Kitchen Knife Skills: How to Buy, Use, and Care for Your Knives

Do you hate all the chopping that goes into cooking a meal from scratch?

Do you wish you enjoyed cooking more?

Having a good set of kitchen knives and knowing how to use them will make cooking easier and more enjoyable.

knife skills, Zwilling J.A. Henckels chef's knife and Miyabi chef's knife displayed on white surface.

Importance of Knife Skills

The very first thing you learn about in chef school is knives. They are the most basic and essential of your tools.

Do You Dislike Cooking?

I used to dislike cooking.

It wasn’t until I got better at it that I really started to love it.

This makes sense since we tend to like things we are good at and to shy away from things that we feel like we’re not so good at.

Success breeds confidence, whether it’s career success or success at putting a great meal on the table.

Having good knife skills will go a long way to giving you the confidence that could, I hope, lead to a love of cooking.

Having the right tools in your kitchen and learning how to use them will make cooking any dish faster and easier.

Basic Knives for Cooking

Basic kitchen knives labelled: paring or utility knife, chef's knife or French knife, serrated knife, boning or fillet knife.

Before we get into actual knife skills, lets talk about the basic knives you need to be a competent and confident cook. 

Paring or Utility Knife: This short versatile knife fits well in your hand and is easy to maneuver. It’s used for peeling and trimming fruits and vegetables. The point is used for for digging out blemishes. It works well for slicing small or sticky items that might cling to the blade of a larger knife like cheese.

Chef's Knife or French Knife: This is the one you’ll use most of the time so it’s important that it’s of good quality and fits comfortably in your hand. It’s for chopping, slicing, dicing, mincing and just about any other cutting related job in the kitchen.

Serrated Knife: It’s notched like a saw so it can dig into materials that may be too hard or too soft for your smooth blades. These are typically used for slicing bread or might also be used for soft fruits like tomatoes. They cut by using a sawing motion to get through the outer crust and into the soft part of the food. They are usually thinner than your chefs knife so the food doesn’t stick to it as you’re slicing.

Boning Knife or Filet Knife: This is used for cutting the meat away from the bones in fish, red meat or poultry. It’s thin and easy to maneuver around corners. It usually has a notch near that handle that can be used to break through tough joints.

Buying Knives

chef's knife with the parts labelled: handle, tang, bolster, spine, tip, point, cutting edge, heal.

It’s important to have quality knives in your gluten-free kitchen, but you don’t need to break the bank. Just look for a few important characteristics.

  • The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. A good quality knife should have a “full tang” meaning that is goes all the way to the butt of the handle.
  • The blade should be solid and firm. A very little bit of flex is fine but you don’t want the knife to flex or bend when you’re cutting. Most quality knives are made of forged stainless steel or carbon steel.
  • Your knife should fit comfortably in your hand. Make sure the handle is deep enough so your knuckles don’t hit the cutting board when chopping.

Choose an 8”, 10” or 12 “ length for your chef's knife. A shorter knife is easier to maneuver. A longer knife gives more cutting surface. I have both an 8” and a 10” chef's knife in my kitchen. I use the 8” one more.

Best Cooking Knife Brands

German chef's knife by Zwilling J.A. Henkels and Japanese chef's knife by Miyabi.

German and Japanese manufactured knives are the most common in professional and home kitchens.

German knives are the most popular. They tend to be heavier and more robust that their Japanese counterparts. This makes them a good solid choice. They will stand up well to lots of use and repeated sharpening. Some chefs find them a little heavy which can lead to fatigue when using all day, but this shouldn’t be an issue for a home cook. Popular brands are Wusthof, Henckel , and Le Creuset.

Japanese knives have become more popular in the last 20 years or so. They are lighter and thinner allowing for a razor thin edge and very precise cuts. The downside is they are more delicate and can be damaged easily if not well cared for. Popular brands are Miyabi, Kasumi, Shun, Global, and Mac.

Knife Maintenance

Part of having good knife skills is knowing how to take care of your knives. 

It’s important to keep your knives clean and sharp.

This is for safety and for ease of use. A dull knife is far more dangerous than a sharp one because it’s more likely to slip off the item you’re cutting and cut you instead. Also a sharp knife is easier to use.

All the knife skills in the world won't help if you're slowed down by a dull knife that squishes your tomatoes, or even worse, causes an injury.

Clean your knife often as you use it.  Wipe it off each time you move to a new food.  If you are cooking gluten and gluten-free foods, or dealing with other allergens, be sure to wash your knife thoroughly in between. 

Honing vs Sharpening

You’re knife set may have come with a honing steel. This is not a sharpener and will not sharpen a dull knife.

The purpose of this tool is to hone the blade of an already sharp knife. You should hone your blade every time you use it. Even a well maintained sharp knife will lose it’s edge as you use it.  Keeping it honed will improve its performance and help it to last longer between sharpening.

How to hone (or steel) your knife.

Knowing how to hone, or steel your knife is an important knife skill. 

There are two techniques to do this, so choose the one that you’re most comfortable with.

Technique 1:

cook honing a chef's knife
  • Hold the steel in your left hand if you are right handed, with your elbow tight to your side and the steel pointing straight up.
  • Make sure all fingers are behind the guard on your steel.
  • Place your knife with the heel at the top of the steel on the side furthest away from you. The blade should be at a slight angle (about 20°) to the steel.
  • Move the blade along the steel by flicking your wrist downward.
  • Then move the knife to the side of the steel closest to you and repeat.

Technique 2:

cook honing a chef's knife
  • Hold the steel with the point on a kitchen towel on top of your cutting board.
  • Start with the heel of your knife at the top of the steel on the side away from you.
  • The blade should be at a slight angle (about 20°) to the steel.
  • Move the blade along the steel by flicking your wrist downward.
  • Then move the knife to the side of the steel closest to you and repeat.

Sharpening Your Knives

Sharpening a knife is done with a whet stone. If you really want to rev up your knife skills, you can learn to sharpen your own knives or you can have it professionally done.

If you want to try it yourself, watch a few YouTube videos and practice on a cheaper knife so you won’t feel too bad if you ruin the blade.

I personally prefer to get my knives professionally sharpened.  It's good practice to do this about once a year.

Other Tools for Sharpening Knives

You can buy various tools for sharpening knives. There are little rollers or tools that you pass the blade through that will grind both sides of the blade. I don’t recommend these as they don’t do a great job and could end up ruining your knife.

How to Hold Your Chef’s Knife

cook demonstrating how to hold a knife.
  • Choke up on the blade with your index finger tucked back toward your wrist.
  • Make sure your finger doesn’t get under the blade.
  • Your thumb should extend along the blade parallel to the cutting surface.
  • Your back three fingers should grip the blade.

How to Cut

demonstrating how to cut
demonstrating hand position for cutting
  • Stand square to your work surface
  • Start with the point of the knife on the cutting surface then rock the knife toward the heel.
  • Continue this rocking motion without lifting the knife from the cutting board.
  • Fingers should be in a claw-like position with finger tips tucked back out of the way.
  • Use the flat edge of the front knuckle as a guide and move your hand back as you slice.

Vegetable Cuts

It's really up to you how precise you want to be in your vegetable cuts in your own kitchen.  However, there are a few terms you will see in most recipes.  Having good knife skills includes knowing what these mean to get the best results:

Dice means to cut into cubes.

  • Standard dice is 3/4" x 3/4" x 3/4"
  • Medium dice is 1/3" x 1/3" x 1/3"
  • Small dice is 1/4" x 1/4" x 1/4"
  • Mince or brunoise is 1/8" x 1/8" x 1/8"

Long square cuts are:

  • Batonnet - usually used for French fries.  1/4" x 1/4" x 2 or 3 inches long.
  • Julienne - usually for salads.  1/8" x 1/8" x 1 or 2 inches long. 

Mince means to cut into very small pieces. It often refers to garlic. Mincing can be done with your chef’s knife or in the case of garlic you can use a garlic press. Sometimes a food processor is used for mincing.

Chopping is a more casual technique. You can have a rough chop which is larger pieces, about ¼ inch or fine chop which is bout 1/8 inch. It’s often done by passing the blade through the food many times until the desired fineness is achieved.

Importance of Consistency

diced carrots, onions, celery and yellow pepper on a plate.  bowl of shrimp to the side.

Even Cooking

If you’re veggies are all cut to the same size, it makes your dish look nice and appetizing, but more importantly, it helps everything to cook evenly. If you have carrots of all different sizes for example, some will be overcooked and some will be undercooked.

Even if you prefer a more casual style of cooking like I do with the elements not too perfect looking, having them a uniform size is still best.

Presentation and Mouth Feel

bowl of vegetable soup with clear broth

It’s also much nicer for presentation and for eating if everything is more or less the same size.

Think of a salad with thin slices and huge chunks of vegetables. It’s not going to feel nice in your mouth while you’re eating it and the flavors won’t blend together to complement each other.

Uniform bite-sized pieces work much better.

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