My recommendation for a basic set of knives I think will cover all your basic needs: Chef (or Santoku, Chinese cleaver), Utility, Paring, Bread knife, knife steel and a sharpener.
- Chef knife - Most popular workhorse knife. European style curved edge best suited if you cut with a rocking motion
German: More aggressive curvature. Look for a knife where the bolster does not run all the way to the edge of the knife (see wusthof image). Makes it difficult to sharpen. Look for one with a half or no bolster, see 2nd image. Most of the major German manufacturers now offer a line with this option. Thickest blade, can hold up cutting small chicken bones, lobster shell and frozen items, most forgiving of the lot.
French: Less aggressive curvature
Japanese: Least curved, sometimes almost straight. Comes in a western or traditional Japanese style handle. Thinnest blade, generally still sturdy however I’d avoid cutting any bones or lobster shell. The Japanese excel at forging very hard blades (measured on the Rockwell Hardness Scale-HRC) that have great edge retention capabilities - you don’t have to sharpen as often. Downside, may be brittle and can chip when cutting into harder items. Just requires a bit more TLC compared to the German knives. Very popular these days with professional chef’s as their status knives. Korin in NYC carries a nice selection http://korin.com/Knives
Blade Material: Unless you plan to do a lot of sashimi slicing, I’d stick with stainless. Less maintenance and with the improvements in stainless steels used these days there’s really not a noticeable difference in performance for most cooks. German manufacturers tend to forge blades at 57HRC whereas Japanese manufacturers go upwards of 59HRC. The higher the HRC the better the edge retention, tradeoff is a more brittle blade. Some Japanese blades are forged at 65+HRC, its really not practical for anything other than slicing boneless fish fillets for sushi/sashimi.
Length: Recommend 8", 9", 9.4", 10". The benefit of a longer knife is you don’t run out of ‘real estate’. Doesn’t really come into play unless you need to make a lot of long single stroke clean cuts i.e slicing hams, turkey breast, fish for sushi/sashimi. The trade off is less maneuverable. My favorite is the Japanese 240cm/9.4", not too short or too long. 8" is a popular size for most home cooks.
Handle style and material: I like the German handle with the middle belly and especially if has a slight rounded contour. Most comfortable for my hands. Synthetic materials i.e Micarta, Polyoxymethylene etc. are the most durable. Does not warp like wood and you don’t have to oil it periodically.
My daily workhorse is a micarta handle Hattori FH Series VG10 stainless knife. I had a minor part in it’s original design inception . It combines a classic French style slightly curved edge chef knife (aka gyutou by Japanese knife manufacturers) with the thinner blade favored by Japanese manufacturers. Check out the Bob Kramer Zwilling line if you want a more showy knife. I have an original Kramer forged 10" but I find it a bit too wide, feels more like a cleaver vs.a chef knife. I should have got his Meiji Japanese style knife instead which has a slimmer profile. The Zwilling reproduction IMO is excellent, made in Seki Japan with the same 52100 carbon steel used in Kramer’s custom line with the added bonus of being backed by Zwilling. The carbon steel line is comparable to my original Kramer forged knife for a fraction of what you’d pay for his custom knife today.
Some of the knives to check out at the local stores - Wusthof Classic Ikon, Zwilling Prof Chef & Kramer, Global, Shun @ William Sonoma, Miyabi, Messermeister (William Sonoma & Surfas).
- Santoku or Chinese Cleavers: If you cut with a straight up and down motion (more popular with Asian cooks), these styles may be better suited for your needs vs a chef knife. Typical lengths are 5-7", 6" is the most common.
a) Santoku: Incorporates the benefits of pointed tip of a chef knife with a straighter edge for maximum single line surface contact. Popular in Asian households.
b) Chinese cleaver: Workhorse of Chinese kitchens. Wide surface area, slightly heavier weight which helps cut all sorts of foods meat, vegetable etc. Takes some getting used to due to it’s large size. Most Chinese restaurant chefs use this one knife for everything… great if you can master. Chan Chi Kee makes excellent chinese cleavers for a very reasonable price ~ $40. You can find them in most chinese restaurant supply stores in Chinatown or SGV.
Utility knife (Length 6") - Typically half the width of a chef knife, lends itself to greater maneuverability. Good for cutting fruits and misc non major meal prep activities. 2nd most frequently used knife in my household
Paring knife (Length 3"-4"): If you plan on turning vegetables… I have one but don’t use it that often. Comes in handy every now and then.
Bread knife (Length, at least 9" - 10"): The serrated edge helps cut through super crusty charred loafs like the one’s from Lodge. A chef knife may chip on the hard crust. The pointed serrated edge works better to penetrate the hard outer crust.
Classic workhorse from Wusthof.
If you’re feeling spendy, Gude from Germany
Knife steel. Why you need one http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/knife-skills-how-to-hone-a-dull-knife.html
Do not use it on serrated knives! I recommend a smooth steel, something like this https://www.amazon.com/Victorinox-Honing-10-Inch-Smooth-Plastic/dp/B000UFV9SC
Sharpener, easy to use does a decent job if you don’t want to work a sharpening stone https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0015S0VN2/ref=psdc_289867_t1_B0006A03UG
Besides Sur La Table and William Sonoma. I recommend checking out the following retailers for Japanese knives.
As others have mentioned, best to handle a few knives in person to see what suits you the best. Happy Shopping!