It’s natural to assume that the bigger a set of knives is, the “better” it is. And additional pieces are often discounted when added to a set. “Why get the small set when you can get the large one for just a few bucks more?” the thinking goes.
There are a few problems with this logic. First and foremost, most hobbyist chefs do not need all of the knives included in a large set. Having four different paring knives might be useful if you’re a professional cook and need to have the perfect tool for every task but, for the rest of us, it’s overkill.
The other problem with buying a set loaded up with extra pieces is that those extra pieces are often just “filler”. Adding 7 steak knives to a set is a popular way to bulk it up, as is adding a kitchen shears, sharpening steel and knife block.
You may want some of those items but, if you’re trying to get the best bang for the buck, focus on getting the best “essential” blades. You can always add those extra pieces later. Those extra pieces are likely to be quite inexpensive when not purchased as part of a set.
The vast majority of all kitchen cutting tasks are accomplished with one of just a few knives. Let’s take a look at each.
The chef’s knife is the “workhorse” of the kitchen. It’s primary use is chopping and slicing, though it’s doubtful you’ll make any meal without using it. It comes in many different sizes, the most common being 8″. If you prefer a larger or smaller model, you can find 10″ and 6″ models as well.
The paring knife is used for paring, peeling and other precision work. Using a chef knife to peel an apple would be suicide, so you can’t do without this one.
Beyond those two essential knives, opinions start to diverge. Some experts say that a starter set needs nothing other than those two. Others will say that a few more knives completes a basic set.
Personally, I think you’re going to feel a bit underpowered with just the above two knives. Consider the next three knives “very nice to have” and then complete your set with any or all.
Some say that the utility knife is a jack-of-all-trades, but master-of-none. You may find yourself reaching for it, however, to slice an sandwich, or to accomplish some other “mid-sized” task for which the Chef’s knife will be overkill. You can get away without this knife, but it sure is a nice addition to a basic set. Utility knives range in size and can be serrated or not.
The long carving blade is used for slicing and carving meats. They come in various shapes and sizes, serrated and not. While a chef’s knife can serve this purpose, a carving knife will be perfectly suited to it. You may find this blade doubling as a bread knife as well, especially if it’s serrated.
A long narrow serrated knife used primarily for cutting bread. While a soft, narrow loaf needs no such specialty knife, a thick crusty bread will crumble and make a big mess without this type of knife. Bread knives’ serrations help keep it sharp longer, but it can be tricky to re-sharpen. For that reason, bread knives should be considered to have a limited lifespan.
Of course you can add more knives to your set, and you may choose to over time. But try to make due without too many of the above knives and you’re likely to find yourself wanting.