Equipment: The New Shape of Paring Knives

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

People have been asking me to do a knife guide for quite some time. Don't worry, I'll get to the chef's knives eventually. For now, let's start with the second most important knife in the average chef's arsenal: the paring knife.

For years, I've been using classic, curved paring knives from Wüsthof, and I've been happy with them. Please do note the plural—it is not an accident—I'm now on my fourth paring knife in ten years, because paring knives seem to run off and lose themselves or get themselves permanently-borrowed-without-permission more often than any other knife in my kit.

At first glance, the shape of the classic paring knife seems to make sense. A great big curved chef's knife is for cutting, hacking, and chopping large things, so to cut, hack, and chop small things, I'd want to use a small version of a chef's knife, right?

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The thing is, I don't use a paring knife for cutting, hacking, and chopping. I use it for peeling, brunoise-ing, thin slicing, and generally performing the type of precision knife work that a large chef's knife is simple too thick and bulky for. In other words, there's a fundamental difference between the type of tasks performed by a chef's knife and a paring knife, so why, I recently thought to myself, would I want to use the same knife shape for both tasks? With this in mind, I went paring knife shopping with a new set of criteria in mind.

Getting to the Point

Take a look at the photo above, and you can see the real problem with common paring knives: the curvature of the blade. On a chef's knife, the curve is designed to allow you to rock the knife up and down and back and forth smoothly to create repeated even cuts or to rapidly mince fresh herbs. On a paring knife, however, the shape makes no sense. There's no cuts you do that require rocking. Have you ever even tried rocking a paring knife? It's fun for a lark, calling to mind scenes from Zoolander,* but serves no real practical purpose.

The key to a good paring knife is precision, and that means having a super thin blade, and the ability to make cuts with minimal hand motion (the more you have to move your hand, the more uneven the cut comes). A flat, sheep's foot-shaped knife is ideal for this task.

Say, for example, you want to make a julienne of ginger. To do this with a common paring knife, you'd have to first hold the knife up at an angle in order to insert the tip into the ginger. Note that because of the curvature of the blade, very little of the blade is actually in contact with the cutting board at this point (see the photo above). To finish the cut, you either have to rock it down or pull it back: The straightness of the cut relies heavily on the steadiness of your hand.

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With a sheep's foot knife, it's possible to make contact with the cutting board with nearly the entire length of the blade while the tip is still firmly inserted into the food: The straightness of the cut is defined by the straightness of the blade. Quicker, more precise, and less chance for user error are all pluses in my book.

The same reasoning applies even more strongly if you are using the knife to peel small things like little potatoes or grapes. When using a curved paring knife, the curvature of the blade and of the object you are peeling are in opposite directions. Almost none of the food actually comes in contact with the blade, requiring you to dig deeper and remove more flesh under the skin than is necessary.

Those of you who are used to using Santoku knives in place of chef's knives will immediately recognize these advantages I'm talking about.

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When it comes to purchasing a sheep's foot paring knife, there are a couple of good options on the market. I tend to stick to forged knives, which are heavier, maintain a better edge, are better balanced, and last a little longer than their stamped counterparts, which immediately knocks out the cheapest of the bunch (like the 3-inch Santoku Paring Knife from Wüsthof ($9.95).

On the other hand, spending more than say, $50-60 on a good paring knife seems exorbitant. I use it less than half as much as my chef's knives, so I don't want to pay any more than half as much for them. That knocks out the beautiful-to-look-at but wallet-busting and not-any-more-functional Ken Onion Shun 3-inch Paring Knife ($124.95).

What's left are a couple of great mid-range offerings from Wüsthof and Henckels. The 3-inch Hollow Edge Kudamono Paring Knife from Henckels ($44.95) is the cheapest excellent knife of this kind you can get, with the added advantage of having a hollow-ground granton edge. These are the dimples along the side of the blade that prevent food from sticking to it while cutting. For me, it's almost an essential feature.

For $5 extra, you can get the 3-inch Paring Knife from Wüsthof ($39.95). It lacks the Granton edge, but is slightly heavier, sturdier, and feels better in the hand. If you want what I consider to be the ultimate paring knife, tack on another $5 to get yourself the exact same Wüsthof, but with a granton edge.

Provided you keep a better eye on your possessions than I do, it should provide you with years of loyal service.

* What is this? A chef's knife for ants?"

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