To that end, I'm easing into things with one of the most practical subjects there is related to cooking--knives. Let's face it, you can't cook much of anything without them!
To read on, please click "read more"!
Some folks will tell you that the only knives worth owning are the super high-end designer knives priced well over $100, sometimes over $200, for a basic chef's knife. Now, more often than not, these really are great knives. They are typically forged, high carbon steel with a bolster (an area of thicker metal at the point where the blade meets the handle) and a full tang (where the metal of the blade and bolster continue through the handle all the way to the end, and then the handle gets built around it). The problem, of course, is that they're a lot of money by the time you get the knives you need.
Meanwhile, mainstream retailers try to sell you "knife sets", a whole bunch of knives usually with a knife block. These will vary between reasonable quality knives and truly abysmal quality. While usually affordable, the problem (besides the quality variations) is that chances are you're getting a few knives you'll never use. In addition, the ubiquitous knife block that comes with most sets may very well not be the best storage solution for your particular situation. Think about it...most people have a few other knives in their kitchen that they don't want to part with (a bread knife, which many sets don't include; grandma's favorite knife; a knife received as a gift), and those aren't going to fit in the block with the set.
All that said, I do have a great solution so that you too can have really great quality knives, without spending a fortune for them: Get the same knives that are used by the people who use knives all day, every day!
I'm talking about the knives used in commercial food service. No one uses knives more than restaurants and catering services, and generally speaking the knives they use are not the fancy designer knives, but obviously they can't be poor quality either. These knives need to be able to take a beating, maintain an edge, and have comfortable and safe handles. Although they are usually stamped metal rather than forged, they do have the other features of a designer knife including being made from high carbon stainless steel and having a full tang. And quite frankly, I find the handles of mine much more comfortable than most of the fancy knives. Often the handles of fancy knives are more about looks than comfort and functionality.
The food service brands that I personally own and highly recommend are Forschner Victorinox Fibrox (yes, it's a mouthful) and Dexter Russell V-Lo. In addition to these, I have heard that Mundial also makes nice food service knives.
Forschner Victorinox Fibrox knives have been selected as the best by Cook's Illustrated in product tests that compared knives of various brands and price ranges. They have a nice edge on them right out of the package, and with proper care (washing by hand, correctly using a steel) they maintain their edge for a long time. The handles feel good and--this is very important--are not slippery when wet. The best part? You get all this for only about $30 for an 8" chef's knife.
The Dexter Russell V-Lo knives are very similar in both quality and price to the Fibrox knives. They also have a good sharp edge that stays sharp. They tend to be just a few dollars more than the Fibrox (about $37 for an 8" chef's knife), but they have a great textured, soft rubber handle so if you like Oxo products you will probably also like these knives. Dexter Russell also makes other food service knives that look more like the Fibrox ones; however, when I held them at the store they didn't feel like the Fibrox and seemed very slippery, so I would not recommend them.
Now, what knives do you really need to own?
Here are my actual knives:
From left to right, Fibrox 4" paring knife, Fibrox 6" boning knife (stiff), Fibrox 6" boning knife (flexible), Grandma's old bread knife, Fibrox slicing knife, Dexter Russell V-Lo 8" chef's knife (notice the orange staining on the handle from all the pumpkins and squash!). Generally speaking, a group of knives like these will pretty much do the trick for most people. In fact, you probably only need one boning knife...I just couldn't decide which, and the price was right. ;-) Total cost, not including Grandma's knife, about $85.
If you wanted to expand your basic knife collection, a cleaver is a great thing to have if you like to make your own stock and need to get through chicken and turkey carcasses (be especially careful that the handle does not get slippery when wet!). A granton edge slicer is nice if you do a lot of meat carving. And depending on what feels right to you, you might prefer a santoku knife rather than a chef's knife.
Where do these commercial style knives come from?
If you have a restaurant supply store nearby that is open to the public, I would highly recommend that you check it out. Not only is it great fun to see all the different commercial equipment, they will have these types of high quality, low price commercial knives, and you'll be able to hold them in your own hand to see what you like. In my area, we have the Boelter Superstore, which has limited hours for the public, and is guaranteed to make you drool over the merchandise.
If you can't make it to a restaurant supply store, buy from a reliable online retailer that has a favorable return policy, just in case you don't like the feel of the knife in your hand once you receive it.
So, if you're looking for knives that are not for show, that are real quality, get the job done, and don't require you to take a second mortgage out on your home, use what the pros use, commercial food service knives! They may not be the prettiest, but if you look in restaurant kitchens, butcher shops, and yes, even some cooking shows with celebrity chefs, these are the knives you will see.