How–To: Knife Skills

March 1, 2021
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Few things are as important to a cook as knowing how to slice, dice, and chop. I’m breaking down the basics that you need before you ever cut an ingredient, and I’m sharing my best tips to getting faster, better, and more confident with a sharp blade. Let’s take a look at knife skills!

Why Knife Skills are Essential

One of the first steps you take in almost any recipe is cutting something. It’s one of those essential kitchen skills that can either speed up or slow down the cooking process for home cooks. It’s one of those things that we ALL do a lot of in the kitchen, but I want to make sure you feel confident when you have a chef’s knife in your hand.

Being able to use a knife efficiently and cut ingredients that are uniform in size and shape is one of the marks of a great home cook. Honestly the best thing you can do to refine this skill is practice. But before you can practice, I want to break down the basics for you so that you can feel confident that you’re mastering the correct technique.

What Knives do I Actually NEED?

  • Chef’s knife This will be your workhorse in the kitchen and do the bulk of your slicing, dicing and chopping. Honestly, you don’t need much more than this one essential knife, but there are two others that I’d recommend equipping yourself with. 
  • Paring knife This is super useful for doing smaller tasks like breaking down citrus, deveining shrimp, and cutting the stems out of bell peppers, among other things. I recommend this one from Mercer than can be bought on amazon!
  • Serrated knife This knife’s obvious use is for cutting bread, but is also often better than a chef’s knife on delicate vegetable skin, like tomatoes. I really like this one I got on Amazon, also from Mercer!

While I don’t ever think it’s a bad idea to invest in quality when it comes to knives, I would focus more on a chef’s knife feeling really good in your hand and making sure it’s sharp and kept sharp. That will make more of a difference than anything else. This Wusthof is my favorite knife, but mostly just because it’s the knife that feels best in my hand– see my full review here!

Before you even Pick up the Knife

Stabilize the cutting board: and make sure it won’t be moving around. This means that if you place your hand on the board you shouldn’t be able to slide it around. Some cutting boards have non-slip feet or a rubber bottom (this is my favorite), but if yours doesn’t the easiest way to stabilize is to place a damp cloth or paper towel under your board, to keep it from sliding around. 

I’ve also used a cut portion of shelf liner and cut it to fit the size of my board. Never start cutting something without making sure your board won’t move around under your knife. It’s dangerous and will make everything harder.

Use a sharp knife: Once you know your cutting board is stable, you’ll want to make sure your knife is sharp. If you’ve recently bought your knife, it’s sharp enough. If, like most people, you’ve owned it for a few years, and it’s never been sharpened, you should sharpen it. A sharp knife is much safer than a dull knife.. Dull knives are more likely to slip (meaning that you’re more likely to cut yourself)  and require more force to cut through food.  

Ideally you’d take your knives to be sharpened. I used to work at Sur La Table and they would offer the service for free. You could search for a knife sharpening service in your area or consider purchasing a tool like this.

How to Hold a Knife Like a Pro

With a sharp knife and a stable surface, it’s time to pick up that knife! In order to use a knife safely, your grip is really important. The knife should feel completely in control while you’re cutting ingredients. When held correctly, it shouldn’t slip around and it will lead to faster and more accurate slicing and dicing.

Rather than positioning your hand far from the blade, or placing your index finger on the spine, try pinching the blade with your thumb and forefinger and wrap your hand around the handle of the knife.

This makes it easy to decide exactly where to set the blade down on an ingredient. This positioning will give you the most control when breaking down ingredients and will make a HUGE difference when it comes to your speed and confidence in chopping quickly!

How to Hold Your Ingredients

It’s obviously super important to make sure that your fingers are out of the way when you begin cutting, and that the blade is moving evenly through the food. The best way to keep your fingers safe is by using the “claw” keeping the middle of the blade close to your knuckles as a guide, and rocking the blade over the food. This will give you the most control. Your fingers should be curled in, ever so slightly. That way your knuckles will act as a guide for the blade.

This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth practicing, trust me. Before long you won’t even think about it as you get faster and chopping ingredients.

The Real Goal of Knife Skills

Ultimately your goal in mastering basic knife skills should be to cut ingredients that are uniform in size. This will ensure that everything cooks evenly and is done at the same time, and will help avoid having undercooked or overcooked ingredients in a dish. As you begin practicing cutting, start slow and focus on your technique. Speed comes with time and practice, I promise!

Remember to let the knife do the work for you! You should never feel like you’re forcing the knife into an ingredient. Stick to the technique and practice, practice, practice!