What is a utility knife used for? To find out, we first need to know how it came about.
In the family tree of kitchen cutlery, the paring knife and the chef’s knife sit comfortably next to each other, each filling a specific role. Then sometime in the 1930’s, the utility knife was introduced, bearing a shape and size that would position it right between these two.
Almost a century on, many people are still uncertain of the intended uses of this knife. The early part of the twentieth century was a time of ground-breaking scientific innovations, as well as superfluous, yet curious gadgets. Some found their way into the kitchen as specialty knives. Was the utility knife one of them?
The Usual Contenders
The chef’s knife and paring knife are two tools that any budding or seasoned cook won’t do without. The tiny size of the paring knife makes it a very good choice for dexterous work like carving a potato tourne, peeling fruits or deveining shellfish. While the chef’s knife, endowed with both size and weight, excels at the grunt work of the kitchen–tasks like mincing, slicing and chopping vegetables, slicing meat and even disjointing whole carcasses.
What Is a Utility Knife Used for?
The role and definition of a kitchen utility knife can vary widely, depending on the source. But most people would describe it as an all-purpose knife used for cutting fruits and vegetables, and carving poultry. Sometimes referred to as the “sandwich knife”, its rigid 6 to 8-inch long blade is shaped like a chef’s knife but narrower, and can be either plain or serrated.
The utility knife sometimes gets derided for not filling a specific role, or even being redundant. For detail and delicate tasks, the very nimble paring knife is the natural choice. And the chef’s knife, with its full-size blade and length, can take care of most of the other general tasks. So what good is a utility knife for?
More compact than the chef’s knife, yet with comparable capability, the utility knife is often the knife of choice for waiters who have to perform tasks such as carving roasts on-the-go around the restaurant floor, hunters who field-dress their game in the field, or outdoor food services that do not require the use of a full-size blade. The utility knife is therefore an ideal substitute for the cumbersome chef’s knife when portability is desired.
The utility knife can be made very sharp because of its typically thinner blade. The blade’s thinner steel allows for steeper bevels that lead to a sharper edge. The sharp edge slices more freely into the food while a narrow blade reduces drag and promotes greater precision as you cut. This makes the utility knife perfect for slicing vegetables and meats.
There are inevitable situations in the kitchen where you realize that the chef’s knife is just too big and unwieldy for the job, and the paring knife too small and weak.
Imagine a whole roasted chicken that has been almost halved and the space to that crucial cut in a space that is just not wide enough to fit your chef’s knife, and the paring knife does not have the oomph to get it done. With a utility knife, you can maneuver through narrow food cavities that a chef’s knife cannot. While being lighter than a chef’s knife, it can still cut common cooking ingredients that a paring knife cannot cut effectively (potatoes, cucumbers, onions, melons, etc.).
Another advantage of the utility knife is its ability to fill two roles. City-living often means limited space in the kitchen. For people who do not cook much and feel that a minimalistic kitchen is all they need, a single 7-inch utility knife might be the answer. Compared to the chef’s knife, the utility knife is clearly a space-saver. With it, you can comfortably take care of the small-volume cutting of vegetables and meats that a simple meal requires. The blade is also narrow and short enough to substitute for a paring knife for cutting fruits.
Things to Look for
If you decide that a utility knife is what you need, here are some things to look for when shopping for one.
Since you want the hybrid features offered by both a paring knife and a chef’s knife, make sure the length is between 5 and 7 inches. Anything shorter or longer you’re stepping into their territory.
Look for a handle that does not feature too many bumps or protrusions, and is neither too loose or tight when gripped. Ideally, the widest point should be no more than 3 inches around.
Some people have opined that the chef’s knife is an anomaly–a product of modern industrial marketing–something that a peasant family in the pre-industrial age would never be able to afford and is overkill for the needs of an ordinary modern family. Yet, here we are taking it, and all the advantages it offers for granted. By the same token, given the chance, the utility knife may also be able to find its own niche among the family of knives.
What is a utility knife used for? Quite a bit, as we just found out. And finally, the name utility knife is probably a misnomer because its uses are narrower than it suggests.