be doing a lot of at home but you never know – peeling vegetables and mincing fiddly things like garlic cloves. It picks up the work that a chef's knife is too clunky to handle, making it ideal for fiddly work. Whatever you do, do not use it for heavy duty chopping as the blade does not have enough weight to do battle with a parsnip and will make a mess of it.
Perhaps more commonly known as the bread knife, a serrated knife isn't something you'll use a lot but is a knife that has a specific use that other knives just can't do. The sharp grooves of the blade grip the surface of what they're cutting, which is why they're so good with soft bread and won't damage or squash the loaf as you slice (as other knives would). However, a serrated knife has more uses than just that and can be an extremely handy tool for cutting into shiny, waxy fruits like grapefruits, tomatoes and oranges without the knife slipping. Only use a serrated knife in a slicing action, they are useless at chopping things.
Vegetarians and vegans can probably skip this addition to the kitchen drawer, as a boning knife has a very specific use, solely for meat. As the name implies, the rounded, sturdy blade is use to remove bones from meat. They have a very particular shape that makes them easy to identify and their blades are very stiff, allowing it to get close and personal with a bone without slipping or snapping. It can't be used to cut through bones – that's a cleaver's job – but instead to debone a lamb shank, remove the meat from a rib or cut through the cartilage in a joint. It's dirty work, but someone has to do it.
Where a boning knife is stiff, the filleting knife is its ballerina-like cousin; flexible, slim and elegant. All your knives should be sharp at all times, but the fish knife needs to be sharpened before every use, and sometimes even during if you're filleting a lot of fish. It has to cut through the skin, which is tough, and then remove the fillet from the backbone without tearing the delicate flesh. They are a joy to use when sharp and filleting a fish is one of the most strangely soothing and therapeutic cooking tasks there is.
Written by Charlotte McCaughan-Hawes.
This article originally appeared on House & Garden UK.