Ok, so I have a little bit of a thing for cooking tools, which is only moderated by my utter lack of storage space. The picture on the left is my current collection of knives. In my defense, I’ve collected these knives slowly over the years, and believe it or not, I actually do make regular use out of all them. However, you can get really far in the kitchen with just the 3 knives pictured below – a chef’s knife, a bread knife, and a paring knife. As you can see from my small collection, there are a lot of choices when it comes to knives and there is a specialized knife to match pretty much any task you can think of, but these three are my recommendations for a starter kit.
The Chef’s Knife
A chef’s knife, which is sometimes referred to as a cook’s knife, is really the most versatile knife you need. It’s the first knife that I reach for to do everything from dicing vegetables to cutting meat to, on occasion, boning chickens and filleting fish (although there are specialized knives for both of those tasks). Chef’s knives come in a variety of blade lengths, but the most common blade lengths in the U.S. are 8″ and 10″. I have both, but I tend to favor my 10″ because I like how balanced it feels in my hand. Functionally, this is one of the very rare instances in life when size doesn’t matter.
The Bread Knife
A bread knife is a lot more useful than it sounds. Of course, its great for slicing bread, but it can also be used for any other task where a serrated knife would be useful. Examples of good uses for a bread knife include, slicing cakes, tomatoes, lemons/limes, and, in a pinch, carving cooked roasts.
The Paring Knife
The paring knife is probably my least favorite knife (I find the small size a little awkward), but I can’t deny its utility in the kitchen. Paring knives can be very useful for slicing and dicing small things such as shallots and garlic; peeling tomatoes; or for precision work such as de-veining shrimp. If, unlike me, you have an artistic flare and lots of time to kill, the paring knife is the knife when it comes to carving decorative garnishes.
I won’t comment too much on materials and brand here. Just look for something that feels good in your hand, will hold a sharp edge (although all knives will require periodic sharpening), and fits your budget. With respect to brands, most of my knives are German (Wusthof, Messermeister), but I do have a few Japanese knives (Misono) that just can’t be beat for sharpness. If you don’t own any knives, you can often find pre-packaged sets of the three knives discussed at most kitchen supply stores and online at a discount to what it would cost to buy them individually.
Speaking of sharpness, no matter what knives you decide to use, keep them sharp. A dull knife, like a dull person, is often dangerous and rarely useful.