Knives are essential primarily because food (in my opinion, rudely) does not cut itself up on command. But before we get to which knives you need, we need to cover two even more basic questions.
First, does the knife feel good in your hand? I am a 6’2″ man who wears mens large size gloves. A knife that feels good in my hand is not necessarily going to be appropriate for my sister in law who is 4’10” and very petite. This is why knives are one of the few things you probably want to go to a store to buy rather than purchasing on line.
Second, what is the knife made of? If you are not going to venture into the exotic world of ceramics, you are probably looking at stainless steel. Stainless steel with a higher carbon content (most of the very expensive knives) will hold an edge longer, but is more prone to chipping and harder to sharpen. Lower carbon content will (as one would assume) not hold an edge as long, but is easier to sharpen. Basically, more carbon=harder, less carbon=softer though given that we are talking about stainless steel, those are relative distinctions.
Rule #1 from Pots and Pans applies here as well buy a starter set. That being said, do not buy the 36 piece set unless you really need to take up a big chunk of space on your counter with a bunch of crap you will almost certainly never use. Start with a reasonable set of decent knives. At the very least, a set should include:
- Chef’s knife in the 6-10″ range
- Serrated bread knife at least 8″ long
- At least one 3 or 4″ paring knife
- Poultry shears
Things that rarely come in knife sets that you will need:
- A vegetable peeler (unless you want to peel with a paring knife, in which case, good luck).
- A carving knife
- A cleaver (yes, I’m serious)
- A knife block
Beyond Basics …
Where to begin … there is a vast pantheon of knives out there. I myself have fallen prey to buying “interesting” knives that supposedly perform a specific function better than any “traditional” knife can (I’m looking at you, weird half moon shaped knife that was supposed to be awesome for chopping vegetables but has been sitting in a drawer since I used you once). Santoku knives, special sushi knives, flexible fish boning knives, the list goes on and on. The bottom line is that I have not found a compelling reason to buy much beyond the basics listed above. That’s not to say I haven’t branched out and tried stuff, it’s just that almost every time I’ve plonked down my hard earned cash for something exotic, I find it doesn’t accomplish what it said it would as well as a basic paring knife or my chef’s knife.
My advice is to redirect the money you are tempted to burn buying weird knives into a really awesome chef’s knife. That’s what you’re going to be using most of the time anyway so it should be the one you love the most. I have a Ken Shun Onion 8″ chef’s knife that my wife gave me for Christmas a few years back. It makes me smile every time I pull it from the block.