A quick search at Williams-Sonoma.com reveals the most comprehensive knife set on offer is a 36-piece monstrosity available for the exclusive, special-offer price of just $1,999.95. Is this a serious product? Does anyone really buy these?
The manufacturer actually has the temerity to call this a "classic" set. Classic. Because, yes, who could forget grandma's old-world mastery of the 3-inch hollow-ground sheep's-foot paring knife?
Just as $100 designer yoga pants won't help you master Warrior II, an extravagant cutlery set won't make you a better chef. Virtually any home chef would be better off sticking with the three essential varieties of kitchen knife—a fact echoed by any number of cooking professionals.
"You basically need three knives: A heavy duty chopping knife, followed by a small paring knife [...], and a serrated-edge knife for carving and slicing."
8-inch Chef's Knife
This is your knife: the one, the only. Chopping, dicing, carving, throwing, juggling, stabbing—whatever. The 8-inch chef's knife is the general utility knife that will be used for 90% of all kitchen slicing needs. When marketing teams try to sell you a block of 20 knives, their mission is to obscure the fact that a high-quality chef's knife can do almost everything.
Of course, it's still easy to waste money on just the chef's knife alone. Stamped knives—once considered inferior to forged knives—have come a long way, and are now the more cost-effective choice for home cooking.
"The knife that you're going to use 90% of the time: An 8 to 10-inch chef's knife, absolutely brilliant..."
Like the chef's knife, the paring knife is an all-purpose tool—it's just designed for smaller detail work. A sharp paring knife can do the work of the boning knife, filet knife, peeling (or "Bird's Beak") knife, decorating knife, trimming knife, and fluting knife.
We expect some people will take issue with our appropriation of the paring knife for the supposedly specialized tasks listed above, but we also have a feeling those people are the ones who've already sprung for the 45-piece cutlery block with platinum trim and bottle service. Smarter people spend ten bucks or less.
"Use it for any job that requires precise and delicate work, like removing the ribs from a jalapeño or coring an apple."
One of the few remaining tasks that cannot be accomplished by a chef's knife or paring knife is slicing bread without crushing the loaf. To get that done, you really need a serrated bread knife.
The idea here is to draw a long bread knife across the crust of the loaf, without pressing down on it or biting into it like a saw blade would. Once again, it's possible to spend less than $20 on an excellent knife, or spend over $200 on an excellent knife.
Delish.com: "What’s the one kitchen item you think every cook should have on hand?"
Anthony Bourdain: "An offset serrated knife."
Welcome to the world of à la carte knife shopping. From now on, you're qualified to stare smugly at your friends' and neighbors' all-in-one cutlery blocks with scorn and judgment. And better still, you're empowered to buy exactly the cutlery you need—nothing more.