If something is easy we’re all more likely to do it. For a lot of us, though, eating healthy, home cooked meals isn’t so easy. After finally finding a recipe to use having to plug away cutting onions and mincing garlic can take forever. Luckily, when we develop proper knife skills, the job of prepping ingredients becomes much faster and more enjoyable. Rather than reaching for the take out menus, a little time invested learning to use a kitchen knife properly helps make it possible to cook those healthful meals instead. Learning how to use a knife safely and masterfully is a skill all potential cooks should be proficient in, as all sorts of cooking activities will most likely involve cutting, slicing or dicing at one point!
Parts of a knife
To learn how to use something we have to know what it is and what its parts are. Everyone knows what a chef knife is: a tool for cutting food. This simple tool does have a few different parts that make the whole. Knowing what each one is and how it functions goes a long way in improving knife skills. With this knowledge we can be sure which part of a knife is useful for the task at hand.
Broadly speaking, a knife has two parts: the blade and the handle. Each of these can be further broken down. By examining each part we can tell if a knife is well made from quality materials and if it has the proper design for the cutting it will be used for.
When viewed from above the knife has three components. There is the tang, the metal piece running down the middle from the blade, and the scales. The scales are the part that is gripped by our fingers when we cut. Knife handles also have a butt, the end, when viewed from the side, and rivets that hold the scales to the tang.
A knife that is well balanced will have a good weight in the handle. The butt may be blunt and heavy or more of a smooth line with the handle. This doesn’t really impact the usefulness of the knife. We’re more concerned with finding a handle that fits well in the palm and that feels balanced against the weight of the blade. A solid tang that is made from the same piece of steel that makes the blade and that runs the length of the handle is going to be a better quality knife.
So, of course, the blade cuts. Is there much else to say? Yes, actually. Which part of the blade we use for different cuts matters.
The blade has the bolster, spine, edge, belly, tip, and point. The bolster is the section right after the handle. This is where the blade drops down and flares inward to narrow the blade. It adds weight and balance. The spine is merely the top line of the blade. The edge is where the majority of cuts will be made. If the knife is serrated it will have a jagged edge rather than a smooth one. The belly is the part that begins to round upwards to bring the blade to a point. Finally, the tip of the knife is that last inch or so, and the point is the sharpest, smallest part of the tip.
Types of kitchen knives
There are several styles of kitchen knives available, and their use really depends on the chef’s preferences and the task being done. Cookware Stuffs has already broken down the types of kitchen knives and the best use for each type. Here, let it suffice to say that it is important to choose the right kind of knife to do the job as safely and easily as possible. A paring knife is great for peeling apples, but using it to chop several bunches of cilantro would be much too time intensive and difficult. Even choosing between a conventional chef’s knife and a Santoku knife can make a big difference in how efficiently a job is done. A Santoku knife is very effective when cutting meat due to its sharp, straight edge, but less handy for julienning basil.
Knife block sets are a really convenient and cost effective way to get all the types of knives needed for common kitchens. Most will include steak knives, paring knives, chef’s knives, bread knives, utility knives, even a knife sharpener. All these knives are corralled nicely in the knife block, where it’s easy to see and select the right knife for the job.
How to use your hands on a knife properly
To properly hold and guide a chef knife, we hold the handle in the last three fingers. If you balance it on your palm this way you’ll notice that your thumb and pointer finger are free. These two actually grip the knife’s blade after the bolster. If held too far back on the handle the thumb and pointer finger will not be able to grip on the blade and there will be less control when chopping.
So, we hold our knives firmly, but loosely. Too tight and your hand will become sore, especially when there are several ingredients to prep. Now, to help the chopping hand we have to use our other hand, called the guide hand, to move the food that is being cut. It sounds more complicated than it is. The University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources has an great, detailed guide on this, too.
There are a few holds for cutting, and which one to use is decided based on the shape of what we’re cutting. So, if we have a round tomato and need to make the first cut, using our guide hand we make a high tunnel out of our palm, holding onto the produce with our thumb and finger tips of our guide hand. Holding the tomato steady, we can slice it in half by bringing the knife under the tunnel made by out guide hand without it wobbling around and risking the knife sliding off the skin of the tomato. This grip is very steady and often is used to make the first cut on a wobbly ingredient.
Once we make a flat edge on the tomato it can be flipped down onto the cutting board so that it can be cut more easily. Now that our ingredient is stable we will change our grip. It’s time to use the claw.
To create the claw grip we press the tips of our fingers into the surface of the food we’re cutting, with the thumb on the end of it, where it can push the ingredient forward. With our fingers in place we now rock our knuckles forward so that the finger tips are protected under the hand. This will protect them from accidentally getting nicked, or worse, with the knife while we chop. When the second knuckles make a straight vertical they are properly lined up to protect the finger tips and guide the knife blade. The side of the blade will brush on the knuckles as it moves up and down, keeping it steady and our slices straight.
How to Cut Using a Knife
Down to the essence of what a knife is, a cutting tool, we’ll learn the basic cuts that can be used in every situation in the kitchen. Using the right grip and knife to protect our safety, we can now begin to cut. The main cuts used are slicing, dicing, mincing, and julienning. Since slicing is self-explanatory – we use the knife to create even cuts of food, we’ll go over the more difficult ones below.
For a typical dice we begin by creating slices. In the tomato scenario this is accomplished by bringing our knife all the way up, allowing the side of the blade to rest along the vertical side of the knuckles of our guiding hand, and cutting through the tomato using the edge of the blade. Remember, this is right in front of our thumb and fore finger. Using the thumb of the guiding hand, we push the tomato forwards an equal distance to the thickness of the first slice. Making as many cuts as necessary, we will continue to use this process until the entire tomato has been cut into uniform slices.
The next step in dicing the tomato is to create “planks”. Planks are long, rectangular strips of food. We can make planks quickly by stacking a few of our tomato slices into a tidy pile. Using our guiding hand again, and at the same width of the slices, we’ll cut along the pile of tomato slices. When this has been done properly we’ll have several tomato strips that are an equal width and height. Just one more step and we’ll have a pile of beautifully even diced tomatoes.
To complete the dice, we take the same pile of tomatoes that we created planks from, and rotate it 90 degrees. This makes it so that our blade is now perpendicular to the last cuts we made. Following the same procedure, we chop along the pile, keeping the distance between cuts the same as the first two times. Voila. Diced tomatoes with even dimensions.
Fresh garlic is such a delicious addition to recipes, but can be intimidating to use because of the perceived amount of work to mince it. Mincing is the same process, generally speaking, as dicing, but the finished dimensions of the produce are 1/8″ cubed, or less. This can take more fine knife skills and the tip and the belly of the knife becomes very handy rather than the edge.
A julienne is a very thinly cut strip, sometimes called matchsticks. This cut is very commonly used for foods that need to cook quickly, like in a stir fry, or for salads.
To julienne a carrot, we’ll cut thin slices first, then turn them perpendicular to our blade. Working carefully, we want to pump the handle up and down without lifting the tip of the blade off of the surface. This will save use a lot of effort and keep our cuts more even. Now, we have to move our carrot slices forward, but barely, so that the matchsticks we make are about 1/8″ width and height.
Occasionally a recipe may say to julienne or chiffonade herbs. Many people use these terms interchangeably. No problem. Technically they mean something slightly different, however. A chiffonade is a pile of herbs sliced thinly to make what are referred to as rags. A julienne, was we know, makes produce matchsticks.
To chiffonade herbs we’ll take a few herb leaves and pile them up, rolling them into a little herb log. Resting the knife tip on the board again, we can quickly chop along the log. The end product is the chiffonade.
Maintaining a Kitchen Knife
The adage, “a dull knife is a dangerous knife,” is still a wise one to heed. Dull knives slip on the surface of what we’re trying to cut and if our fingers are in the way it can be disastrous. Tendon and nerve damage are very easily inflicted by bad knife cuts. The best safety comes from knowing how to use and take care of a knife.
If dull knives are dangerous, it behooves us to know how to keep them sharp. There are several styles of knife sharpeners, but they all have the same basic function: to keep the edge of the blade at the right bevel that allows it to cut easily.
The edge actually has an angle to it. Either one side of the blade bevels to the other and makes the cutting edge where they meet, or the blade has a double bevel, meaning the angles meet in the middle. By running a blade through a knife sharpener the angle where the bevels meet is made sharp and clean again. Over time it becomes dull from knocking into the chopping board during cutting. Little bits of the steel are actually lost at times, so the knife sharpener is said to, “put an edge on the knife.” Truly, we’re recreating the edge of a very dull and abused blade when we finally sharpen it.
Knives don’t only have to be sharpened, they need to be cleaned. Made mostly out of stainless steel, they don’t need much from us. Hand washing with warm, soapy water is the best way to make sure any food particles are removed from the blade. This is especially true after cutting raw meat. We want to be sure that all traces of the meat are gone before using the same blade to slice cucumbers for a salad. Hand drying will also help make sure we return the knives to the knife block where they are protected from damage when not in use.
Be careful: Do’s and don’ts of Using a Knife
Do keep in mind that kitchen knives at the end of the day are still knives, and can be dangerous if not used in a correct manner. Please do not let children have access to one, and always hold the knife in the correct manner as taught here. One slip of your hand, and you might be in for a painful time, so please beware while preparing food. Bon Appétit!