The US tend to take forks for granted. In the Orient, chopsticks are traditional, with forks only recently becoming widespread. In Europe, the fork didn’t begin to catch on until the 1500s.
During the Medieval period, a predecessor to the modern day roast and carving forks was in use, but only in major feasts for the purpose of spearing slabs of meat to put onto your trencher (a plate made of bread that was then donated to the poor after a feast ended). Even then, these two-tined forks were quite rare until well into the late Medieval period.
Today, we have more than a dozen different kinds of eating fork, and many more used for utilitarian purposes (such as pitchforks, tridents, and fish spears). We’ll be concerned with the table variety in this article and cover both common and uncommon varieties.
It should be noted that most forks are placed on the left side of the plate and ordered according to the order of courses. For example, if salad is the first course needing a fork, the salad fork will be on the far left.
If salad comes after the meal but prior to dessert, the dessert fork will be by the plate with the salad fork to the left of it and to the right of the dinner fork.
Types of Forks
1. Carving Fork
This two-tined fork has especially long tines and is used for carving large chunks of meat, such as hams. The tongs hold the meat down while the carving knife is passed between them, allowing for more precise (and safer) carving.
2. Cocktail Fork
These small two-tined forks are meant for adding garnishments to drinks. The tines are a perfect size and distance apart for handling olives and other garnishments. Sets of cocktail forks may come in a range of sizes.
While most commonly found in bars, these forks can also be used to eat seafood may be employed in both formal and informal settings.
3. Dessert Fork
This will almost always be the fork closest to your plate (unless an ice cream fork is somehow involved). It has a stubby design, leaving it as one of the shortest types of fork. However, this also makes it perfect for slicing and spearing cake and other dessert foods.
As dessert is present in almost every meal, even a simple formal event should include dessert forks at the place settings.
4. Dinner Fork
The staple of any formal meal, dinner forks are about seven inches long and have four elongated tines. As the name implies, this fork is used for the main course and are thus usually located towards the middle or right in a line of forks, depending upon how far into the meal the main course occurs.
5. Fruit Fork
More popular in European fine dining than in the US, fruit forks are shorter than a table fork and usually have four tines (but can have two or three as well). They’re designed specifically for making it easier to spear round fruits such as grapes or small berries while also being perfect for melons and other larger fruits.
It can be used in tandem with a fruit knife or you can cut fruit into smaller pieces with the blade of the fork. Being able to identify and use a fruit fork appropriately is a sign of high table etiquette, especially since there are quite a few rules on how to eat fruit politely that would be needed for only the most formal of events.
6. Ice Cream Fork
You’ve seen and probably used this unusual type of fork multiple times without knowing what it really was. The design features a spoon-like bowl but the tip is divided into three to four short tines which aid in breaking up hardened ice cream.
Formal versions of this utensil tend to have the same weight, quality, and embellishments of other utensils in your flatware set and the design is believed to have been invented in the 1800s.
What makes this such a common utensil is the fact that variants using cheaper materials (wood, plastic, or cheap metals) are widely distributed and used for a range of eating habits. Of course, you’d surely recognize the ice cream fork by its generic (and more common) modern monicker: the spork.
7. Oyster Fork
Oyster forks are the great rule-breaker of proper utensil placement. They are the only fork to be placed to the right of the plate. These narrow utensils have three tines and are used for eating crustaceans and shellfish.
The design makes it easy to pry meat out of a lobster tail, for example. Its design also allows it to be used for cracking open shellfish or spearing shrimp.
8. Roasting Fork
Also sometimes called a toasting fork, the roasting fork has a very long handle and two to three tines. The design allows for handling food on an open fire without getting too close to the flame.
You’ll often get roasting forks in barbecue cookware sets, although they’re useful when using an oven as well.
9. Salad Fork
It can be easy to confuse a salad fork for a dinner fork when you’re not aware of the unique features in its design. These forks tend to be shorter than a dinner fork (most commonly 6” long). They’re a little broader and thinner.
They may also appear a little rounder at the edges when looking down at the table. Many salad forks have specially designed outer tines that cut to point to make spearing vegetables easier.
10. Spaghetti Fork
This unusual variant of a fork might seem a little odd at first. It has three to four tines with ridges added to the tines, making it easier to twirl pasta. As dinner forks already perform this task efficiently, the spaghetti fork is more of a novelty than a necessity and isn’t part of a formal setting.
On a side note, you can buy spaghetti forks that have a crank at the end of the handle, allowing you to spin the spaghetti without turning the fork itself.
11. Table Fork
At first glance, the table fork can be easily confused with a salad or dinner fork. In fact, the term has become a catch-all for any fork you decide to use at an informal meal.
The truth of the matter is that a table fork is halfway between a salad fork and dinner fork in size and is never used at a formal setting.
Table forks are further distinguished from formal cutlery in that they tend to be produced in a range of sizes, making it possible to find a table fork larger than a dinner fork or smaller than a salad fork.