Q: I am looking to put together a quality cutlery set. Can you tell me which knives are essential to a well-stocked kitchen?
-- Paula Tomak, Cave Creek, Arizona
There are five knives that make up the basis of a good knife set, (although many chefs, amateur and professional, extend their collections well beyond these few): An 8- or 10-inch chef's knife, a paring knife, a 6- or 8-inch boning knife, a 10-inch slicer, and an 8- or 9-inch serrated bread knife. Choose good-quality forged steel knives that feel comfortable in your hand, are well-balanced, and have a tang -- the part of the knife covered by the handle -- that extends all the way down the length of the handle; this will add strength and balance.
Other knives Martha has added to her collection include a long knife for smoked salmon, a rounded shaping knife, and several shorter, heavier chef's knives for carving.
To keep cutlery in top condition, you need to sharpen them regularly. There are two excellent tools for this purpose: the sharpening steel and the sharpening stone. A sharpening steel is a long, rounded filelike tool with a knife handle. To use it, simply stroke the knife blade over the steel in one direction, bringing it along the steel in an arc that follows the curved edge of the blade, repeating several times on each side. To test the sharpness of the blade, try cutting a tomato: If the blade glides easily through the flesh, it is sharp enough. A sharpening stone is a rectangular piece of stone that is used wet -- saturated with either water or oil. Hold your knife at a slight angle against the surface of the stone, and rub it in a circular motion, repeating on each side. Clean the blade carefully after sharpening, and try the "tomato test" to ensure sharpness.