Along with the chef’s knife, paring knives are one of the most commonly used pieces of cutlery in most home and professional kitchens. Although small, the paring knife is one of the most versatile food preparation tools in the chef’s arsenal, allowing one to chop, peel, slice, and carve foods with higher degrees of accuracy than larger knives. As such, paring knives are most commonly used for tasks that require careful detail, such as removing seeds from peppers, de-veining shrimp, cutting garnishes, and more. The smaller size of a paring knife allows it to be more carefully manipulated to achieve precise or intricate cuts that would normally be difficult with a larger blade.
Paring knives tend to be one of the smaller features of your cutlery drawer, with blades typically ranging from 2-1/2 inches to 4 inches long. Most pairing knives are designed with a straight blade that gradually curves up to a point, although some feature a downward-curving “birdbeak” or “Tourné” design intended to make peeling easier. Unlike chef’s knives, the blades of paring knives are usually not much wider than the handle. This lowers overall chopping power and hand clearance, but increases control and allows the knife to be held in a variety of different positions for various kinds of cuts. Paring knives are like chef’s knives, however, in that many of the same considerations go into their production.
As with chef’s knives, the forged vs. stamped distinction is important when picking out a paring knife. Although paring knives are smaller, and will most likely not be used for heavy or difficult chopping, forged knives will still be much stronger and longer lasting than stamped knives for the same reasons detailed in our chef’s knife post. Don’t let the small size fool you: your paring knives will see a lot of frequent use in your kitchen, and investing in a set of durable, forged paring knives will almost certainly be well worth the money if you cook often.
Materials are also a primary concern when selecting your paring knife. Although paring knives are used somewhat differently, they are essentially just scaled down versions of the chef’s knife, and are available in many of the same materials. As with other types of knives, carbon steel sacrifices chemical resilience for improved hardness and edge-keeping capabilities, while stainless steel is more resistant to staining and corrosion but will require more frequent sharpening. Because paring knives are most often used in relatively low-impact applications, they generally will not be at risk of losing their edge quite as quickly as other more heavily-used blades. With this in mind, the easy-to-clean nature of stainless steel—although it may need to be sharpened slightly more often—will probably offer the most value and benefit to the average user. If, on the other hand, your pairing knives see a lot of action in your kitchen and you don’t mind spending a bit of extra time keeping your blades clean and dry, the edge-holding properties of carbon steel may make it the most reliable choice.
Again, as with chef’s knives, the full tang vs. partial tang discussion is also relevant to paring knives. Like their larger counterparts, paring knives are available with both full tang (blade material extends all the way through the bottom of the handle) and partial tang (blade material extends only partially into the handle) blades. The same points can be made about each as were made with chef’s knives: full-tang knives tend to be stronger and longer lasting, while partial tang knives are almost always less expensive. Full-tang knives are generally more balanced, as well, providing easier maneuverability and increased physical feedback when making those precision cuts. If you are willing to make a larger investment in a durable knife that will last for years with proper care, full-tang is the obvious choice. However, if you typically only use your paring knife for light peeling and slicing work and are hoping to stay within a tighter budget, partial tang knives should do the job just fine.
Because so much attention is usually poured into finding just the right chef’s knife for your cooking style, paring knives are sometimes taken for granted as the “lesser” part of one’s cutlery set. But most people will likely find themselves using their paring knives a lot more often than expected to slice, peel, chop, score, and mince a wide variety of different ingredients. The small size may seem limiting on the surface, but a well-made, dependable paring knife is a critical part of any chef’s tool set.
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