1) a chef knife (or santoku or comparable—see my article Best Chef Knives for more tips)
2) a paring knife
3) a bread knife (or serrated/comparable).
The concept of this core threesome has been around for awhile—but, nonetheless, it’s good to be reminded of it for a couple of solid reasons:
1) If you’re in shopping mode, but on a budget and discouraged by the cost of the typical kitchen knife set—knowing you can accomplish most of your cooking needs with just these three can be a huge relief. It can also allow you to buy higher-quality knives by letting you concentrate your spending on just three instead of, say, six. (And, to be honest, the bread knife doesn’t really count. You can pennypinch on that one.)
2) If you already own a number of kitchen knives and you’re trying to keep them in tip-top shape and you’re feeling burdened with the thought of sharpening and honing them all. The short answer is you don’t have to. Try: a) mainly using only a chosen few and then rotating these out to be sharpened while you work the next batch. Or b) focusing your honing and sharpening on only a few key knives and leaving the others on the back burner.
Remembering that most of your kitchen work can be done with a core three is a liberating feeling. It can free you up to spend your money on quality, not quantity; and help you better maintain the knives you already own and use most. Because there’s no point in owning a battery of kitchen knives, if none of them are really sharp.