A couple weeks ago, I posted a video of myself cooking my aunt Masy’s chipteh to my Instagram stories, and I got so many unexpected messages on a totally unrelated subject: my knife skills! Over a hundred readers replied saying that they’ve had a really hard time learning how to properly hold a knife, slice, chop, etc., and even a few food bloggers whose work I admire expressed insecurity about their own knife skills.
This bummed me out, because you absolutely don’t need knife skills to be an amazing cook. You can learn to slice and dice better than anyone else, but if you don’t cook from the heart, those knife skills will only be good for showing off. But that being said, it is really nice to be able to safely and efficiently prep a ton of ingredients. It cuts down on time and it makes cooking much safer. So if honing your knife skills is something you want to do, I say go for it!
A little background, so you know where I’m coming from: I started cooking when I was a little kid, and then started taking it more seriously when I was in college. When I was twenty, I was determined to learn how to guide the knife properly, but all the videos I watched always just said “guide the knife with your non dominant hand’s knuckles and keep your fingers tucked in,” and didn’t really explain what any of that meant, or how to do that successfully. I tried mimicking the motions I saw on cooking shows, but it felt so weird and unnatural, and they always moved a little too quickly to really break things down into a series of small motions. I pretty much gave up for the rest of my twenties, and prepped ingredients with my own weird, slow, and slightly unsafe chopping technique.
Everything changed when I worked in a restaurant last year. Having to prep tons of veggies every day gave me the opportunity (and the necessity) to really dedicate time to practicing and improving. Practice, indeed, makes perfect. But at the same time, I never went to culinary school or anything, and maybe a culinary school instructor wouldn’t be so impressed (honestly, I have no idea). But the technique in this post is similar to most ones that I’ve seen, it works for me, and I have never ever cut myself this way. In the videos below, I’ve tried to really break things down into the smallest of parts, and I tried to use really specific language to describe the motions. At the end of the day, you should probably watch multiple videos and read multiple how-tos, but I hope mine at least illuminates part of the picture, ideally the part that you’ve been missing. Everything will click into place eventually, and after a while, it’ll be totally second nature. You got this!
But before we get to technique and knife skills, here’s absolutely everything you need to know:
1) Find a good knife that will hold its edge
There are a lot of poorly made knives out there. Some are even super expensive! While more expensive forged knives are generally better than less expensive stamped ones, it’s really impossible to make any sweeping generalizations, and you’ve just got to look for a quality one that’s in your budget. Also remember that it’s much better to find one really good knife, instead of having a whole block of mediocre ones. Don’t settle for a big block of fancy brand name disappointing stamped knives—spend that money on one really good one that you’ll use every single day.
My two top picks (totally not sponsored, by the way) are at opposite ends of the price spectrum. I use them every day, have had them for years, and absolutely love them:
Budget buy: victorinox fibrox pro
This Victorinox knife is under $35 and works super duper well. It’s an inexpensive stamped knife (rather than forged), which typically means it won’t hold its edge very well, but for some reason Victorinox has totally cracked the code and figured out a way to make an amazing stamped knife. It’s much lighter weight than a more expensive forged knife, which can be a good thing when you want to move super quickly, like thinly slicing a bunch of russet potatoes. Plus, if you’re just starting out, that light weight feeling can make slicing and chopping feel much less intimidating. All you need is one of these (plus the Victorinox paring knife) and you can do anything.
Splurge: wusthof classic
This Wusthof knife is more like $150 (unless you find it on sale), but it’s worth every penny. To be honest, I never ever would have treated myself to this, but my father-in-law did a ton of research to find the best of the best, and generously gifted this one to me, and it’s become one of my favorite things ever. It’s a lot heavier than my Victorinox, which is nice when you need to cut something harder like sweet potato or squash. But it’s my go-to for pretty much everything, and I’ve given this model as a gift to several friends and family. You can cook very happily with an inexpensive Victorinox, but if you want to spend more money, or if you’re looking for a luxurious gift for someone, this knife is a real treat.
2) Keep your knife sharp and honed
Sharp knives don’t need to be forced through the food, so if you use a sharp knife along with proper knife skills, you’ll be less likely to cut yourself.
Prevent it from dulling prematurely
- Don’t ever put it in the dishwasher.
- Don’t ever drop it.
- Don’t let it plonk around in the sink. Wash it right away, or leave it somewhere safe off to the side to be washed later.
- Store it properly, with a knife strip, countertop block, or in-drawer block. If you’re using a magnetic knife strip, always put your knife back by letting the spine hit the magnet first, then gently letting the side fall flat.
- Use a wood or plastic cutting board, never ever cut on glass, marble, steel, or anything else hard. The composite wood boards I’m using in these videos will dull your blade a little more quickly than a nice solid wood board, but they’re fine if you’re short on space and need something super slim.
- Keep a mediocre knife around for when you have to cut a bunch of brownies in a tin, or when you have to cut super gritty produce before washing it. Don’t use your good knife for gritty tasks.
Sharpen it occasionally
- Why sharpen? Your knife’s edge will literally start to wear away after months of use (you can’t see it with the naked eye, but you’ll be able to feel it when you cut). The sharp part dulls and disappears gradually after a lot of use. Sharpening creates a new razor-sharp edge by whitling some of the steel away.
- When to sharpen: Sharpen them once every year if you cook often, or once every two years if you cook occasionally (I cook for hours every day, so I sharpen mine more frequently—once every few months). Don’t sharpen them too often (it shouldn’t be a weekly thing, unless you’re a professional chef or something).
- How to sharpen: Learn how to use a whetstone (the rectangular thing pictured above), or take them to a professional, but don’t use one of those “at home sharpener machines,” which aren’t good for your knife. If you only cook once every day or two (and have a good knife that you take care of), you’ll only need to sharpen them every year or so, so taking them to a professional is way easier than learning to use a whetstone.
Hone it often
- Why hone? Your knife’s edge gets pushed out of whack every time you use it. In other words, the edge starts to waver a teeny bit in the wrong direction, even when it’s still super sharp (note: this is totally different than when you drop your knife and the tip goes super wonky—that’s something only a professional can fix). So even though your knife is still sharp, the out-of-whack edge will make it feel as if it’s dull. Honing gently nudges the edge back into center, which means you’ll be cutting right down the middle with a razor sharp edge, instead of struggling to push a slightly curved edge through your food.
- But it’s important to note: if your knife has truly dulled, no amount of honing will make it sharper, and you just need to get it sharpened (again, whetstone or professional).
- When to hone: Honing should be done just about every day that you cook, but it’s super easy.
- How to hone: Hold your honing steel in your non-dominant hand, and your knife in your dominant hand. Point the honing steel down toward the counter, angled slightly away from you. Hold your knife so the blade is facing the counter, and hold its side right up against the honing steel. Pretend you’re slicing very thin pieces of lunch meat off of the honing steel. You don’t want your blade to cut into the honing steel, you just want the side of the blade to graze it. Do this 3 times on one side of the knife, then 3 times on the other, then 2 times on each, then 1. And you’re done!
3) Always cut away from your hand—Never toward your hand.
It’s pretty self explanatory, but if you take this rule seriously, you will never cut yourself. It’s serious enough to get its own fancy heading and everything!
4) Use proper knife skills
- Always make sure your food is steady, so it doesn’t slip away from you. Cut it in half so it has flat sides, and then place it flat-side-down so it’s maximally stable.
- Hold the knife firmly in your dominant hand (DH).
- Keep your non-dominant hand’s (NDH’s) fingers and thumb tucked in. Do not expose or untuck your finger tips—they will want to creep out in the beginning, but do not let them. Use your NDH’s curled-under finger tips to hold the food in place.
- Rest the side/top of the knife a little under your knuckles, and always let that safe part of the knife (the top and flat side) hit them on the knife’s way up. This will prevent the blade from slicing your knuckles on its way back down. Absolutely do not raise the knife above your knuckles.
- Move your NDH’s knuckles down the food, using them as a guide to let the knife travel across the food. Do not uncurl your fingers as you move your knuckles down the length of the food, and continue letting the dull spine of the knife contact your knuckles on its way up to make sure you don’t accidentally slice toward your hand, or overshoot them.
- It’s better to go slowly the right way than quickly the wrong way. Don’t rush, and practice, practice, practice!
- Here’s an exercise: thinly slice a potato! Cut the potato in half along its length. Place one half flat-side down. Get in position with your NDH’s knuckles and the knife in your DH. Slice off one sliver from the end, and then move your knuckles back a tiny bit so you expose more of the potato. Bring the knife up so that its spine slightly hits your knuckles in their new position, and then bring it back down so it slices another little bit off the potato. Repeat until the whole potato is sliced.