Good quality kitchen knives are not inexpensive, but they're an excellent long-term investment. With proper care, they'll provide good service for a lifetime.
Four basic knives--a paring, boning, chef's and slicing--will handle just about every kitchen need. Other specialty knives may be added as you desire and can afford them.
The best quality knives are made from stain-resistant high-carbon alloys. They hold a good sharp edge, yet are still soft enough to be sharpened. (Carbon knives are the easiest to sharpen; however, they discolor and rust.)
In quality knives, the metal that forms the blade also extends the entire length of the handle. The knife is said to have a "full tang," which improves balance and weight. The metal extension may not always be visible, but if there are three rivets in the handle, it usually indicates a full tang.
Some knives have an extra reinforcement between the handle and blade known as the bolster. This adds balance and protects the fingers from the blade when chopping and mincing.
Although matched sets of knives may be aesthetically appealing, it's more important that a knife is functional and feels comfortable in your hand. Size is determined by the blade measurement, excluding the handle.
PARING KNIFE-- Used for trimming, peeling, small chopping and slicing tasks. The most useful have three to four inch blades. Those with blades six to eight inches long are often called utility knives. (Also see serrated knives.)
BONING KNIFE-- For boning meat, poultry or fish. The narrow, tapered, rigid or flexible blade is typically five to six inches long and curved inward on the cutting edge.
CHEF'S KNIFE-- Also called a French or cook's knife, this all-purpose chopping and slicing tool has a wide, slightly curving blade. Turned sideways, the knife is handy for crushing garlic or scooping up chopped foods. Most cooks prefer this knife to have an eight or 10 inch blade.
SLICING KNIFE-- Also called a carving knife, the blade may be flexible or rigid and is designed to cut through hot or cold cooked meats and poultry. Blades range from six to 10 inches. (Also see serrated knives.)
SERRATED KNIVES-- Scalloped-edged knives that do not require resharpening. The sawing action of these knives is excellent for slicing delicate foods. Use longer blades for breads or angel food cakes; shorter ones for cutting tomatoes and citrus fruit. The grapefruit knife is a variation, with a curved blade that is serrated on both edges.
MEAT CLEAVER-- Used for splitting bones and cartilage. The heavy blade may also be used for coarse chopping.
ORIENTAL CHEF'S KNIFE-- Good for slicing, dicing and mincing, as well as crushing garlic and ginger root. Turned sideways the large, rectangular blade becomes a scoop. Available in various sizes, with the larger models similar in appearance to meat cleavers.
CRESCENT CUTTER OR MEZZALUNA-- A curved or half-moon shaped blade with one or two knob handles. Rocked swiftly from side to side for chopping and mincing.
Good quality knives should never be washed in a dishwasher. For protection and long life, wash by hand in warm, soapy water, then rinse and dry immediately. Store knives so the edges will not be dulled by bumping against other tools.
For safety, keep knives sharp. Dull knives require more force when cutting and are likely to slip and injure the user. Test the sharpness of a knife by drawing the blade lightly over a tomato. A sharp knife will cut the skin by its own weight.