I consider myself a serious home cook. What knives are essential?
There are three core essentials:
- Chef's knife
- 8" or 10" depending on your preferences
- Paring knife
- 3" or 4" depending on your preferences
- Bread knife
- As long as possible, 12"+
- Feel free to go cheap here, it's serrated and thus largely unsharpenable
You may want to check out Alton Brown's book, Alton Brown's Gear For Your Kitchen. He spends a chapter on knives and where to go past the essentials. He also suggests which ones are worth spending money on and which should be throwaways.
Everyone's stressing the chef's knife, but I'd be even more generic; when starting out, you can do almost every task with:
- A large knife (8" Chef, 7" Japanese Santoku, or a Chinese Cleaver)
- A small knife (Paring or similar)
- A bread knife (serrated, 10" or longer)
As you add to your collection:
- A boning / filet knife
- Kitchen shears (for snipping herbs without a cutting board or cutting the back out of a chicken)
- A carving knife (for slicing meats and large melons or splitting a cake into layers)
- A heavy cleaver (so you don't mess up your main-line knives when hacking up bones; heavy enough to use the back of the knife for cracking a coconut)
- A utility / tomato knife (mid-sized, serrated)
A few people have mentioned a larger chef's knife, but it's going to be harder to control. Develop good knife skills first, then move to something larger.
I know a few people who do everything but bread with a paring knife (and no cutting board, in their hand, cutting against their thumb), and I'd consider them "serious chefs" (southern, over 60 for the most part, but also a few apartment-living Europeans).
Has anybody mentioned a steel? Buy a steel before you buy a good knife. You could buy the best quality knife of the planet but it won't make a lick of difference if you cannot maintain the quality of the edge.
I use a 33cm wooden handle Victorinox chef's knife for most of my work. I steel it several times a day and sharpen it on a wet-dry stone about once a month. Every chef I have worked with who has picked it up has loved it despite being a cheap brand.
In order of importance (for me):
- Chef's knife (8 or 10 inches) - high quality
- Paring knife - Get it at the checkout for < $5.00, and replace annually
- Bread knife - I would go mid price on this one.
- Honing Steel - Longer than your longest knife.
- Carving knife - High quality.
- Shears - Either go high quality and sharpen, or low quality and replace.
- Boning knife (If you don't do much butchery, omit) - medium quality.
- Fillet knife (Increase in priority depending on how much fish you eat) -High quality.
- Peeling knife [a paring knife with a hooked peak]
High quality knives hold their edge, and will need sharpening once every year or two. Medium quality - need sharpening every 6 months or so, will be ground down in 5 - 10 years. Low quality - don't bother sharpening. The steel sucks, just replace it.
Generally, you need the first 3. Get the rest as need and finances dictate.
A more modern set...
Disclosure: I'm on the board of directors for a high end knife company.
The traditional advice given to young home cooks has been to get something like:
- 8" chef's knife
- 4" paring knife
- Bread knife (performs a common task that the other knives cannot).
However, knife materials and home cooking skills have improved quite a bit over the last decade or two so I now advise serious home cooks to use the following:
11" or 12" chef's knife - Serious cooks typically know how to handle longer blades, and this gives you more workable edge length for cutting large vegetables and meat blocks, and also allows for fewer and cleaner cuts. The difference in working edge between an 8" and a 12" knife is enormous!
- Contemporary steel allows knives to be made at these lengths without sacrificing precision or rigidity because the knife spine no longer has to be thicker to accommodate a longer length.
- A properly designed, modern 10" or 12" knife will have an edge profile which allows for good, western-style push/chop-cutting action with good rebound, but still allow the entire edge length to be used effectively for slicing strokes.
5" to 6.5" utility knife - For most home kitchens, a utility knife in this range is far more useful than a paring knife. It's long enough to cut apples, onions, garlic, herbs, and many prep and one-off items, but also short enough that you can accomplish most paring tasks. The utility knife size is much more maneuverable than a full chef's knife for simple/one-off tasks, and the length allows for a thin and very sharp blade which you will love. For couples cooking together, this also allows for much better knife sharing since the utility knife has far better task range than a paring knife.
The next few knives I'd suggest after the "modern trio" are:
- Long sujihiki or slicing knife
- Boning knife
My strong suggestion for those on a budget is to save money by not buying #4 and #5, buying a relatively cheap bread knife, and redirect the bulk of your budget to #1 and #2.
Poll-be-poll, so here goes (vegetarian and not formally trained perspective, too):
-One (or a couple of them) that is medium sized (~15cm), thin and can be made really sharp, and has a sharp tipped shape that supports rolling/piercing/slicing (Chef/Gyuto, Kiritsuke, labelled-Santoku-but-actually--more-Kiritsuke-like....). Best if no bolster, having a second piercing/scoring tool available in that spot is useful. Second, stainless one recommended if your primary one isn't. Huge isn't better because then it will be awkward to use for paring too, and will make more of your cutting board space unusable for storage or hand placing.
-One medium to big one that can stand abuse (hacking through an inch of something frozen, dealing with winter squash skin, cutting HOT materials... and damn, the can opener just packed it...) - medium-thick cleaver, inexpensive thick santoku or chef....
Nice-to-have knife block filler:
-Something ceramic for really reactive stuff (salsify, acidic fruit...)
-Selection of utility/paring knives (I don't like much off-board cutting so these get used rarely)
-Something really long
-Nakiri (see motivational clutter :)
-...yeah, bread and tomato knives if you happen to eat lots of these. A Chef knife can cut these things adequately too :)
Nothing is essential, I guess. I think all those knives are really marketing. Even profs often choose a (cheap) favourite knife, and use for almost anythin they do, is my experience. But it depends what you cook, and what you cook a alot, really. For home cooking, one large-ish knife like a chef's knife (I use a Deba, easier to filet fish) and a thin peeler gets you a long long way. I think having a good sharpening stone and knowing how to use it is far more important then having multiple knives.