Regardless of your skill level with cooking, there are few tools more versatile and important in the kitchen than your kitchen knife. That said, just having a knife isn’t always enough. While most people can make do with a knife in some way or another, improving your skills with the kitchen knife can entirely transform your cooking experience for the better.
While not the foremost exciting part of working with knives, properly maintaining your knives will ensure that your blades continue to perform in the most efficient way possible.
Sharp knives can make the difference between a decent home-cooked meal and a culinary event. Using a dull knife not only decreases the efficiency of the tool, it can also be incredibly dangerous and lead to nicks and cuts for the user. Keeping your knives sharp will help you get the most out of your blades.
Depending on your preference, maintain the edge of your blade with a knife sharpener or honing steel. While these terms are often used interchangeably, the two are entirely different methods of keeping a sharp edge on your blade.
Knife sharpeners work by shaving the edge of your knife to create the angle ideal for slicing. Most sharpeners should be used on a flat surface and will have one slot or more that you then pull your knife through backward. After a few drags in line with the curve of your blade, test the knife by trying to slice through a sheet of paper. If the edge catches or tears the paper, you haven’t yet reached the desired sharpness.
Alternatively, you can use a honing steel, often improperly referred to as a sharpening steel. Rather than shaving the edge of your blade to a point, these thin metal rods work by pushing the edge into place. Draw the blade across the abrasive rod at the desired angle repeatedly until you have the desired edge. As with using a sharpener, you can best test your blade by trying to slice through a sheet of paper.
When washing and storing your kitchen knives, the most important thing to keep in mind is avoiding nicks and chips.
Tossing your knife into the sink and leaving it to bump and scrape against your other dishes can be detrimental to the edge, and leave you with a chipped, dull knife. Try washing your knives immediately after use and storing them. If you do decide to run them through the dishwasher, ensure that it is placed inside securely, where it won’t shake and bump into other dishes.
Likewise, try storing your knives in a block rather than a drawer. This will keep all of your knives in place and prevent them from shifting around and accumulating damage. If you don’t have the counter space or very many knives, you should consider a magnetic strip that can be hung up on the wall for easy storage and retrieval.
One basic knife skill often overlooked by home cooks is the proper method of holding a chef’s knife. While the average cook simply grips around the handle and goes to work, this is far from the most efficient way to hold your kitchen knives. For more control over your knives, you want to use your palm to grip the handle, using your thumb and index finger to grip the base of the knife itself.
This may seem like a matter of personal preference, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Holding your knife properly will give you better control over the blade, as well as make it easier to use your arm’s strength rather than placing the strain on your wrist.
Aside from your grip on the knife itself, also be careful to watch your other hand. Also referred to as the helping hand, your less dominant hand will most likely be holding your meats and produce in place to make sure that you get steady and even cuts.
Try to keep your fingers curled nearly to a fist and cut alongside your knuckles. This position will make it less likely for you to cut your knuckles, but you must be careful. As you cut, move your helping hand back in equal-length increments, this will ensure that your cuts are more consistent.
Once you know how to properly maintain and handle your kitchen knives, you can get to work mastering some of the different basic knife techniques for using them. Having these different cutting methods down is the number one way to show off your knife skills as you develop them.
The method that takes the least control and is most often used, by home cooks especially, is chopping. Less pretty than some techniques but incredibly efficient, chopping is the easiest way to break down larger quantities of meats and produce.
It is still important to try and keep your cuts relatively consistent so that all of the food cooks more evenly, but chopping doesn’t have to be nearly as neat as some methods.
Using your helping hand and maintaining the near-fist or “claw” grip, hold your food flat against the cutting surface of your choice and chop away. The amount that you need to chop depends on how fine you want the food to be. For example, when making a soup or stock, you may want to have larger chunks of carrots or celery while still chopping the garlic into a fine mince.
Dicing your food is not much more difficult than chopping, but does lead to more consistently sized pieces as you go. When you start out, dicing may seem about the same to you as chopping, but you will see your improvement rapidly as you continue to work on your knife skills.
Dicing can be a little different depending on what you are working with. If you are preparing an onion, the easiest method for dicing is to peel and then cut the onion in half vertically. Working from the top (opposite the root), cut even vertical lines from the top to about half an inch from the base. Then work horizontally, evenly cutting those vertical lines until you have consistent-sized pieces of onion.
When working with other vegetables such as a potato, you will want to cut the rounded sides off of a cut and peeled potato. Once you are left with a more rectangular-shaped tuber, you can easily dice it into even cubes of whatever size you prefer.
Another basic knife skill to acquire is slicing. Proper slicing techniques can often come down to what you are trying to cut. Depending on the texture and structure of the food, you may need to use different styles of knives, which will be delved into deeper below.
When working with softer foods such as bread or tomatoes, you may opt for a serrated knife. These knives have blades that look more wavy and make it easy to cut into foods by pulling back and forth like you would with a saw. This prevents you from needing to add pressure which could crush your food rather than properly slicing it.
When working with firmer fruits and vegetables, a knife with a straighter blade will be ideal. For example, when slicing a cucumber, a chef’s knife or other styles of knife with a straight or curved blade would be much more useful than a serrated edge. With these firmer blades, you can apply pressure and push through, leaving you with a cleaner and crisper slice.
There are many other methods for cutting and breaking down food, but the chop, dice, and slice will leave you with a great base to grow from.
As mentioned above, using the proper style of knife can make the difference for you in the kitchen. If your budget is limited or you do not spend much of your time cooking, you may not need all of the particular varieties. While having specific and varied knives on hand can keep things easier for you, the average home cook can make do with a chef’s knife and one serrated knife.
If you do want to go beyond the bare minimum, your next best choice would be a pairing knife. This smaller blade is great for coring, peeling, and other tasks that a chef’s knife might be too bulky to handle safely. Other great tools to have on hand would be filleting and carving knives, which are far more efficient and neatly breaking down meat and fish than a chef’s knife may turn out to be.
Most likely, you will grow your knife collection as time goes on and your kitchen skills improve. Using knives that are designed for the task at hand will definitely improve your efficiency in the kitchen.
While it may go without saying, the most important step to improving your kitchen knife skills is practicing. When you start out, you may feel like you are lumbering and hacking away at food without rhyme or reason, but in time this will change. Stay focused whenever you are using your knife, safety aside, this is what will cement your skills in your mind and your muscle memory.
As long as you work at it consistently, even spending as little time as a couple nights a week in the kitchen, you will see improvement quickly, and will quickly find yourself comfortable with your blades.