Knife Skills 101
Most cooks will agree that your knife is the most important tool in the kitchen. With just a few tips and practice, you can become more comfortable with using knives to prepare foods for healthy and delicious recipes. Here are some basics:
What kind of knife should I have?
There are many types of knives but if you can only afford one, a chef’s knife (usually 8-inch or 10-inch) is a good bet because it can be used for many different cutting jobs. A good second knife to have is a paring knife, which is much smaller and good for cutting or peeling smaller, delicate foods.
It might sound strange but it’s safer to have a very sharp knife in the kitchen because a sharp knife will cut through food smoothly needing less pressure from your hand compared to a dull knife. There are inexpensive knife sharpeners available and some kitchen stores will do promotions for free knife sharpening throughout the year.
What’s the best way to hold a chef’s knife?
The Culinary Institute of America suggests four ways of handling knives:
- Grip the handle with all four fingers and hold the thumb gently but firmly against the blade’s spine.
- Grip the handle with all four fingers and hold the thumb gently but firmly against the side of the blade.
- Grip the handle with three fingers, rest the index finger flat against the blade on one side, and hold the thumb on the opposite side to give additional stability and control.
- Grip the handle overhand, with the knife held vertically – this grip is used with a boning knife for meat fabrication tasks.
What’s the difference between chopping and dicing?
Recipes usually tell you what shape you should cut an ingredient.
Here are the more common cutting terms:
- Chop – This is a chunky type of cut. If a recipe says “coarsely chop”, your pieces should be bigger.
- Dice – A smaller cut than “chop” (usually less than ½-inch cubes), food should be the size of playing dice. Sometimes this is called “finely chopped.” Diced foods cook faster than chopped foods.
- Mince – A very small cut, food is cut into very tiny pieces. Foods that are often minced include garlic, onions and fresh ginger.
- Julienne – A long, thin cut; your pieces should look like long match sticks. This cut is often used on vegetables that you can eat raw like carrots or leafy herbs like basil.
How do I use and store a knife safely?
Make sure your hands are dry before using a knife so it won’t slip in your hand. Set a towel between the cutting board and the counter top to prevent the board from slipping. Use the right knife for the job: a paring knife for peeling and coring, a chef knife for chopping and slicing.
Chop carefully. Curl your fingers under on the hand holding the food to avoid cuts. This takes practice but will become second nature. Move your hand along as the knife cuts the food. Don’t let yourself get distracted while using a knife. If you’re handling a knife and you drop it, step back and let it fall, don't try to catch it.
Never put a knife in a sink full of water. You might forget it’s in there and cut yourself when you reach into the sink – or someone who doesn’t know the knife is there could. Don't put knives in the dishwater, because they may not be visible to the person unloading the dishwasher. Wash knives separately by hand, and dry completely before storing.
Don't leave knives loose in a drawer unless they’re in a sheath. Banging around in a drawer can ruin the edges on your knives, and can be dangerous if someone reaches into the drawer. Store knives in a knife block or on a magnetic rack.
Watch our Knife Skills video.
Last reviewed 1/2015