Knife Skills

Practical Advice for People Who Enjoy Having Fingers

A few months ago, I took a knife skills class at the Culinary Center of Kansas City with my friend Jeff. We went in thinking we might learn a few helpful tips to improve our skills in the kitchen. We left realizing that our previous knowledge of knife handling was mediocre, and we were lucky to have our digits intact.

I was ready to write this blog post immediately after the class. I had big plans of sharing all I’d learned about fancy cuts, like the julienne, chiffonade and brunoise. But then I thought…I wonder how much I’ll actually remember? What will be useful in my day-to-day meal prep? So I decided to wait a few months, practice my skills, and then share the tips that I’ve found really helpful as a home-cooking enthusiast.

So here they are: My top 4 knife-handling tips for the busy home cook. Happy chopping, mincing, dicing and slicing, friends!

Tip 1: Don’t Skimp

If you enjoy cooking, you need a good knife. (And you don’t need a whole block of them.) You really just need one or two high-quality knives that you’re comfortable handling and that give you a clean, reliable cut.

When it comes to good knives, don’t go cheap. A good knife is worth its weight in gold, so do some online research, go to a store where you can handle several different types of knives and find the right one for you. After my knife-skills class at the Culinary Center, I purchased a Wustof Classic santoku knife. I absolutely love it and rarely use anything else.

Once you find the right knife for you, be sure to keep it sharp. A dull knife is truly dangerous because it takes a lot more force to cut, which can cause you to lose control. Our instructor at the Culinary Center showed us a number of tools you can use in-home to sharpen your knives, and he also recommended Ambrosi Brothers in Kansas City as an excellent resource for knife sharpening.

A Good, Sharp Knife

A Good, Sharp Knife

Tip 2: Get a Grip

Without a doubt, the most important technique I learned at the Culinary Center was how to properly grip a knife. Turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong for decades. (Again, it’s a wonder I have fingers!)

I learned that the correct way to hold a large knife (chef, santoku, etc.) is with your pointer finger on the right side of the blade and your thumb on the left, positioned at the heel of the knife. You should grip the blade firmly between these two fingers, with your remaining fingers wrapped around the handle. This grip gives you control over the knife. It can’t easily twist because you have equal pressure on both sides. If you grip only the handle or stretch your pointer finger across the spine of the knife (as I used to do), you have much less control.

And speaking of control (have you picked up on a theme yet?), you also want to have a firm grip on the food you’re cutting. This is called the “bear claw” and it protects your fingertips from the blade of the knife. I found this grip extremely awkward at first, but with a little practice I’m now sold on it. This video from Epicurious does a great job of demonstrating the bear claw grip, as well as the knife grip I described above.

Proper knife grip

Proper knife grip

bear claw

bear claw

Tip 3: Square It Up

One further tip to gain control of the food you’re cutting is to turn it into a geometric object. Unfortunately, so many fruits and veggies are round! (This seems like a design flaw, right?) The trick is to cut one side flat so the item sits firmly on your cutting board and can’t get away from you. If you’re dealing with something large, like a zucchini or carrot, first cut it into a few smaller, more manageable pieces. Then cut a flat side, lay the item firmly on the cutting board and make your additional cuts from there. You can also square off all sides of the fruit or veggie if you’re chopping or dicing. This makes it easier (and safer) to get the uniform cuts you want.

Flat side down

Flat side down

Tip 4: Chillax

OK, final tip. And this is an important one! If at any point you feel uncomfortable working with a knife, put it down and step away for a few moments. Serious accidents can happen if you’re trying to rush through your prep work and don’t have control of the knife or food item.

Say you’re trying to chop up a big watermelon or a sweet potato that’s hard as a rock, and it’s just not going well. Pause, relax, take a few deep breaths, and think through your approach. Is the item too big for you to grasp firmly? Then get someone to help you until you can cut the item into smaller, more manageable pieces. Are you forgetting your proper grip? Then take a moment to reset your hands, and begin again.

The keys to knife safety are proper technique, a nice sharp knife, and a clear, relaxed mind. Oh, and practice, practice, practice! If you’ve been using your knives “incorrectly” as I had been doing for years, it will take some time to get comfortable with new techniques. But the effort is worth it.

Learn More

For those of you who live in the Kansas City area, I highly recommend the knife skills class at the Culinary Center. The class is led by a professional chef who will analyze your technique and give you very helpful feedback. You can find their complete class schedule online.

If you’d prefer to learn from the University of YouTube, I really like this Epicurious Essentials video series on knife skills and various types of cuts.

— Sarah