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Experts agree that a good set of knives is an essential tool for the kitchen. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you should buy knives as a set. In fact, many experts say that kitchen knife sets are a poor value because they often include pieces that aren't useful. Instead, experts say, it's best to invest money in a few good knives that you will actually use on a regular basis.

Your first purchase, most sources agree, should be a good 8-inch chef's knife. This piece will typically cost upwards of $100, but experts say it can handle most kitchen tasks all by itself. For their go-to knife, some cooks prefer to use a santoku knife -- which has a shorter, thinner blade and a straighter edge. However, most reviewers consider the traditional chef's knife more versatile.

According to experts, one or two flexible paring knives are a good addition to your collection for coring or peeling veggies. Typical blade lengths range from 2.5 to 4 inches, but you can opt for a slightly longer blade -- around 4.5 inches -- useful for tasks like slicing fruit and cheese. Experts say the third knife in your collection should be a serrated knife, but they disagree about which kind. Some say a 9- to 11-inch bread knife is most useful, while others prefer a 4- to 6-inch utility knife for slicing soft foods like tomatoes.

The ideal kitchen knife will have a sharp blade that holds its edge well, good balance, a comfortable handle and durable construction. There are two important components on a knife. The tang is the metal that extends through the handle of the knife, while the bolster is the thick neck of metal between the tang and the blade. This helps protect your fingers from the edge and gives the knife added weight, helping balance the handle. To find knives that meet these criteria, we analyzed professional test results from publications such as Cook's Illustrated, Consumer Reports and Australia's Choice magazines. We also consulted user-review sites such as Amazon.com and Epinions.com, which offer useful information about how knives hold up in home kitchens over the long term.

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