A sharp and sturdy knife is one of the most essential tools in a kitchen. Almost all recipes start with chopping, slicing, carving, paring, skinning, or dicing. Therefore keeping your knife sharp, and using it safely, is of utmost importance to anyone interested in cooking. It is also one of the more intimidating aspects. How many people feel comfortable the first time the pick up an 8-inch chef knife? Far fewer than feel comfortable swinging around a cast iron skillet. But using a sharp knife shouldn’t be scary, and it really isn’t, especially if you observe a few simple rules.
First let’s discuss the basic anatomy of a knife.
It’s fairly intuitive, and while there are other parts that we could discuss (e.g. tang, bolster, etc.), they aren’t particularly relevant to this discussion.
Onto the rules of using a knife safely.
1) Hold your knife using a “pinch grip”.
The pinch grip involves holding a small portion of the blade between your extended thumb and curled index finger, with the remaining fingers wrapped around the handle.
To many people, this will feel awkward, as if you’re choking-up on the blade like a baseball bat. However, holding the knife this way is important for two reasons. First, it provides stability and allows you to wield the knife more accurately. This is in part due to the second reason for using the pinch grip: safety. This is easily illustrated. Find someone you trust, or more accurately, someone who trusts you to point a large knife at them. Hold the knife by the handle alone, and have your volunteer grab the knife by blade, with their hand on the spine. Now ask them to try and twist the knife in your hand. They aren’t trying to disarm you, just to twist the knife sideways. Now hold the knife using a pinch grip and have your volunteer attempt to twist the knife again. Because you are holding a portion of the blade, the volunteer shouldn’t be able to twist the knife (if they can, find a weaker volunteer, or work on your grip strength…).
2) When cutting, keep the tip of the knife on the cutting board.
If the knife stays down, you are less likely to stab yourself. That’s pretty straightforward.
3) Hold the food you are cutting using the “claw grip”.
Your hand is curled into a claw-like shape, with the fingernails resting/holding the food. Like rule #2, this is also straightforward. If you keep your fingers away from the knife, you are less likely to cut them. Holding the food with your finger tips also helps secure it, while providing better tactile information about what you are holding, making it easier to cut food safely and efficiently.
4) Use your knuckles as a guide.
Like the pinch grip, this too may be less than intuitive. Typically when you want to avoid cutting yourself with a sharp object, you don’t put it right next to your hand. However, by keeping the flat side of the blade against your knuckles, you are also keeping the sharp edge of the blade away from your finger. Why do you think TV chefs can talking to the camera and cut vegetables like a samurai at the same time? By keeping the tip of the knife on the board, and by holding the food with a claw grip, you also make it very difficult to cut your fingers, since the width of the blade makes it very difficult for the edge to ever rise above your knuckles.
Like all skills, knife-work takes time, patience, and practice. Fortunately, practice will increase the speed and proficiency by which you can prep dinner, which means that making meals becomes quicker and easier.
Finally a few brief rules to follow on knife care.
1) Hand wash your knives!
If you want a sharp knife, then don’t throw it in the dishwasher to bang around with the rest of your dishes.
2) Use a “soft” cutting board.
This includes woods, plastics, and composites (e.g. Epicurean boards). Glass might be sanitary, but it also ruins your knifes. What do you have to use to cut glass? Diamonds. So if your knife can’t scratch the glass, guess what is happening to that sharp edge?
3) Store your knifes safely and securely.
Use a knife block or individual knife sleeves. Just like being thrown into the dishwasher, banging around in a drawer will ruin that sharp edge too.
4) Learn to use a honing steal.
A honing steal is essentially a straight piece of metal or ceramic that re-aligns the microscopic edge of your knife. Think of a comb with its tines bent out of shape. It wouldn’t comb very well. By straightening out those tines, the comb more easily passes through hair. Same thing with a knife-edge, except that it passes through food.
5) Learn to sharpen your knives, or find someone to do it for you.
I happen to sharpen my knives with a mouse-pad and sand paper. You can use a stone, or one of the many systems available. I don’t recommend a “machine” since the edge angle is not typically adjustable, and because you can easily grind away too much metal, shortening the life of your knife. The same warning applies to professional knife sharpeners: they typically use a belt system that will quickly strip metal off your knife. It might be sharp, but it might be a few millimeters shorter or more narrow. Like any other professional, do your homework and pick them carefully.