Utility Knives: The Non-Kitchen Blades Your Kitchen Needs

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Don't believe all the stories you've read in the cookbooks and memoirs of legendary chefs. They don't hire cooks based on omelette-cooking ability or a can-do attitude. The true sign of a great cook is blue painter's tape, cut to a crisp 90-degree angle. As someone with a reputation for being perpetually out of the loop, I found this out the hard way.

It was my first time making the brodo at a restaurant where I once worked. This was a rich, slow-simmered bone broth—fortified twice over, finished egg drop soup–style, and served in a tiny shot glass—which we made in a massive batch each month and then froze. It required the sacrifice of 120 capons, 36 quarts of mirepoix, 90 brown eggshells, and three days. The steam kettle it all simmered in was taller than me, so I had to sit inside it to clean it out. This is terrifying if, like me, you watched The Mangler at too young an age.

Little did I know that, after simmering, straining, cooling, and portioning the broth into quart containers for storage, the real threat still lurked ahead. I hadn't given much thought to labeling that mountain of tubs of soup; it seemed like an easy if monotonous task.

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I did what came naturally and tore off pieces of tape, attaching them to each quart one at a time before scribbling across the jagged-edged blue strips. I was alone in the kitchen basement, but one by one, every cook, sous chef, and dishwasher came downstairs to watch the disaster unfold. I looked up to catch glares and shaking heads, each sighing before heading back upstairs to service. I didn't understand what was wrong until a kind soul wordlessly slipped me a utility knife.

Shame leaves a lasting impression, so I've since become very attached to my utility knife. There's always one by my side, whether intentionally in the kitchen or accidentally while I'm going through airport security. If anyone within earshot ever needs to open a box or cut a label, you can bet I've perfected my draw (slow is smooth, smooth is fast).

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Not only are utility knives undeniably the best tools for achieving that Michelin-level label aesthetic (the only thing worse than tearing your labels might be getting caught using your expertly sharpened sujihiki to slice tape against a stainless steel table), they're also perfect for many other kitchen tasks, from cutting open bags of rice without losing a grain to freeing English cucumbers from their shrink wrap. I can also tell you from experience that they are the only tool for transforming nasturtium leaves into perfect squares, if you ever find yourself in that kind of kitchen.

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Even if you don't plan on dissecting nasturtium leaves, a utility knife is still incredibly handy to keep in the kitchen. Say, for example, that you find yourself hosting this year's Thanksgiving dinner, and you don't have time to get your busted old knives sharpened. A utility knife will see you through. It's sturdy and sharp enough to brunoise apples for stuffing, and precise and deft enough to trim delicate pie dough for more intricate designs. Unfortunately, you're on your own when it comes to dealing with that one uncle who always gets too drunk and makes someone cry.

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I'm willing to admit that without the constant cold stares and humiliation of restaurant kitchens, I'm sometimes guilty of allowing my high-end knives to fall from top form. In a pinch, I've reached for my utility blade when I needed silky strands of basil chiffonade, when all my santoku would have done was leave them limp and bruised. They aren't just a tool for fussy pro cooks, but a secret weapon in any kitchen, providing you with a razor-sharp edge in a snap.

Because I'm partial to Misono UX10s for just about everything in the kitchen, my favorite utility knife is also Japanese-made, and equally sharp, sleek, and pricey. In a world of box cutters that retail for a dollar, the OLFA knife is the heritage breed of utility knives at a whopping 10 bucks, but I promise it offers plenty of bang.

It's built to last, housed in stainless steel instead of plastic, and can handle heavy-duty tasks as easily as delicate ones. The snap-off design of the blade means a fresh edge is ready in an instant—no sharpening skills required—yet it's sturdy enough that it won't accidentally break off and fly into a stockpot mid-slice.

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That little blade is also the only svelte part of me, fitting comfortably in any pocket, at the ready if I'm struck with the sudden need to anxiously click something ("No, I'm not threatening you, I'm just feeling a little fidgety"). Considering its slim design, it's no surprise how well the knife works for precision cutting. I often reach for it to cut segments of parchment and other paper goods; if you're the crafty type, you could probably carve up your own doily for a swanky setting from which to serve Stella's strawberry cake.

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Now that the secret's out, stop stressing about the quality of your knife work. Trust me, if you've got a utility knife and can cut a straight line, you're already ahead of most of the professional cooks out there.