You really need only three kitchen knives.

Admittedly, for anyone susceptible to kitchen-gear envy, a 12-piece, $600 Wüsthof set, complete with three sizes of parers, knife block, and kitchen shears, induces covetous awe.

And even a $30 set from Wal-Mart, despite its flimsy blades and plastic handles, still strongly suggests that you need all 13 of its pieces.

In truth, you don't.

Here's what you need:

  • A chef's knife, probably 8 or 10 inches long, depending on what you're comfortable wielding.
  • A sturdy paring knife.
  • A serrated knife for bread and tomatoes.

Everything else is fodder for future gift lists.

But when you do buy, purchase the best knives you can afford, especially if you are a passionate cook and will be using them frequently.

Kept sharp, washed by hand, and stored in a knife block, they'll last decades or even the rest of your life. Go to a reputable kitchen store and spend some time holding a variety of chef's knives - the one you'll use most often - to see which style of handle you prefer and which best suits the size of your hand. Then practice making chopping motions.

Manufacturers to look for include Lamson Sharp, Global, Henckels, Sabatier, Shun, Wüsthof and, for ceramic blades, Kyocera. Ceramic blades are lighter and keep an edge for a long time, but they are also expensive, more fragile than steel, and must be sent back to the manufacturer for sharpening.

Once you've invested in good knives, take care of them.

Keep them sharp

Although commonly called a sharpening steel, the metal rod included with most knife sets doesn't actually sharpen a blade. Instead, the steel hones and aligns the edge of the blade, enabling smoother cuts. Some chefs give their blades a few swipes on a steel multiple times per day or more, but for home cooks a steel session before a major cutting task - taking apart poultry, chopping a bunch of vegetables - is sufficient.

If you have quality knives, it's worth purchasing a manual or electric knife sharpener ($50-$150) that uses abrasive wheels or slots to put a fine edge on your blades. Sharpen your knives a couple of times per year, depending on usage, and use the steel often.

A razor-sharp knife may seem scary, but you're actually more likely to have an accident and cut yourself with a dull blade.

Cushion the blow

Always use a cutting board - but for heaven's sake, not a glass cutting board. They may look pretty, but they dull knives quickly, and the blade is more apt to slide or bounce off glass than wood or plastic.

Wood and plastic each have benefits: Plastic cutting boards can go in the dishwasher, but many cooks prefer the feel of slicing, cutting and chopping on wood, which must be cleaned by hand.

Although some fear that wood can harbor bacteria, studies have found that a soapy scrubbing left wood boards as contaminant-free as plastic.

Bamboo cutting boards are the new kitchen darlings, admired for their good looks, dense grain, and the enviro-friendliness of fast-growing bamboo. Like wood, bamboo boards should be washed by hand.

To avoid cross-contamination, buy several thin, flexible cutting mats to put over your main board and use a different one for meat, poultry, vegetables, etc.

Wash by hand

Speaking of cleaning, most higher-end knife manufacturers advise against putting knives in the dishwasher, because harsh detergents can pit the blades and dull synthetic handles; never put wooden-handled knives in the dishwasher.