How to choose a knife
The most important thing about a knife, and especially a chef’s knife, is how it fits in your hand. So long as you spend at least $50 on a chef’s knife, it’s going to be sharp (and sharpenable) enough to get most any job done. Decide what kind of handle you want first. German-style knives are generally more molded to the palm with a pronounced butt end, while Japanese-style knives are almost uniformly cylindrical and smaller. Both designs work for everyone; it just depends on the feel you prefer and, to some degree, how you hold the knife.
The type of steel you choose should be based on the kind of care you’re (realistically) going to give your knife. If you don’t envision yourself sharpening and perfectly drying and storing your knife after every use, German stainless steel (e.g., 440, 420) is going to be much more forgiving, though softer and quicker to dull.
If you are a tool fanatic and know that you’ll take good care of your knives and are also confident that they won’t find their way into the wrong hands, carbon steel is a great pick because it’s incredibly sharp. Just know that it’s likely to rust and chip more easily.
In between, you have VG-10 and VG-Max (proprietary to Shun, but about the same as VG-10), which have added alloys (tungsten, vanadium) that make them a little more stain-resistant and less brittle. They’re great for those who want a Japanese-style knife without having to care so devoutly for it.
Then there’s Damascus steel, which is made by forging and hammering carbon-rich steel at a low temperature, cranking up the heat, and then cooling it abruptly. Damascus steel is known for its flexibility and corrosion resistance, and we recommend it, but be wary of too-good-to-be-true deals. A lot of manufacturers will etch the mesmerizing swirls into a blade without performing the time-consuming and expensive hammering process.
Why (or why not) buy a knife set
In general, things that come in sets tend to involve compromised quality, and often contain filler pieces. In the case of knife sets, you’re probably going to receive a bunch of knives and other gadgets (including a large woodblock) that you may never use.
A lot of newer (and older) DTC brands recognize that consumers are growing wiser and learning that sets are generally a ripoff. As a result, there are lots of two- to five-piece sets on the market. If you’re looking in the budget range, we’re all for them, and we’ve pretty much tried them all. The steel is almost always the same quality, so choose based on the handle style you like.
Otherwise, though, sets don’t make a lot of sense for most people. Invest in a chef’s knife, first and foremost, with which, by the way, you can tackle all of your kitchen tasks, minus maybe slicing bread. Next, a paring knife is probably the most sensible purchase, but since it’s not doing a lot of the heavy work, we say go cheap. That said, feel free to spend what you’d like; there is something to be said for a weightier, sharper blade in the case of every knife.
A slicing and/or bread knife may or may not be important to you depending upon whether or not you consume much bread or slice much meat. You can find one that does the job for as little as $20, or, again, the sky’s the limit. For most people, we like the $40-$60 range.
Beyond the above, you’re getting into specific tasks most people don’t really take on at home. Fillet knives, boning knives, santoku knives, and shears are all further considerations. Even if you want all of those knives, you’re still likely better off purchasing them piecemeal. It’ll be more affordable, and you’ll also be able to budget so that you can put your money where it counts.