3 knives every cook needs. And some they might just want.

There is probably no kitchen tool purchase as important as your kitchen knives. And it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the variety of styles, prices, sizes, and materials.

But while the knife category is one you might want to explore for the rest of your kitchen days, picking up a few versatile kitchen knives can be simple.

Many professionals will tell you that you can perform virtually any kitchen task skillfully with a chef’s knife or paring knife, and while adding other knives to your arsenal is appealing and can be useful, it is not strictly necessary.

Unless, maybe, it’s a serrated knife, something every cook really should have too.

Serrated knives are primarily used for slicing bread; the serrated edge allows you to saw back and forth without compressing the bread. It can also be used for other foods, such as tomatoes.

When shopping for knives, go for the ones you like rather than a set, which could leave you with the ones you don’t like to use.

Simply a small knife for tasks requiring more dexterity and precision than a larger knife.

The blade is usually about 3 inches long. Use a paring knife to peel fruits and vegetables, for example, or devein shrimp. I think a straight rather than a curved blade makes slicing tasks easier.

Buying one takes a bit more thought. Most chef’s knives are 8 or 10 inches long, from the bolster (where the blade meets the handle) to the tip of the blade. Many professional chefs like a knife longer than 10 inches, but as with all things knife, it comes down to your own preference and comfort level. If you are more comfortable with a shorter 8 inch knife, this is the size you should go with. The longer the blade, the more you can chop at once.

Use your chef’s knife for most kitchen jobs, whether it’s chopping onions and garlic, slicing carrots, slicing a roast, or deboning a chicken.

Again, if you are a fan of knives and want to get 4, 6, 8, and 10 inch knives, you can choose the optimal knife for any task. But know that with a good chef’s knife, plus your paring knife and a serrated knife, you really don’t need anything else.

When you buy a knife, especially one that you are going to spend real money on, you should definitely hold it in your hand. Pretend to use it and literally do slicing motions to test the feel in your hand. It should have weight.

Make sure there are no cracks near the rivets or handle, anywhere that might feel rough and allow residue to build up.

There are three main types of metals used to make knives: carbon steel, stainless steel, and high carbon stainless steel. Carbon steel is generally the hardest, the softest stainless steel. The harder the metal, the easier it is to keep it sharp. However, harder metal also requires more care.

Carbon steel rusts easily, so these knives should be washed and dried regularly to prevent discoloration. Many professional chefs find this a good compromise, but home cooks might prefer something with lower maintenance.

Many good quality commercial knives designed for home cooks are made from high carbon stainless steel, which is easier to maintain than straight carbon steel and retains a sharp edge longer than stainless steel.

Chef’s knives are often divided into two main types: Japanese and German, or Western style. Japanese knives are generally thinner and sharper, with many made from carbon steel requiring more maintenance. German style knives are more durable, although they may not be as sharp. Japanese knives are often sharpened by hand and have a straighter blade for more precise slicing. Both are great options.

If you want to dive deeper, you can find Swedish steel knives, French steel knives and more, as well as many American-made knives. Some companies that make high quality kitchen knives in the United States are Steelport, Schmidt Brothers, and Faneema Cutlery.

The blade of a chef’s knife is both long and wide. Different types have different curvatures on the bottom of the blade, from straight to slightly curved. Many American and German knives have a pronounced curve, while French and Japanese knives tend to have straighter blades. A Santoku knife is a Japanese chef’s knife with small indentations along the straight blade, like a Chinese cleaver.

Ceramic knives are also popular. These are made from tough ceramics, but are still quite fragile (don’t drop any!). They hold a sharp edge quite well, but their lightness isn’t as satisfying to use for most real kitchen chops.

It is recommended to wash, dry and store knives immediately after use. This will help keep them sharp and in the best overall condition (and avoid accidents!). Never put kitchen knives in a dishwasher, as this can dull the blade.

Whichever knife you choose, buy a honing rod, sharpening steel or whetstone. Learn how to use it correctly to keep your knives sharp and see how much it improves your chopping game.

—- Katie Workman regularly writes about food for The Associated Press. She has written two cookbooks focused on home cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook”. She blogs at http://www.themom100.com/about-katie-workman. She can be reached at [email protected]

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