There are two popular kitchen knife styles, Western and Japanese. Many people get German knives if they go the western route. Wusthof and Henkles are both popular brands. Japanese knives tend to be more expensive, but are usually harder, and sharpened at a lower degree angle. This means they will stay sharp longer, and allow for thinner slicing. This also means they will last longer, since you don’t need to sharpen them as often.
There is no need to buy a whole set. Most people only use 2-3 knives, especially in a home kitchen. If you start cooking more and feel another knife would be useful, then you can get what you need. This also gives you the option to buy various brands based on the type of knife. You may prefer one brand of cleaver, but really like the chef’s knife from a different brand.
I would try and go to a Williams-Sonoma or other reputable kitchen supply store, so you can test the feel of the knives. They should have a staff member to help you, and you can “test” the knives on a cutting board to see what brand you prefer in your hand. Balance, weight, and handle shape are personal preferences. What works for a friend may not feel the best in your hand. The staff member should also be able to show you how to steel/hone the blade.
Here is a list of the top few knives that are versatile. You can get away with 2-3 knives. Lengths are approximate and differ slightly by brand. Some brands have knives in a few length options too.
1. The knife I used the most is our 8″ Chef’s Knife. A Santoku Knife in a similar length is also a good option. I would say the Chef’s knife is more versatile than the Santoku style. Our Chef’s knife is longer and more curved. One of these two knives is a must.
2. 6″ Serrated Utility Knife or a Bread Knife. The Serrated Utility Knife is more versatile than a bread knife, and you can cut small breads and rolls with it. Since I bake most of our bread, I use the Bread Knife more often. However, the Serrated Utility Knife is more versatile.
3. 3 1/2″ Paring Knife. If you go with the 6″ Utility Knife that will work for a lot of things for which you would use the Paring Knife.
4. A steel honer is a must.
Steel regularly, but it depends on how much you cook and use the knives.
NEVER put the knives in the dishwasher. It dulls them fast. You would just be throwing your money away on good knives.
Hand wash with gentle detergent and dry immediately after use. Drying helps prevent handles from cracking.
Get your knives professionally sharpened about once a year. Again, it depends on use and the type of knives you buy. Don’t buy any sharpening device for home. It’s best to have them sharpened professionally. A honing steel is all you need at home. If you get Japanese knives, make sure you take them to a place that knows how to sharpen them at a low angle. The angle is different on Japanese knives. Western knives are just more common, because they tend to be less expensive.