Have you ever watched cooking shows and marveled at how the cooks were handling their knives? Well, as a professional chef, I can tell you without a doubt that learning proper knife skills takes a sharp knife, a good cutting board, and lots of practice. I’m going to take you through Knife Skills 101 and teach you the basics you need to know about knives and some common techniques that will make you more confident with a blade. The goal is to ensure your ingredients are an even size so that everything cooks evenly and is ready at the same time.
THE THREE MUST-HAVE KNIVES YOU NEED IN YOUR KITCHEN
You may have a large knife block with different kinds of knives but you probably don’t know how to use half of them. However, you may be surprised to learn that you really only need three knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife. Any other knife makes cooking easier and more enjoyable, but with these three, you can perform virtually any task in the kitchen.
The chef’s knife: This is the workhorse of the kitchen and your go-to knife for most prep work. It has a broad tapering blade, a sharp tip, and a chunky handle. A chef’s knife can handle small jobs like mincing garlic or big ones like breaking down squash. An 8-inch blade is perfect for most home cooks.
The paring knife: This looks like a miniature chef’s knife and has a blade ranging from two to four inches long. Also called a utility knife, this small knife is perfect for tasks that require precision like slicing a plum, peeling an apple, or cutting up bite-sized chunks of chicken for little ones. In addition, it is perfect for teaching children basic knife skills as they allow little hands to have more control.
The serrated knife: This knife is most useful for foods that have one texture on the outside and a different one on the inside, like hard-crusted bread. A 10-inch blade is standard and is useful for sawing through ingredients with firm rinds like butternut squash, lemons, watermelon, or pineapples. The saw-toothed edge makes neat slices of soft-skinned ingredients like tomatoes.
HOW TO HOLD A KNIFE LIKE A CHEF
The first step to perfecting knife skills is learning how to hold a knife.
Most people use the handle grip, where all the fingers are tucked behind the bolster and are on the handle. While it is comfortable, it only offers limited control when doing precision knife work.
The blade grip is the preferred grip by most professional cooks. Your thumb and forefinger should rest in front of the bolster and pinch the blade while the rest of your fingers wrap around the handle. It can take some getting used to but it offers better control of the knife. In addition, it’s the most efficient way to use the weight of the knife, the sharpness of its blade, and the strength of your arms, which makes for the easiest cutting.
You also need to learn how to hold down and/or guide the ingredients without endangering your fingertips. You want your fingers out of the way as the blade moves evenly through the food.
The best way to do this is to use what is known as the “bear claw.” Curl your fingers slightly inwards into a claw formation. Your fingertips should be pointing down toward the cutting board. Your knuckles, not fingertips, should face the blade of the knife as it moves along. As a result, you can safely slice food without cutting your fingers. It may feel uncomfortable to hold food this way at first, but it’s safer and worth practicing until it gets easier and comes naturally.
KNIFE SKILLS TO KNOW
Learning how to cut ingredients properly can make the difference between viewing kitchen work as a chore and a joy. In fact, it can mean the difference between unevenly cooked dishes and poor flavor development, and excellent meals. Here are five basic cuts that you will come across in most recipes.
Used for: Making uniform cuts into large ingredients to make slices of even thickness.
Helpful videos to watch: how to slice an apple
How to do it: Create a flat, stable surface for your food to rest on by slicing it in half or slicing off a thin section of its face. Hold the food steady using the bear claw grip. Next, hold the tip of the blade against the cutting board with the knife angled upwards, the flat side resting against your knuckles. With the tip of the blade in constant contact with the cutting board, pull the knife backward slightly until the blade slices into the food. Continue by pressing downwards and forwards, using the full length of the blade to slice through your food.
Used for: Cutting herbs and other ingredients that don’t require a clean, even slice or dice. This cut is interchangeable with the slice; it’s just a matter of style and taste.
How to do it: Create a flat, stable surface for your food to rest on by slicing it in half or slicing off a thin section of its face. Hold the food steady with the bear claw grip. Next, hold the flat side of your knife blade against your knuckles, with the entire knife lifted above the cutting board. Press downward in a smooth, even stroke, shifting the knife forward slightly as you go. Lift the blade back up and repeat.
Used for: Turning ingredients into small, neat, even-sized cubes that cook uniformly.
How to do it: In case your ingredient doesn’t lie flat against the surface, slice it in half before dicing so that each half sits flat against the cutting board. Make thin slices in one direction before rotating the ingredient and slicing in the opposite direction, resulting in somewhat square-shaped pieces. To alter the size of your dice, simply make thinner slices in either direction that align with the size you’re aiming for. About ½-inch is typical for a medium dice while a large dice is closer to ¾-inch. In the same manner, a small dice (called a macedoine) is closer to ¼-inch, while an even smaller dice (known as a brunoise) is more of an ⅛-inch.
Used for: Chopping ingredients to make them as small as possible.
Helpful videos to watch: how to mince garlic
How to do it: Roughly chop your ingredients using the slice or the chop, then gather it into a small pile. Place the tip of your knife on one side of the pile and hold it steady with your free hand. Rock the knife up and down, re-gathering the ingredients occasionally, until they are as finely minced as you'd like them.
Used for: Slicing ingredients into thin, matchstick-like pieces that are uniform in size. It ensures an even cutting size, which is essential to ensuring that vegetables marinate or cook quickly at the same rate.
Helpful videos to watch: how to julienne carrots
How to do it: Cut your ingredient crosswise into 2½ to 3-inch lengths. Next, thinly slice lengthwise into uniform 1/16 - to ⅛-inch thick slabs. Stack a few slabs at a time and cut lengthwise into 1/16- to ⅛-inch-thick strips (the same width as the slabs).
HOW TO SHARPEN A KNIFE
Now that you’ve learned the basic knife skills, it’s important to make sure your tools are always ready. There’s nothing more frustrating than a dull knife. Not only does it make cutting harder, but it’s also dangerous. A dull blade requires more pressure to cut into ingredients, and can easily slip and cut into your finger.
While there are many ways to sharpen a knife, I prefer to use a whetstone. Not only will it give you the best edge, but it also removes the least amount of material. Using a whetstone may take a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to keep knives razor-sharp while saving time and money.
Get a double-sided whetstone, with a coarse grit on one side and a fine grit on the other side. The smaller the number, the coarser the stone.
STEP 1: WET THE STONE
Submerge the whetstone in water before using it. The longer you let it soak, the better off you’ll be. Make sure to periodically wet the stone during the sharpening process.
STEP 2: START WITH THE COARSE GRIT
Place the whetstone on a damp paper towel or a silicone shelf liner so that it doesn’t slip as you sharpen your knives.
Get the edge of the blade wet and then grasp the knife handle with your dominant hand. Hold the knife at a slight angle from the whetstone. Place 4 fingers on the blade and use them to create pressure on the knife’s edge as you push it away from your body, moving from corner to corner.
Repeat the motion for around 5 minutes. If the whetstone gets dry, moisten it again with some drops of water.
Flip the knife. Position the heel of the blade towards the upper corner of the whetstone. Place your fingers on the blade to apply pressure and while maintaining the same angle as before, pull the knife back towards your body. Repeat the motion for another 5 minutes, wetting the stone if necessary.
STEP 3: SWITCH TO THE FINE GRIT
Flip the whetstone to the fine grit side and wet it if necessary.
Next, wet the blade of the knife.
Repeat the whole process again: work down one side of the blade, flip it, and work down the other side of the blade.
STEP 4: HOW TO TEST THE SHARPNESS OF YOUR KNIFE
To tell if your knife is truly sharp, you’re going to do the paper test.
Grab a piece of paper, hold it between your fingers, and slide the knife downward.
If it’s sharp, it will cleanly and easily slice the paper with a single stroke. If the knife is still dull, the cut will be ragged.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What are the 4 basic knife skills?
- Dicing - This is a cut that creates cube-shapes. There is a small dice (¼-inch), medium dice (½-inch), and large dice (¾ inch). In this post I show you how to dice a mango. And this video shows you how to dice an onion.
- Mincing - A fine, non-uniform cut that's used for fresh herbs and garlic
- Julienne - This cut is nicknamed “shoestring.” Julienne looks like a thin matchstick. It's used for vegetables like turnips and radishes. The dimensions are ¼ inch by ¼ inch and 2 to 2.5 inches long. A fine Julienne cut is even smaller: ⅛ inch by ⅛ inch and the same length, 2 to 2.5 inches long
- Chiffonade - This cut is used for leaves. Think basil! Just roll up your leaf into a tight tube like a cigar. Then cut across the rolled up leaf to create long strips.
Besides the above 4 basic knife skills, these 4 basic knife cutting skills below will help with any sort of cooking you will encounter in recipes.
- Slice: for slicing large vegetables and meats, or rough-slicing herbs
- Chop: for precision cutting of vegetables and herbs
- Back-slice: for creating fine slices of small, delicate items such as herbs with minimal crushing
- Rock-chop: for finely mincing fresh herbs or aromatics.
Why is it called julienne?
A julienne cut (aka: matchstick cut) is where food is sliced into even, thin strips. The word comes from a French soup of the same name (potage julienne), which is prepared with thin strips of vegetables.
What is a julienne cutter?
A julienne cutter is a handheld kitchen tool that helps you to easily cut vegetables into thin, even strips. It works well on a variety of fruits and vegetables. I’m partial to the Sunkuka stainless steel julienne cutter that comes with a handy cleaning brush.
HOW TO USE THESE KNIFE SKILLS IN RECIPES
- Shred some nappa cabbage for my Waldorf Salad recipe on Youtube.
- Chop up some apples and any fruits you like to make a tasty fruit salsa. Pair it with crispy cinnamon pita chips for the perfect picnic dish.
- Peel and slice a kabocha squash for roasted squash that is smooth and creamy, with a sweet, nutty, caramelized flavor.