The Paring Knife: Your New Best Friend in the Kitchen
- Paring knives’ small size allows for precision cutting.
- There are three paring knife blade shapes.
- Look for a paring knife with a full tang.
“Honey, I shrunk the chef’s knife.” It’s often the first impression many people get when introduced to the paring knife. Many of these essential kitchen tools really do look like a mini western-style chef’s knife, right down to the slightly curved blade and pointed tip.
But that’s where the similarity ends. Both have roles in food preparation, and these roles rarely overlap. The life of a chef’s knife is spent with its sharp blade pointed down towards the cutting board. A paring knife spends most of its time up in the air.
What’s in a Name
The paring knife gets its name from what it does. To pare is to cut away the outer surface. Paring knives excel at removing peels and outer layers from vegetables and fruit.
Why not reach for the handy peeler? It’s an option, but you still end up needing a knife. A peeler might make fast work of removing the skin of an apple, but how will you remove the core? That’s the beauty of a paring knife. It can peel the persnickety skin off a tomato, core an apple, hull strawberries, and even transform citrus fruit into snazzy supreme slices. Think of a paring knife as a super-dooper utility knife that helps you concentrate on cutting details.
The paring knife is like a full string orchestra compared to the one-note samba of a peeler. And with all due respect to the paring knife’s fellow band member, a chef’s knife is too big to perform these jobs. You need the smaller size and lighter weight of a paring knife.
The Anatomy of a Paring Knife
It’s not a conductor’s baton, but your paring knife will spend a lot of time in your hands and up in the air. Quality paring knives must be lightweight, comfortable to grip and hold, and sharp. They feature 2 1/2 to 4 inch blades. The handle should generally be the same size as the length of the blade, which helps provide comfortable balance in your hand. The handle should also be comfortable to grip.
The Handle Is Important
You’ll spend a lot of time away from a cutting board with your paring knife. In most cases, you’ll hold the food you’re preparing with your non-dominant hand and cut it with a paring knife in your dominant hand. It’s not difficult to imagine what might happen if you lose control of the knife.
A paring knife with a thick handle gives you more to grasp. You’ll be less likely to lose control of the knife or feel it slip around in your hand. Round handles may look attractive, but they’re not practical. Let’s say you are going to supreme an orange to snazz up your Sunday brunch presentation. That round handle would quickly become slick. At the other end of the spectrum, a paring knife with a flat handle may not be thick enough to comfortably grasp for long periods of time — and you do have that whole pint of strawberries to hull.
The best shape for a paring knife handle is either oval or D-shaped. It’s easiest to grip and will stay comfortable in your hand for longer. Look for a handle that also has texture or is made of a non-slip material. Avoid plastic handles. They're slippery when wet.
There are three paring knife blade shapes. The most common shape follows the same contours as a chef’s knife. The short blade follows a slight curve upwards to come to a pointed tip. This type of paring knife is commonly known as a spear tip, and it’s best suited for general use. The slight curve and thin edge help you easily slide the blade under the skin of a fruit to remove — or pare — a thin layer. The strong, pointed spear tip of this classic paring knife helps you pierce into vegetables and fruits to remove their cores.
The next blade shape has a fitting name for a kitchen knife that spends much of its time in the air. It’s known as the bird’s beak. Instead of the familiar upward curve, the bird’s beak paring knife has a tip that extends downward past the rest of the blade. The shape lends itself to peeling and carving intricate curved designs into fruits and vegetables. Your bird’s beak paring knife can transform that unassuming radish into a rose.
It’s easy to identify a bird’s beak paring knife because of the shape, just as it’s easy to understand why some of these knives are known as sheep’s foot paring knives. The blade is said to resemble the cloven hoof of this animal.
Instead of curved, the sharp edge of a sheep’s foot blade is straight or flat. The tip often isn’t sharp or pointed, either. The overall shape is made with safety in mind. It more closely resembles the shape of a santoku knife than a chef’s knife. This type of paring knife works well to make julienne cuts.
Serrated Paring Knives
Caption: A paring knife with a serrated edge is an option, but pass on ceramic blades.
These three main shapes all can be found with a serrated blade as well. They have the same use as their non-serrated counterparts, but they help you cut through food surfaces that might give more of a fight. Trying to cut through a crust of narrow baguette with your sheep’s foot paring knife might end up compressing the bread. The flat, serrated blade will make a clean cut, just like a bread knife.
Pass on a Paring Knife With a Ceramic Blade
There’s a wide variety of paring knives available for the home cook to choose from, but a ceramic blade is not a wise choice. They are brittle and no match for the durability of steel.
Don’t confuse the ceramic used to make these blades with the same substance as your favorite coffee mug. Ceramic knife blades are made of zirconium oxide. During the cooling process yttrium oxide is added to create what’s known as transformation-toughened zirconia, or TTZ.
The result is a lightweight blade that’s so tough that only a grinding wheel coated with diamond dust can sharpen it. The tradeoff is that the blade is so brittle that merely dropping it on the counter can break the blade. It may be sharp, but you’ll find yourself doing less of the twisting and flexing you want as you prepare food. It’s much less of an all-purpose knife than one made of stainless steel.
Instead of ceramic, look for a high-carbon stainless steel paring knife with a full tang. It means that the blade extends through the handle and is made of a single piece of steel. You can apply more force while cutting without concern that the knife will break away from the handle or snap at the bolster (the area where a blade transitions to the handle).
How to Use a Paring Knife
This multifunctional kitchen tool puts a sharp and powerful blade in your hands. The short blade length can elevate your confidence to move away from the focus of cutting downward to bringing food preparation up closer to you.
Paring knives make short work of peeling shallots or onions. The sharp tip easily scores the papery hulls to slip under and pull them away. Nothing is wasted. Many fruits and vegetables are rounded, so the curved blade of a bird’s beak paring knife — also known as a tourné — intuitively follows these natural shapes to remove only what’s necessary. And because the blade is short, you have much greater control of the blade to make precise cuts.
You’ll appreciate the compactness of a paring knife when you want to focus on culinary maneuvers like excising the cores of brussels sprouts or removing the ribs of habanero peppers to tame their heat.
The paring knife is a baker’s friend, too It’s the perfect tool for releasing a cake from the baking pan by running the knife along the edge. The razor-sharp edge of a well-maintained paring knife slices cleanly through fondant and pastry dough. And why waste a perfectly good toothpick when you can slip the tip of your paring knife into a quiche to see if it’s set and ready to serve?
Your paring knife sets you free from the cutting board. If it’s a piece of food that’s easier to hold in your hand, it’s a good candidate for your paring knife. Just remember that the blade, while easier to manage, is just as sharp as a chef’s knife.
Keep Your Paring Knife Sharp
Just because paring knives are smaller doesn’t mean they deserve any less attention. It’s easy to maintain a quality paring knife with a stainless steel blade. Regular honing with your honing steel will help to retain the knife’s razor-sharp edge. It’s time to use sharpening stones when you notice that a quick hone no longer gives you the ability to make quick, clean slices. A sharp paring knife is essential for the detailed cuts you'll use it to make.
Smart Storage Tip
In the age of tiny houses and decluttering, a monolithic knife block takes you in the wrong direction. There are better storage solutions for your kitchen knives, ranging from magnetic strips to inserts for drawers.
A Must-Have Member of Your Kitchen Knife Collection
There are plenty of shiny specialty knives that will vie for your attention, but don't lump a paring knife into this group. A knife set in a block might tempt you with some fancy steak knives, and even a cheese knife, but it's likely that you'll only end up with lower quality cutlery and knives you may never use.
Go with what professionals and home cooks agree are the kitchen workhorses. It's a short list, and the paring knife makes the cut.