Unless you’ve gone to cooking school, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of a bird’s beak paring knife. A relic of the French culinary system, this knife features a small curved blade shaped like a bird’s beak. Like all paring knives, it is primarily intended for tasks that are done off the cutting board and in your hand. Historically, it was used for making decorative cuts and garnishes that are now rarely seen outside of banquet halls: transforming radishes into florets and tomatoes into roses, fluting mushrooms, and “turning” vegetables into seven-sided barrels—a hallmark of classical French technique. (It is for this last task that these knives are sometimes called tourné knives.)
Today, fans of these knives—many of them former restaurant cooks—use them for two basic types of jobs: peeling fruits and vegetables and precise detail work such as trimming brussels sprouts or removing the eyes from potatoes. We don’t think a bird’s beak paring knife will ever replace a conventional paring knife; these knives are just not as versatile. They aren’t meant to be used on a cutting board and can’t make precise straight cuts as easily; such cuts are important for cutting lime wedges, slicing small blocks of cheese, scoring roasts so the fat cap can render, and cutting pockets in pork chops. But we were curious to see if any of these specialty knives deserve a place in our kitchens, so we bought eight models, priced from about $15 to about $85, and pitted them against our favorite paring knife, the Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 3¼″ Spear Point Paring Knife, as we hulled and quartered strawberries, cored and peeled tomatoes, peeled and segmented lemons, removed the eyes from whole peeled pineapples, and peeled ginger.
We were quickly impressed by how well many of the knives performed at the tasks we tried. In fact, for every off-the-board job, we preferred using most of the bird’s beak paring knives to using the standard paring knife. Why? Because the blades of the bird’s beak paring knives were, on average, about an inch shorter than that of the standard paring knife, they stayed closer to our hands and were thus easier to control when making the tiny incisions needed to hull strawberries or remove pineapple eyes. And because the blades are crescent-shaped, they maneuvered more nimbly around round or irregularly shaped foods such as lemons and ginger, hugging curves more closely.
Still, a number of features separated the good models from the bad. Somewhat to our surprise, we had no real preferences when it came to the curvature of the blade, which is the knife’s most distinctive characteristic. Our favorite model has a modestly curved “beak,” but the blades on some of the other models we liked have more sharply curved arcs.
Instead, other factors took precedence in our ratings. First, sharpness. Sharpness is perhaps the most important characteristic of any paring knife blade, since the paring knife’s small size means it can’t rely on its heft to force its way through the food the way a chef’s knife or cleaver can. Sharpness is especially important for bird’s beak paring knives, since their curved blades are difficult, if not impossible, to sharpen at home. Electric sharpeners can’t accommodate blades of this shape, and even experienced whetstone users might require extra practice to handle them. While the perceived sharpness of a blade is dictated by the angle of its cutting edge, the edge angles of the bird’s beak paring knives we tested were all fairly similar, ranging from 14 to 18 degrees. Instead, the sharpness of these knives was determined entirely by how keenly they were sharpened at their factories. Disappointingly, not all the knives were sharp from the start; when we initially tested their blades by using them to slice through a piece of paper, a few couldn’t immediately slice it and dragged a bit. That slight dullness was especially noticeable when we tried to hull strawberries, core tomatoes, and remove pineapple eyes: We had to work harder to force dull blades through the fruit, ripping or mashing it instead of cleanly slicing around the part we wanted to remove. When we repeated the paper test at the conclusion of our testing, we noticed no obvious changes in sharpness.
A few factors also made certain blades more precise than others. While we liked that the short blades of the bird’s beak paring knives were easier to control than the longer blade of the regular paring knife, within the array of the models we tested, shorter wasn’t always better. The shortest blades were too small for larger-handed testers to comfortably choke up on when doing detail work such as quartering larger strawberries; we generally preferred blades on the longer end of the spectrum.
We also liked blades that were narrow from tip to heel. A narrow tip is important for doing detail work, since you’re only inserting the top quarter- to half-inch of the blade when coring tomatoes or hulling strawberries. Narrow blades made precise incisions when hulling strawberries, leaving more fruit behind than blades with wider tips, which made bigger holes and swung around less nimbly.
But it was important that the blade be narrow at the heel, too. Blades with wider heels felt clumsy when we used them to peel pieces of ginger and were more likely to break off a knob or two. With one of the narrowest tips and the narrowest heel, our favorite bird’s beak paring knife excelled at both detail work and peeling.
When it came to comfort, the weight of the knife was critical. We vastly preferred lighter-weight knives; while an ounce might not seem like much, knives weighing more than that fatigued and cramped our hands during repetitive tasks such as removing pineapple eyes or hulling strawberries.
We liked knives with medium-length handles; shorter handles were too small for larger-handled testers to hold securely, and longer ones felt off-balance and banged into our wrists when we choked up on the blades for detail work. It was important that the handles not be too thick, either, since these were harder to hold for long periods without our hands cramping. Finally, we liked handles that were made of textured materials—metal and slick plastic were slippery, especially when wet.
By the end of testing, most of us were completely smitten with these unusual knives. If you do a lot of detail work with your paring knife, we think the MAC Paring Knife, Bird’s Beak 2½", would be an excellent addition to your knife collection. Featuring a relatively long, very narrow, razor-sharp blade, it effortlessly peeled, hulled, cored, sliced, and removed eyes from all the produce we put in front of it. And because it was lightweight, with a relatively grippy plastic handle, it nearly disappeared into our hands, making it especially easy to use. We wanted to see what else this nimble knife could do, so we used it to peel garlic and shallots, slice peaches on the pit, halve and quarter avocados, trim artichoke stems, and remove blemishes from apples—all tasks it performed to perfection. And it excelled at cleaning shrimp: Its tiny curved tip angled nimbly under the veins without nicking them. If you get a bird’s beak paring knife, you may reach for it more often than you’d think.