Updated: June 2010; January 2018
I love my kitchen knives. But then, I love to cook. If you're not passionate about cooking, you don't need lovable knives and happily, there are quite decent ones available at an affordable price. No one needs a complete set of name-brand, prestige knives.
My favorite high-end brands are Henckels and Kershaw Shun. For value, Victorinox Forschner are the best deal — very inexpensive, yet they consistently have scored top ratings in Consumer Reports and Cook's Illustrated. I finally added one to my drawer and a curious thing happened: I found myself using it more and more, and neglecting my much pricier knives. Not as fancy and stylish as some of the others, but it's lightweight, well-balanced, and stays very sharp. They are available in restaurant supply stores and at Smart and Final.
I think it's very important to handle the knife before you buy. This is one time where mail-order is not a good idea.
Which Knives Do You Really Need?
Those lovely knife sets in the big wood block are usually not a good deal because they include knives you don't need. It also restricts you to one manufacturer. Buy a piece at a time and you can get just the ones you will use, and can select the model and manufacturer you like best for that piece.
My favorite knife is now the aforementioned Victorinox Forschner.
I also love the Kershaw Shun Santoku -- the 6.5-inch one without the scalloped cuts (the "Granton" edge). It is not cheap but it's always sharp, extremely well balanced and easy to control, and looks terrific.
If $120 seems a little steep, here's an amazing deal: The $30 Shun Wasabi santoku. Made by Shun, it's not as pretty or well balanced as its higher-priced sibling, but it's a very nice knife for the price. I bought one for my mother, mainly so there is a decent knife when I go there.
If I could have just one knife it would be an 8- or 10-inch chef's knife. I use the Santoku more, but the chef's knife is the most versatile, so that is what I would get first, if I could just have one.
Most guys get the 10-inch chef's knife because, well, it's bigger, and they are guys. But for most of us, the 8-inch is easier to use.
My second knife would be a 4-inch paring knife. I love the Henckels but have not tried the Shun.
My next addition would be a decent bread knife. This is the only one you should have with a serrated edge! You can get by with a pretty inexpensive bread knife. I had a Tri-Star for years and it was just fine. I have a Chef's Choice now, which is of finer quality and not a lot higher in cost.
Finally, I would add a boning knife, which has a thin, flexible, sword-like blade to maneuver around bones. If you roast a lot, it's handy. But you don't really need one.
Sharpening, and Using the Steel
See: Sharp Knife Tips