You really only need two knives – a chef’s knife and a pairing knife. A third – a serrated bread knife - maybe the third essential for you bread lovers, but that’s it!
A chef’s knife can be anywhere in size between 6 and 10 inches long, and they are offered in a wide range of styles and prices. More on that below. A pairing knife is really a throw away knife for professional chefs. It’s great for small, detailed jobs like removing the tops of strawberries and citrus supremes. It should range between 3 and 5 inches long, should fit snugly in your hand, and should not be expensive.
Again, the serrated bread knife is meant for those who regularly enjoy slicing into whole loaves of bread. For you, a good bread knife is indispensable. For all the rest of you, you may also appreciate a small serrated knife to get into soft fleshy fruit like tomatoes, but, honestly, this is evidence of a dull chef’s knife.
Knife Set or No Knife Set?
I often get asked if you need to buy a large knife set to really be covered. The answer is definitively no. Sets are full of knives the average cook doesn’t need and they take up valuable drawer, wall or countertop space. These “extras” are useful to advanced cooks who enjoy breaking down fowl, fish, game or other mammals. For example, many sets come with a filet and boning knives for cleaning a whole fish or breaking down large fowl that are so often purchased precut or cleaned. And as my Knife Skills 2.0 students find out - you can break down a chicken with the swift maneuvers of a chef's knife.
On the other hand, small sets are on the rise, and they can save you some money on some very valuable tools. Small sets like these Wüsthoff 5-piece or 7-piece sets offer exactly what you need in a block. You can also go a little more minimal with a 3-piece like this Henckels set without a block that is an excellent starter’s kit and even comes with that tomato knife I mentioned. ; )
The Right Chef’s Knife
Perhaps you are just in the market for a decent chef’s knife and have the rest covered? That’s great! Let’s get down to brass tacks.
Most people start off with an 8-inch chef’s knife because it’s manageable for most hand sizes. If you have small hands or want to buy a knife for a kid or teen, I encourage you to consider a 6”. They are versatile, and offer someone who’s more petite as much power as a larger knife, but potentially more control.
When you invest in a chef’s knife you are both paying for brand and the quality and blend of steels in the blade. The quality distinction between a higher-end knife and one that’s cheaper is the quality of steel. A good quality knife will generally be made with a higher quality blend of steel and will, therefore, hold its edge much longer. Less expensive knives, on the other hand, aren’t generally going to fall apart or not cut well. They will simply need to be sharpened more often.
There are a number of good quality brands for top-quality knives, like Wusthof, Trident, and Henckels. But most of the differences between these high-end brands come down to feel and weight distribution. Research has limited usefulness; it’s better to just go into a store like Sur La Table where you can test and handle a variety of knives before you purchase. This is akin to buying a pair of shoes – keep trying them on until you find the best fit!