Even the most prosumer home chef has found himself creeping surreptitiously down the aisles of the Macy's kitchen department, tempted by the siren song of the 23-piece cutlery set. There are boning knives, tomato/bagel knives, Granton-edged bread weapons, utility knives of indeterminate purpose, "sandwich" knives and steak knives and discount kitchen shears protruding from a hardwood block like quills on a porcupine. That block is a magnet for dust and food particles by the way--just about the worst place to store a blade after the basin of your sink. Don't be fooled. Most kitchen tasks can be accomplished by a single high-quality blade, augmented perhaps by one or two additional knives of your preference.
If you're passionate about cooking, invest in a single high-carbon steel chef's knife, 8 or 10 inches in length, from Wusthof, Henckels or Japanese swordsmith Shun. The cost of entry is steep, but a blade of this caliber, properly cared for, will last virtually a lifetime. Run both edges gently down a steel a every time you use it. Keep the blade at roughly a 20-degree angle to the steel throughout (note that many Japanese knives are sharpened on only one side). Wash with soap and water--no dishwashers please--and dry as soon as you can after your meal, and store your high-carbon prize on a knife strip or in a drawer where it will not get dinged by other kitchen widgets. You can always wrap it in a dishtowel for additional protection. At routine intervals depending on your frequency of use, have the blade professionally sharpened. If you're the sort of home cook who dresses in chef's whites before firing the stove, you may wish to purchase a whetstone and do the sharpening yourself, but this demands patience and specific instructions that are beyond the scope of this post.
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Augment your main attraction with a small paring knife for detail work--palming the handle and hooking your index finger over the back of the blade enables precise, delicate cuts, say for spiral-peeling an apple or stripping zest from a lemon. The blunt-nosed, medium-length Japanese nakiri knife blazes through fruit and vegetable prep, facilitating uniform dices and julienne cuts that release easily from the flat of the blade. Treat these knives with the same care and affection as you do your primary, and they will provide decades of faithful service.