Most writings on this topic will tell you that all you really need is a good chef’s knife, a 12″ skillet, and a stock pot, and you can cook most anything.
That’s reasonably true, but unless your kitchen consists of two burners and a minifridge, you’re probably going to need a little more that. Let’s open the cabinets in my kitchen and see what I’ve got, starting with the sharps:
Knives: These are one of people’s favorite things to buy in sets – the more massive the set, the better. The other day I saw a set of 35 Wusthof knives, all tucked neatly into a knife block about the size of a stump. My gut reaction? OMG, we wants it, Precious!!! And why not? Knives are shiny, and useful, and look so damned impressive on the counter. If I had 3 large to drop on complete frivolities, those knives would be a real temptation.
But the reality is that of the 5 knives we have in our knife block (not counting the steak knives), I only make daily use of one, and regular use of 3. Unless you bake bread, you probably only need two. So make them two of the best knives you can find. Go for a high quality brand like Wusthof or Henckels. Yes, you’re going to pay close to $100 for one knife, but the quality is completely worth the price. The first knife you need is a good chef’s knife. In that 35-knife set, 4 of the knives were chef’s knives in assorted sizes. You will probably want an 8″ knife, the most common size (measures are of blade length). Much smaller than that and the knife is too short for the classic rocking motion for which chef’s knives are designed. A 10″ knife is scary and will make you feel uncomfortable like Jack Torrence. Go to a good cookware store and ask to handle the knives. If the blade compels you to break through a door and yell, “Honey, I’m home!” it’s too long a blade for you.
(Santuko knives are gaining popularity as a companion to or even a substitute for a chef’s knife. These knives originated in Japan and have a narrower blade. I haven’t obtained one yet, so I have no opinion to share, but you might want to consider it as an alternative to the chef’s knife.)
Second knife you need is a paring knife. A 3-4″ knife designed for the in-hand work of peeling and small cuts, such as removing the eyes from potatoes. If you are using your paring knife for much chopping-type work, you are working too hard. I only use my occasionally, but when I need it, I’m glad to have one.
From there? You will want a good serrated bread knife if you bake bread. They are also really good for carving meats, though I’ll deny ever using my bread knife for that. (Actually, I have a cheap bread knife I keep around strictly for carving, so I can legitimately deny using my good bread knife for carving.)
The rest of those knives in that big block? Would probably never see any use in my kitchen. I have a 6″ utility knife, and I use it strictly for slashing breads right before baking. It’s useful that because it’s super sharp. Because I don’t use it for anything else.
Sharpening steel: Get one. Learn to use it. It will increase the lifespan of your blade. A steel doesn’t actually sharpen a knife. It realigns the edge so that the blade is smooth, but your blades will eventually need to be professionally resharpened. (I don’t recommend a home sharpener because they can get misaligned and wreck havoc on your blades.)
Kitchen shears: OMG, these are the best invention in the world. I would give up my paring knife before I’d part with my kitchen shears. We’re not talking about a pair of scissors; these are the take-apart shears with thick, black handles. They are the best tool for cutting up a whole chicken, for cutting a pizza, for snipping herbs into small bits. I have two pair – the crappy ones in the drawer that I use for cutting open packages, and my good Wusthofs that I use only for food.Use them and you will love them.
Knife block, magnetic knife holder: Now that you’ve spent all this money, for heavens sake don’t just chuck those blades in a drawer. Protect your investment. Knife blocks take up precious counter space, but a magnetic strip can do on the side of your fridge and keep those blades out of harms way. Also, NO DISHWASHERS! Hand wash those knives immediately. Don’t be tossing them into the sink, where they can get bent or chips and be a threat to your fingers.
Next: cookware (honestly, this time)