Improving Knife Skills: Basics

Time for better knife skills.  Let’s get right down to it! I want you to jump right in without too much introduction/table of contents and yadda yadda. Some tips I have will vary depending on the type of knife you use. These will be based on whether you use a German steel blade or a Japanese steel blade.

Holding the Knife

You’ll be using it for almost everything you do in preparing your food so it might as well be comfortable. Also, you don’t want to cut yourself.

Place the knife in your hand and wrap your bottom three fingers around the handle and up to the base of the blade.

Pinch the blade between your forefinger and thumb. This will stabilize the knife and keep it from rocking. Note that if you hold the knife entirely by the handle, the knife can turn in your palm. We don’t want that.

Here is a site that has a great set of gifs for better knife skills. Check it out for a good visual.

The Balance

When checking to see if the knife has good balance, you want to place the flat side of the blade over your finger just past the handle. The center of balance should be at the point where you pinch the blade with your forefinger and thumb. This will ensure that after cutting all the potatoes and vegetables for Sunday night’s dinner your hand won’t feel as tired.

When the knife is too heavy in the handle or the blade, it will slowly add strain to your wrist and hand.

A Dull Knife is a DANGEROUS Knife!

A much younger version of me once thought that the chef must like showing off how fast he can sharpen his knife for how often he would do it. For one, he wasn’t sharpening the knife but he was honing it. Second, my knife bounced off a tomato skin and cut my knuckle. I should have asked what he was doing, haha. That long metal rod that you see chefs moving the knife up and down quickly is the honing rod. Over time the blade will begin to curve slightly in one direction or the other. The edge of the blade is still sharp, just not straight.

Depending on how often and how hard you use your knife, you should sharpen your knife on a stone once a week or once a month. You should hone your knife before any extended task, between large batches of certain vegetables, always after onions. Onion shells will dull your knife very quickly.

So if you have a German blade, you want to hone at roughly a 22 degree angle. Hold the honing rod pointing towards the floor and place the edge of the blade horizontally to the rod at a 90 degree angle. Now turn the top of the blade towards the handle of the rod half-way to vertical, 45 degrees. Now repeat that for another half turn, 22.5 degrees.

Hold the knife against and close to the top of the rod. The blade starting position should be near the hilt just under where you are pinching it. Keeping the same angle, make a long slice downward while pulling the knife across the rod until the tip of the knife runs across the rod.

Repeat this process 7 times and then switch sides. Now wipe the blade, be careful it’s sharp.

If your knife is a Japanese style of steel, you want to hone at about 17 degrees. Use the same guide for measuring German steel and then turn a little farther to close the gap those extra 5 degrees.

Now let’s cut!

First let’s start with the hand your not using to hold the knife. You should hold the object that is being cut with this hand. First, without touching the object, curl your fingers and thumb so that you are making an “O” shape. Touch your fingernails to the object and steady it with the tip of your thumb. This is your guide hand and the side of the knife should smack up against the tip of your knuckles. This will make sure that the blade edge never cuts your finger and only cuts the object your cutting.

When cutting, don’t just push the knife down and through the object your cutting. There is a good reason your knife is 6″, 8″, or even 10″ long. You want to drag the knife from the hilt to the tip as much as possible. This will make slicing the objects that much easier, keep your blade sharper longer, and make it easier on your cutting hand.

Buying the right knife for you

I personally use Japanese steel. The main difference between the two would be how the steel is formed. German steel blades are forged once and hammered down whereas Japanese steel is many layers of steel hammered one on top of another. Research which ones you think you would prefer.

Once you decide on a type of steel, it is time to pick your blade. Note that you want the knife to feel good in your hand, you’ll be using it for a long time. This is a good reason to spend a little extra on the knife you choose.

My favorites:

Calphalon is an inexpensive alternative to the major companies but is a fine blade. I used a Japanese blade by Calphalon for the first two years as a chef. Later, my loving wife bought me a Shun and I have never touched another knife.  Check out my review of the Shun Classic Chef’s Knife.

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2 thoughts on “Improving Knife Skills: Basics”

  1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cut my self, lucky for me they weren’t professional chef knives or I might be missing a few fingers by now haha. You have some great information here, Keep it up I will definitely be checking back in. One more thing, maybe you could do a lesson on how to properly sharpen a knife, I can never seem to get it right.

    1. Hey Joe,
      I’m glad you liked the info, one of the good things about a professional knife is the strength and sharpness. One thing we always say in the professional cooking world is that a dull knife is a dangerous knife. This also points towards another good point you make and that is that I will definitely be posting on how to properly sharpen a knife.
      Thanks for dropping a line,
      Brett

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