Knife skills are a basic requirement for anyone who wishes to excel in the kitchen. I’ve spent roughly 12,480 hours working in restaurants since I was 16 years old, and having top- notch knife skills is what gave me the ability to compete at the level of the older, more seasoned chefs I worked with. Of course, I had a few wise mentors here and there who helped me along my journey, but the most ruthless and educational teachers that I had were my mistakes. When I first began learning how to use a knife, cuts were worn on my fingers like rings on the fingers of a king, and I was reminded of their abundance with every lemon squeeze and hand- washing.
It took me quite a long time to achieve the level of skill I have now, but it really doesn’t have to take years and loads of pain to become well skilled with a knife. All that you really need to know are a few basic principles to acquire a level of mastery over your knife. Even if you aren’t working professionally in a restaurant, knowing how to properly use a knife will considerably cut down your time in the kitchen, as well as make you a safer and more efficient cook.
Now, remember that you don’t have Chef Ramsey yelling in your face if you’re not the fastest and most incredible cook of all time. So take it easy, and move slow before you move fast. Cutting yourself because you didn’t take the time to let your body absorb the movements will only slow your progress and cause unnecessary pain.
Know Your Knives
The most basic knowledge you need to possess when starting out on your journey to knife mastery is knowing what style of knife is proper for the type of cutting you are going to be doing. There are many different blade styles, as well as many different types of materials that knives are made of, but that’s not what this section is about. We could go on for days about different knife names, blade styles and so on. That’s not what you want to focus on yet. Once you have mastered the ways of cutting, then you can start looking into different metals, styles, and weights of knives that with suit your style. To do so before you have acquired a level of mastery with a knife will only distract you from your learning. First you must focus on acquiring skill, and then once you know how to properly use a knife, you can focus on finding a knife that better suits you.
We are going to divide the different knife styles into three different categories which mirror the ways of cutting that are used for each knife:
- Slicing Knives– These knives are typically long and thin. Slicing knives are commonly used for cutting meats, breads (if the knife is serrated), and occasionally vegetables. Slicing deals with making long, thin cuts. Your knife should move in a circular motion, downwards and towards you as you make the slice, and then back up and away from you to reposition your blade for the next cut.
Chef’s Note: Your blade should not lose contact with your cutting board, nor should your blade scrape across the cutting board to reach its position for the next cut. Scraping your knife against the cutting board will dull your blade over time.
- Dicing/ Chopping Knives- These knives are shorter in length then slicing knives and also tend to have wider blades. The shape of the end of the blade can be either curved or straight. I recommend using a straight edge when chopping and a curved edge when dicing. When chopping, your knife should move straight up and down, with power applied on the downward stroke. When dicing, move your knife in a circular manner as when slicing, but with power applied when the knife moves away from you (down and forward), and moving the knife up and back (towards your body) to position the knife for the next cut.
Chef’s Note: Your blade shouldn’t lose contact with the cutting board when dicing, however, you knife will lose contact with the board when chopping. Make the knife do the work, and avoid using excess muscle force. This will prevent you from crushing the cell walls of the vegetable and releasing the juices (flavor) by using the knife’s natural mechanics instead of brute force.
- The Chef’s Knife- The chef knife is where the other two styles of knives meet in the middle. Although it may be more fitting to use a slicing knife to slice and a chopping knife to chop; you can still use a chef’s knife to do both. It’s for this reason that I recommend using a chef’s knife when practicing your knife skills because it is so versatile. The chef’s knife is typically 8’’ long, and I highly recommend a French style chef’s knife to start off. Here is more information on choosing the best chef’s knife for you.
Starting from the bottom- up, Chopping knife, Slicing knife, and Chef’s knife
How To Hold Your Knife
Although hand positioning and grip may seem mundane, it’s an incredibly important aspect of handling a knife that, if done correctly, will improve your technique and save you unnecessary stress on your body.
- The handle of the knife should be placed diagonally across the palm with the end of the handle from which the blade protrudes stopping under your first knuckle, and the opposite end of the knife handle positioned on the fatty part of the palm across from your first knuckle.
- All fingers should be curled around the handle, including the thumb. Avoid placing the thumb or forefinger on the top edge of the blade. This will prevent you from putting stress on your fingers and force you to use power from your wrist which is stronger and fatigues at a much more gradual rate then the thumb or forefinger. Keeping your fingers around the handle also prevents accidental slips and injuries.
- When chopping and dicing, “choke up” on your knife. Choking up means positioning your index finger and thumb further up the knife until both are holding the actual blade. Be careful when using this technique. Be sure to curl the index finger away from the sharp edge and position the thumb so that it is parallel to the sharp edge to prevent injuries. Choking up on your knife will give your chop more power and leverage.
Hand positioning for cutting
How To Position Your ‘Free’ Hand
Now that you understand how to properly hold a knife, it’s time you learned what to do with the other hand. Your ‘free’ hand is never really free. The free hand will be holding and positioning whatever it may be that you are cutting, and it also works as your guiding hand. I bet you thought your knife hand is the hand that guides the knife, but that would be incorrect. Your knife hand should be focused only on the cut, while your ‘free’ or ‘guiding’ hand directs the path of the blade over whatever you are cutting.
I call the proper positioning of the free hand, the ridge. The ridge is the first set of knuckles on your fingers located near the fingertips. The first digits of your fingers, the tips, should be tucked under the second digits and are used to grip whatever is being cut, as well as to reposition the ridge as you cut away more and more of the thing being cut. ( Let’s call it a vegetable.) The thumb is to be tucked under the hand and is used, along with the first digits, to reposition both the ridge as well as the vegetable you are cutting. The entire free hand should be placed perpendicularly to the blade, with the ridge flat against the blade. The ridge should always be in contact with the knife. This can be intimidating at first, but will become less daunting with repeated practice. So why do we use the ridge? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s because shaving a small part of your knuckles off is better than losing a fingertip.
A common mistake I see with inexperienced knife users is keeping their thumbs or fingertips out and exposed to the blade. DO NOT DO THIS! Exposing the tips of your fingers is incredibly dangerous, and eventually you will get hurt if you continue to practice bad hand positioning.
Finally, the wrist positioning of your free hand is also very important. Typically, there are two different ways to position the wrist and both depend on what you are cutting. We will call these positions the raised wrist and lowered wrist position. The raised wrist is most commonly used. It deals with objects that are mostly flat, like parsley or celery, that won’t move or roll on you. The lowered wrist deals with rounded objects, like jalapenos and onions, that have a good chance of rolling out from under your hand and causing injury. Lowering the wrist keeps object with uneven surfaces from moving unexpectedly when you are cutting.
How To Practice Your Knife Skills
I recommend practicing your cuts on onions, carrots, and potatoes. All of which are inexpensive and have a wide variety of uses for many different dishes, and also can be used to practice many different cuts.
Onion- First cut both ends off of the onion (use lowered wrist position). Place flat end of the onion on the surface of the cutting board and then chop the onion in half. ( You want to make a flat surface whenever possible on whatever you’re cutting to create a safer cutting environment.) Next, place the long flat surface of the onion on your board so that the rounded side of the onion is face up. Thinly slice the onion long- ways (raised wrist) so that each slice is still connected to the onion on the side furthest from you. This will make it easier to chop, do not slice so that each slice falls away from the whole unless what you want to do is to slice the onion. You want to leave a small part still connected to the whole so that it is easier to chop. Then chop perpendicularly to your slices. Half- way through chopping your onion half, flip the quarter that is left so that the rounded edge is facing the knife and continue chopping until it is all diced. Check out this video of me dicing an onion.
Carrot- Thinly slice your carrot diagonally, from bottom to top (lowered wrist). Next, stack your slices on top of each other slice into thin, long strips. This cut is called julienne. From the julienne, you can dice the carrot by chopping the julienned carrot perpendicularly.
Potato- You can get creative with the potato and use it to practice any one of your cuts. However, it is important to create a flat surface on the potato so that you have a safer cutting experience. Cut along the lengthy side of the potato (lowered wrist) to ensure that you have the largest amount of surface area possible to lay your potato on the cutting board. After that, be creative and practice different ways of cutting with different- sized pieces of the potato.
With all of the advice given above, you should have no problem advancing your knife skills. Remember to take your time and don’t be afraid of the knife, but have respect for it all the same. Also, keep your knife sharp! The most dangerous thing in the kitchen is a dull knife. If you don’t know how to sharpen your knife on a stone, check out this article for more information on the best knife sharpener for you.
Also remember to keep your knife as well as the station you are using when cutting clean. A little bit of food left over on your knife can hinder your cuts, or cause injury. Scraps of food should be cleared from the cutting board to prevent accidents as well. An unexpected object in the path of the blade while you are cutting is a definite safety hazard, and it should be avoided by cleaning off the cutting board before you move on the cutting something else. This practice will also prevent cross- contamination and the spread of food- borne illnesses.
Photo of sushi made by the author.
One of the last tips, and also one of the most important tips I can give you, is that to really improve your knife skills you must put in the time and practice. Although doing your research and continuing your education is important, all that research will be for not if your knowledge is not put into practice. Be safe, don’t try to impress anyone (until you’re really good), and happy slicing and dicing!