Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

If you Google for "knife safety," "knife basics," or "knife skills," you'll find a ton of articles on the Internet. The only thing new about this article is that I pull it all together into one piece: here, you'll find basic knife safety, basic knife care, and basic knife skills all in one long yet highly entertaining article. 🙂 

Enjoy!

Basic Knife Safety

Since knives are deadly objects in the wrong hands and one of the most dangerous kitchen tools you own, knife safety seems like the logical place to start. Here are 6 basic knife safety rules to live by. 

1. Keep Your Knives Sharp

If your knives are dull, you're at a higher risk of cutting yourself rather than the food you're preparing. Why? Because you have to press harder to cut, and when you press harder, the knife is more likely to slip.

So keep those knives sharp! But here's a slight problem with that: you may not know when your knives need sharpening. If you don't have good honing and sharpening habits, you get accustomed to using a duller and duller knife until one day, you try to slice a tomato and the knife just sits on top of the skin. Oops. It happened again--your knife went dull, and you didn't even realize it was happening. (And yes, I'm speaking from personal experience.) 

Here are some smart tips to help you avoid that terrible (and hazardous) event and keep your knives sharp.

Use a sharpening steel (AKA hone) regularly. Every time you use a knife, microscopic burrs occur along the blade. Bit by bit, this creates a dull knife. Using a hone regularly (I like a ceramic one, pictured below, but you can get steel steels, too)--like, every time you use your knife--smoothes out the burrs and keeps the knife sharp.

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

Here's a great page on Wusthof's website on how to hone (AKA steel) a knife.

Japanese Vs. German Knives

Don't use a steel on Japanese knives. The blades are thinner than on German knives, and honing can create nicks and chips in the blade. In fact, Japanese knives require some different care tactics altogether. If you have a Japanese knife, be sure to learn how to care for it properly. 

Sharpen at least once a year. Steeling can't get all the burrs, though, so you have to give (or get) your knives a good sharpening at least twice a year. A stone will smooth out nicks and deep burrs that honing can't really fix.

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

Sharpening means that you get a whetstone (pictured at left) and learn how to use it. Or, do like I do and have them done by a professional. Some full-service grocery stores offer free knife sharpening, as do many places that sell high quality knives. If you can't find a free service, just google for knife sharpening services in your area. It's not expensive, and well worth the cost.

Using a whetstone takes a bit of skill. If you don't apply the knife at the right angle, you can ruin the blade. You must also be sure to buy the best whetstone(s) for your knife collection. This is a bit beyond my area of expertise, but if you buy good quality knives and want to sharpen them yourself, you can find all of the necessary information from your knife dealer or the brand website of your knife.

Also: Avoid electric knife sharpeners. There may be some good ones out there, but they tend to take too much steel off the blades, shortening the life of your knives. 

2. Use the Right Knife for the Task at Hand

Why are there so many different kinds of knives? Simple: Because there are so many different kinds cutting tasks.

While a chef's knife is an excellent all-around tool and likely your go-to knife, it isn't good for everything. It won't do a very good job on bread--you need a serrated knife for that--and it's terrible for working with small items like strawberries and Brussels sprouts--you need a paring knife for those. 

In fact, using the wrong knife can be downright dangerous. You're more likely to slip or jerk an unsuitable knife, which means you're in greater danger of cutting yourself.

How do you know which knife is the right knife? You can learn your knives, or you can just use common sense: don't use a big knife for a small task (and vice versa), use a serrated knife for soft objects like bread; don't use a big heavy knife for a delicate de-boning operation, etc.

And never, ever try to cut through bone, anything frozen, or anything particularly hard (some winter squashes, for example) with a lightweight knife. I know from personal experience that this can result in disaster--not only emergency-room level cuts, but you can ruin your knife, as well. 

(And if you do need to cut through something very hard, use a cleaver--preferably with a rubber mallet to provide good, safe downforce.)

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

Use a cleaver for cutting through very hard things.

A knife is not a can opener, screwdriver, box cutter, or butter spreader. It is not safe to use a knife for any of these purposes, or any other purpose other than cutting.

3. Learn Proper Cutting Techniques

Knife skills are one of the first things--usually the first thing--you learn in culinary school. Why? Because they're the basis of almost every kitchen task, from making stock to baking pastries. If you don't get your basic knife skills down, you're going to flunk out, simple as that.

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

You don't have to be lightning fast like Julia Child, but you do have to learn how to hold and handle a knife well. It's not only safer, but it creates less strain and fatigue on your hand.

The section below, Basic Knife Skills, gets into the basics of cutting. The very basics--books have been written about knife skills. I can't cover all of it, so I'm just going to stick to the most elementary skills: how to hold a knife and a few of the basic cuts you should master.

4. Always Use a Non-Slip Cutting Board

Two things:

1. Never cut anything free-form that you're holding over the sink (or elsewhere). This is a recipe for disaster.

2. Use a cutting board that won't slide around--either a large, heavy one, one with rubber feet, or one that's been stabilized by placing a damp dishcloth or rubber mat underneath it.

5. Make Sure Your Hands Are Clean and Dry

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

Trying to use a sharp knife with wet or greasy hands is dangerous. You're opening yourself up to potential disaster.

This is easily avoidable. Wash and dry your hands before using a knife.

(Or any other sharp object, for that matter.)

6. Be Mindful when Using Knives

Whenever you're using a knife--or any sharp, dangerous object--you should be totally focused on the task. One of the most important aspects of knife safety is simply paying attention to what you're doing.

Give the knife your full attention. If you're distracted, bad things can happen. So stay mindful, and stay safe.

Don't Forget the First Aid Kit!

Always keep a first aid kit, or at the very least, an assortment of bandages and burn ointment, in or near your kitchen. When you need it, you'll be glad it's there!

Basic Knife Care

When you spend a lot of money on good knives, it's only rational that you learn how to take care of them so they last a lifetime (literally). 

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

1. Keep Your Knives Clean

Knives can be prone to corrosion. Even stainless steel knives will pit, stain, and corrode over time. For this reason, you have to keep your knives clean and avoid letting them stay wet for too long.

Here are some tips on how to best keep your knives clean:

Don't put your knives in the dishwasher. Most people know that any utensil with a wooden handle should not be put in the dishwasher. For knives, though, the reasons go beyond this. Dishwasher soap--whether liquid or crystal--can create microscopic abrasions that dull and pit knife blades.

So even if your knives don't have wooden handles, wash them by hand. Even if the warranty says it's ok to use the dishwasher. 

Don't submerge knives in a sink full of soapy dishwater. Water can seep into the handle and this can damage the knife.

Also, if you can't see them, it is ridiculously easy to cut yourself--just imagine grabbing that razor sharp blade by accident. Yikes!

Instead, wash your knives by hand right after using with hot water and mild dish soap. Then dry with a dish towel immediately and put the knife away.

Drying is particularly important for carbon steel knives, which keep a blade beautifully but are prone to rust. However, if you're concerned about knife safety, the best move is to put all sharp blades safely away as soon as you're done using them.

2. Store Knives Properly

Proper storage of your knives is not only the best knife safety practice, it's also the best knife care practice. 

Don't store knives loose in a drawer. No matter how careful you are, the blades will clang against each other, creating burrs and nicks that are really hard on the knife. If you keep your knives in a drawer, use sheaths over the blades to protect them. (In fact, many people think this is the best way to store their knives.)

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

You can also use a knife block, an in-drawer block, or (my favorite), a magnetic wall rack

Even when using proper storage, you still have to be careful--pull a knife straight out of the block so the blade doesn't catch against the surface. If you have a magnetic rack, remove by twisting the blade away from the magnetic strip first to ensure you don't nick it.

And regardless of the storage method, always remove and replace knives carefully so as not to nick the tip or blade.

Also: When using a knife block, make sure the knives are resting on their spines and not on their blades.

Always be careful when removing a knife from any storage spot. You can cut yourself if you're not paying attention, and you can also put nicks and chips in the knife blade with careless handling.

3. Use a Good Cutting Board

A cutting board has a huge impact both on knife safety and knife care.

Use a wood, plastic, or rubber cutting board. Believe it or not, cutting boards come in glass, steel, ceramic, granite, and other hard materials that are absolutely terrible for your knives. So always use a wooden or plastic cutting board to protect your knives from premature dulling and knicks that can happen from using too hard a cutting surface.

In fact, many restaurants use rubber cutting boards, which are about the best cutting surface for can use with your knife. They absorb impact and are the least hard on the blade of any other type of cutting board. These haven't quite caught on for home use yet, and they're a little bit spendy (although less than a high-end wooden board).

Also: Never, ever use your knife on a countertop--not only for the knife's sake, but for the counter's, as well.

For more on knives and cutting boards, see Kitchen Tools: 5 to Splurge On and 6 to Save On.

4. Keep Knives Sharp

Sharpness is as important for knife care as it is for knife safety. See the section above (on basic knife safety) about keeping knives sharp.

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

A sharp knife is a safe knife--but it's still a dangerous object, so handle it with respect.

One thing I will mention here is that, while sharp knives make cutting safer work, they are by no means safe objects. Sharp knives are, in fact, deadly objects. 

I mention this because a lot of people fail to when talking about how important it is to keep your knives sharp. Yes, a sharp knife is a safe knife--but you have to handle sharp knives with the utmost respect, because they are very dangerous.

To drive this point home, I like to ask this question (as I have in other posts): If you had to choose, which would you rather have your child play with, a sharp knife or a dull knife?

Point made--so be careful! 

Basic Knife Skills

There's definitely some overlap between knife safety, knife care, and knife skills: for example, knowing basic cutting skills will keep you much safer when using your knives. Even so, good knife skills are definitely a topic all on their own. As I already mentioned, knife skills can get pretty involved, so here, I'm just going to talk about the fundamentals--holding a knife, cutting properly, and a few of the most common types of cuts.

1. How to Hold a Knife Properly and Cut Safely

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

I'm amazed at how many people on cooking shows hold knives incorrectly. (They also wear long, loose sleeves, no apron, and use metal utensils in nonstick pans, but those are topics for another day.) And watching them actually use the knife is painful. If I ran a cooking network, one of my first rules would be that people in front of the camera know how to handle kitchen tools correctly--especially knives, because they're so dangerous.

The best way to show correct knife handling is by illustration. There are a ton of videos on YouTube about knife safety and knife handling. Here is a short one (about 2 minutes) from le Cordon Bleu culinary school. It shows holding and cutting for both maximum safety and the least amount of strain to your hand:

As you see, there's more than one "correct" way to hold a knife. The most important thing is that the knife is stable and your fingers are out of the way. Experiment with the different grips to find the one that feels the most comfortable to you. (My favorite grip is to choke up on the blade with one or two fingers, depending on the size of the knife.)

Notice also the cutting motion in the video. The tip of the knife never leaves the cutting board. This method is the safest and most efficient way to use a chef's knife. (Of course, sometimes the knife must leave the board, such as when you're halving a huge onion or potato. But for basic chopping and dicing, learn to keep the tip on the board and rock the knife gently to cut.)

If you like a Santoku knife--a Japanese chef's knife with a flat blade--here's a short video (less than 2 minutes) from monkeysee.com showing proper technique with it. (The technique is surprisingly different.)

2. Basic Types of Cuts

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different types of cuts. Did you know that "dice" has a specific meaning? That's right. Informally, to "dice" means to cut into small pieces. But formally, dice means a cube (makes sense), and it comes in 3 sizes: A "large dice" is about 3/4 of an inch (2 cm), a "medium dice" is about half an inch (1.25 cm), and a "small dice" is about a quarter inch (6mm).

But as I said, dice is just one of many. Here's a list of all the culinary knife cuts (from Wikipedia).

The good news is you don't need to know all these cuts--and you certainly don't need to cut as perfectly as you'd learn how to do in culinary school. But the more you know about types of cuts and cutting technique, the more choices you'll have in the kitchen.

This video from the Institute of Culinary Education, shows a few basic, easy cuts:

What to take away from this video:

  • Always cut a flat surface first before cutting the rest of the food. This makes cutting round foods safer and easier.
  • Curl the fingers of your non-cutting hand away from the knife to keep them safe. 
  • Use the lightest pressure possible to make the knife do the work for you. This is not only safe, it reduces fatigue.

What to ignore in this video:​​​​​

  • Unless you want perfectly sized dice like that required in culinary school, you don't have to waste nearly as much of the vegtable as he does in this video (the potato, that is). One flat surface against the cutting board is enough to make it safe, and approximately similar-sized cuts are fine for most home cooking. (All the pieces don't have to be identical.)

The Cuts You Should Know

You can get into a lot of detail about all the cuts you can learn. And if you're interested, the formal techniques are pretty cool. The skills build on each other and follow a precise learning curve, which means that with the basic knowledge, you can create pretty much all the cuts in the French culinary dictionary. 

None of that is necessary for the home chef, though. For most purposes, all you need to know are the basic chop technique, the dice, the Julienne, and the Chiffonade. Heck, I'm not even sure these are necessary. But it's good to know they're out there if you ever need them. 🙂

The CHOP

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

Chopped vegetables for a salad.

Chopping is a non-specific cut and the one used most frequently by home chefs. When chopping, the food doesn't need to be a uniform size (although for the most even cooking, you should always try to chop food into a similar size and shape).

For example, if you're chopping up potatoes and carrots for a stew, try to make them approximately the same size. But it's okay if the pieces aren't all the same shape.

To chop, follow the instructions in the video above--create a flat side for safety, then cut into the size and shape you desire. 

The DICE

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

Medium dice carrots.

A dice is a cubical cut and should be the same size. A large dice is 3/4 inch, medium dice is 1/2 inch, and small dice is 1/4 inch. 

To achieve an even dice, you must first cut the food into a square or rectangle. This is rarely required for home cooking, and it wastes a lot of the fruit or vegetable--but now you know that dice does not mean the same as chop!

The JULIENNE

The Julienne is also known as the French cut or the matchstick cut. It looks like this:

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

You may not use it very often, but the Julienne is a nice cut to know because it's so pretty and it really works in some dishes. Here's a 2 minute video from Kitchen Conundrums that shows both the "right" way to Julienne (creating a lot of waste) and a shortcut (not as perfect but easier and less wasteful): 

I love Julienned vegetables in a salad. It's a great technique to know, even if you don't use it all that often.

The CHIFFONADE

Knife Safety, Knife Care, and Knife Skills: The Basics for Beginners

The chiffonade is a fancy cut that most home chefs use frequently, even if they didn't know it had an official name. This is used to create fine shreds out of leaves like basil, mint, and sage. 

Here's le Cordon Bleu's Chef Hutchins again to demonstrate a couple of different techniques for chiffonade:

Tip for garlic and onion: To remove that smell from your hands after cutting garlic or onion, rub your hands on stainless steel. It might sound crazy, but it really works!

Summary

So there you have it, in a nutshell--basic knife safety, knife care, and knife skills. If you want to know more, there's a ton of information out there. You can choose from thousands of YouTube videos showing knife safety, knife care, and knife techniques in great detail. I'd start there.

Thanks for reading!

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