One of my favorite games is Desert Island, where someone picks a category -- books, CDs, wines -- and you name the one you'd pack if you were banished to a desert island. I get to spend time in the kitchen with a lot of great cooks as part of my job, and at some point, I usually ask what their Desert Island kitchen tools are. You'd think the answer might vary depending on the cook, but the response is always the same: "My knives."
Unlike writers, musicians, or people in the wine trade, though, who gather collections equal in size to their passion, the chefs I know don't usually have a million knives. Instead, they use a few trusty tools for almost all of their cooking. In fact, most of the work you do in the kitchen is best performed by just three knives: a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. (Though there are some tasks that call for specialty knives, if you do them often enough.) Invest wisely in these three, and you're equipped like a pro.
This is the true workhorse of the kitchen. With a 6- to 12-inch blade that's at least 1-1/2 inches deep at the widest point, the chef's knife can take on all kinds of slicing, dicing, chopping and mincing. Properly sharpened, it can also handle breaking downa and boning large cuts of meat (though if you do it a lot, you may prefer a cleaver and a boning knife for those tasks). And the side of the blade is great for crushing garlic cloves, ginger, and lemongrass.
A chef's knife can feel intimidating to novice cooks, especially if it has a long blade, but don't be afraid of it. Learn to use one, even if it's just a 6-incher, and you'll soon gain speed, control, and confidence. The longer blade may take a little getting used to, but it's worth it because a chef's knife is extremely efficient for slicing and chopping. Grabbing a small knife for every task limits you, and you'll get tired faster, especially when you're chopping large amounts.
The blade of a paring knife ranges from 3 to 4 inches long, and is usually about 3/4 inch deep at the widest point. Its small size makes it really feel like an extension of your hand, and it's perfect for peeling and paring fruit and vegetables, coring tomatoes and fruits, trimming chicken, scoring doughs, and any other exacting task where the heft and long blade of a chef's knife would get in the way.