I get a lot of questions about knives and other sharp kitchen tools. It was one of the reasons I decided to this kitchen outfitting series.
First, you can spend $10-$150 or more on a knife, depending on your budget and need. With most things in life, the answer is often somewhere in the middle. For what it's worth, I'm not sure there is a knife that is worth $150 to me, and I'm not sure there is a $10 knife I'd want to use.
Second, knife sets...avoid them. You almost always end up paying more for knives you don't actually need. I would suggest you are better off doing your homework (Google and Amazon will provide more information than you could ever need) and getting 3-5 quality knives and a safe way to store them (more on that later).
Third, be good to your knives, and they will be good to you. Always wash your knives by hand, do not store them in a drawer, and pay to have them sharpened when they start to need it. Sharpening is different than honing, and if isn't something you are already experienced at, you can do more harm then good to a quality knife.
Now, the knives...
If you could only have one knife, start with an 8" chef's knife. It is the most versatile knife in your kitchen and can handle most of your kitchen duties. If you are going to order multiple knives, you could move toward a 10" model and/or a 7" Santuko style. Those are the two in my collection, but I could do just about everything I needed to with the 8" if I had to.
If you could have one more knife, get a 3-4" paring knife. Like the egg pan in the previous list, this is the one exception to the "you get what you pay for" philosophy. Buy a cheap one and just plan on replacing it every couple years. There isn't enough difference between a $7 and $40 paring knife to make it worth it. If you are breaking down a lot of fruits and veggies, it may make sense to buy two different styles, a straight edge and what they call a bird beak paring knife. The bird beak is really nice for peeling or pairing round objects.
The third knife in your collection is going to be an 8-10" serrated bread knife. If you have ever tried to cut bread with a chef's knife, you know why this is the 3rd most important knife...I like offset models that keep your knuckles for hitting the board at the bottom of the cut.
Now, you could stop there. If you had just these three, there is little you couldn't do. Every knife after this should be built around your particular cooking needs and the types of foods you are preparing.
If you are a big fish eater, the next knife might want to be a 5" flexible boning knife. If you plan to break down a lot of poultry, make it a stiff boning knife.
If, however, you are a major carnivore that wants to cook large cuts of red meat or whole turkeys, your next knife should be a 10-12" slicer. Slicers are narrower than chef knives, creating less drag and a cleaner cut.
I like my 7-8" Santuko for chopping veggies and I find the granton edge keeps the veggies from sticking to the knife.
I'm going to stop here...except to talk about storage. A wood block is completely acceptable, if you have the counter space and you can find one that fits all of your knives. If you have a little bit of free wall space, I would strongly encourage mounting a magnetic strip. They are very affordable, very strong, and very safe. For the sake of your knives and your fingers, if you are going to store your knives in a drawer, get a guard cover for each one them. I use them for all of the knives I travel with and it provides some valuable peace of mind.
Next time I'll talk about all of the other sharp things in the kitchen. Some I find indispensable, some helpful, some useless...let's see which ones are in your kitchen!