Week 1: Knife Skills

You know, I think we can all pick up a chefs knife and hack into vegetables. It may not be very pretty – or efficient, but we can get the job done. But just hacking around can lead to cuts and a less than stellar presentation. The presentation part may not matter to many of you – it never really mattered to me. As long as the food tasted good, that was all that mattered. But I have in recent years decided I like my food to look nice, too. All the time and effort I put into preparing food, it should like nice. Proper cutting technique is so much more than good looking food though. Proper knife handling skills lead to enjoyable cooking, evenly cooked food, safe hands and efficient use of your time.

How many of you have avoided cooking at one time or another because it takes so long to prepare fresh vegetables? Do you spend extra money to purchase vegetables that are already cut and ready to use? Do you avoid fresh vegetables at all costs because you never have the time or desire to go through all the steps? I understand if you have and you’re not alone. This is one big reason some moms avoid cooking from scratch. All that cutting.

Luckily there are a few ways in which it can be made easier. Lots of vegetables store well in the fridge once peeled and cut, and some do just fine in the freezer if you want to cut in bulk and get the work done all at once instead of before every meal. I will get more into this later in the very next lesson because your time is important.

As you get acquainted with your knife, the time spent won’t seem very efficient. But that’s ok. Your goal should not be to cut food very quickly right from the start. Fast cutting takes practice and in order to be done safely you won’t be cutting very fast, like they do on the cooking shows on tv, any time soon. You may form a bond with your favorite knife, much like a craftsman develops a bond and preference with his tools. Different brands of knives will fit your hands differently. Get your hands on as many knives as you can, practice proper grip and try them out if you can.

The focus of this tutorial will be on the very common chefs knife. There are a variety of other knives that have their place in the kitchen, but the main knife you will use is a chefs knife. There are really only four types of knives every kitchens should have on hand. A pairing knife (A narrow, shorter knife that is great for working with delicate cuts and small foods), a serrated knife (most of us know this knife as the “bread knife” however they come in two types – the long narrow type associated with cutting bread, and a “utility” knife that is shaped like a chefs knife with a serrated edge. The utility knife is most versatile and yes, it can even be used to cut bread, to.). If you do a lot of butchering, a boning knife is helpful to have around. That’s it!

I’m not perfect, but do try to practice proper technique every time a knife is in my hand. I hope to share with you the things I have learned to help you become more efficient as well.

This weeks challenge: obtain a chefs knife and steel if you don’t have one. Watch the videos in this lesson, take notes if you wish, print off this tutorial maybe even create a binder to collect all of your culinary technique how-to’s (as you find more helpful information online, add it). Practice cutting with your guide hand in flour (explained a little further down) until you can comfortably use your knife without fear of cutting your fingers. I’m sure you have food to cook this week, so try to incorporate these techniques in your cooking. We will cover more nitty gritty details next week about common cuts and how to tackle different types of fruits and vegetables along with time saving ideas to make cutting food a little less intimidating.


There are two ways to properly hold a chefs knife. The most common way is to hold the knife firmly by gripping and wrapping your fingers around the handle. The second way is to “pinch” the heel of your knife with your thumb and forefinger, and wrap your remaining fingers around the handle.

Avoid gripping the handle with your fingers and extending your pointer finger along the top of the blade. I did this for the longest time and it’s a hard habit to break – but it leads to unbalanced cutting and unnecessary strain on your wrist. Unbalanced cutting can lead to your knife slipping and cutting your other hand and unnecessary stress can lead to fatieua and soreness.

For a quick, two minute video showing knife technique and how to use guide fingers, check out this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P61vc07fIn4


I’ve noticed that some chefs have different names for the three main techniques. But despite the difference in names, the technique is still the same.

The most common way you will use your knife is called the rolling technique (or low cut). Essentially you are rolling your knife forward, but in a backwards-circle kind of way. The blade will cut your food as you cycle backwards on the downstroke. This is a very rhythmic technique that will also cut your food very evenly.

The knife remains anchored to the cutting board with the tip – the blade should never completely leave the cutting board. The sharpness of the blade does all the work, so there is no need for back-and-forth sawing in most cases. Knives were made for slicing. We often exert far more energy into trying to chop than we should.

A word about cutting boards….

Be sure your cutting board is big enough to do the job – if your board is too small you knife may end up sliding off the board. Also be sure to anchor your cutting board to your counter top or wherever you will be using it – simply fold a damp dish towel in half and lay it under your cutting board. This will stop the board from moving around. I’ve also found those rubber shelf liners do the trick as well.

The type of cutting board you use is up to you. Wood has a bad rap because people believe you can’t properly sanitize it. However, any cutting board that is not taken care of can hold bacteria. Wooden boards can be expensive, and they do require some upkeep, but they can last forever because you can sand them down when the cutting surface becomes riddled with knife cuts. Plastic boards are not reparable, and need to be replaced when they are full of knife cuts (this is when they begin holding bacteria).

Your Guide Hand

Your guide hand is the hand that holds the food, and also guides the blade of your knife. Using your guide hand effectively can be a challenge for home cooks who don’t know any better – and that included me! One very important thing to remember is to bend your knuckles and tuck your finger tips under your knuckles so you don’t cut them! If you leave your finger tips out, they will protrude past your knuckles and be at risk of being cut. This will also reduce your ability to cut precisely and evenly because the blade of the knife won’t be able to rest against the lower knuckle of your middle finger.

Essentially, you want to make a “claw.”

When using your guide hand, you will always have your thumb and little finger (pinkie finger) anchoring your food to the cutting board a ways behind your center three fingers. These often pinch the food you are cutting (when able) and exert pressure to “anchor” them to the cutting board. Your middle three fingers rest on the top of the food, creeping back as you cut your food. For precise cuts, the blade of the knife should always be in contact with the bottom knuckle of your middle finger. This seems scary, but as long as your fingers are tucked right and you dont’ lift your knife blade unnecessarily high, you wont’ cut your fingers.

As you cut food, keep your fingers together as much as possible. Your thumb and little finger hold the food to the cutting board and your three center fingers extend forward with your middle knuckle being your primary guiding point. Your hand will naturally move back on the food you are cutting from the slight pressure from the knife blade against your middle finger. When your center fingers reach your thumb and little finger, stop cutting and re-position your fingers further back on the food and continue cutting. Think of this motion as a backwards crawling crab.

Do not move the food towards the knife. The food should remain still on the cutting board.

The cutting motion should be kept in the “sweet spot” of your knife towards the back half. You will know you are using the right spot when your sliced vegetables stick to the right area as you cut.


Practice proper cutting technique often. One way in which you can practice without cutting vegetables unnecessarily is to lay flour out on your cutting board and pretend the flour is a cucumber or something. Position your guide hand correctly as described above. Position the knife blade at your middle fingers knuckle and practice the rolling technique, working through the flour. The blade should never come higher than your knuckle using this technique or you risk cutting your knuckle.

Once you are comfortable cutting on flour, try some real food. Celery is a great place to start. And if you wanted to cut lots of celery to practice, it freezes well without any other preparation! Stick with long, flat vegetables. If you choose to use celery, first insert the tip of your knife at the center of the celery (with the flat edges of the celery on the cutting board) and run your knife down the length of the celery to divide the celery into two.

Larger foods will use a slightly different technique, which you will learn about soon. For now, practice the rolling technique. As you get comfortable with your knife and the technique, you will notice a rhythm developing, cuts will be even and your speed will increase. Practice, practice, practice – it really makes a difference.

To see this in action, you may find this 9.5 minute video helpful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNuV7lg6jgg


Position your guide hand. Your thumb and little finger (pinkie) are “anchors”, pinching and holding the food to the cutting board. The center three fingers are positioned on the top and sides of the food you are cutting, close together with your finger tips tucked under. The knife blade will rest against the lower knuckle of your middle finger. As the knife cuts and moves further down the food, your center three fingers will creep back to touch the anchor fingers. When they touch, stop and re-position your guide hand.

Use the food that sticks to the blade as a template for your next cut! When you bring your knife up and get ready to make your next cut, simply pivot the blade over just enough to bring that cut piece that is still stuck to your knife, over your food, and make your next cut right where the piece on your knife ends. It can be used as a template or a pattern for each cut when it sticks to the blade (which is very common unless you have a blade with the dents in it to prevent food from sticking).

Your focus should be on what is happening between your guide fingers and your knife blade, not on what is happening on the other side of the knife.

Other ways of using your knife

Larger, wider cuts: same position and motion with your guide hand and knife blade, however it is not necessary to keep the blade right against knuckle of your middle finger. You can keep your fingers a distance away from the knife. Still use your guide hand and move it back as the knife approaches the middle finger. Because you are cutting larger lengths, your knife will be making fewer cuts, so keep your hand further back on your food to anchor it to the cutting board. Think of cutting celery or carrots into 2-3 inch long pieces for a roast – fewer cuts, longer lengths vs. slicing celery into thin slices for soup.

Up & Down (or, “high cut”): This technique is used with large food items where the rolling motion is hindered and the blade will have to come off the cutting board, for foods such as cabbage and potatoes.

There are 3 main difference from the rolling technique:

  1. This is not a circular cutting motion so you won’t have as much wrist action.
  2. The cutting is done with the center of the blade rather than the sweet spot.
  3. Knife blade is not anchored by being in constant contact with cutting board. It makes contact with middle knuckle at the beginning of each slice, but you loose contact between the tip and the cutting board in the downward motion as you are counting on the main part of the knife to slice down and forward at the same time. Reset your knife blade against the middle knuckle of your guide hand before each cut. Sometimes you may have to use a back and forth slicing motion to get the knife through more dense foods, but try to avoid actual chopping. You start the cut with the middle of your knife and end with the heel of your knife.

Pivot chopping technique – This technique is used to finely mince food, such as herbs (“chiffonade”). First, roll the herb leaves together then roughly chop the herbs using the rolling technique. Your anchor hand will help keep the leaves together until chopped. Stop when you reach the stem (although stems are often flavorful, you can add them to stock). Then, anchor the knife tip in place by the fingers on your guide hand, then rotate knife as you chop using the tip as a pivot point. Both hands are out of harms way making it easy and safe to chop quickly.

Your Knife Tip: You can also use the tip of the knife to cut long items, such as dividing celery in half. First anchor the food with your guide hand at the top end, pinching the edges with your thumb and forefinger. Then inset knife tip in the food, between your thumb and forefinger, with blade pointing away from anchor hand and drag to make the cut. The tip is also useful for cutting stems off produce and dividing small items like mushrooms.

If you get stuck in the food you are cutting, instead of forcing the knife through and chopping, simply back the blade up a bit without retracting the whole blade, and try to slice again. The blade will likely get “stuck” quite a bit. Also, consider how much pressure you are exerting on what you are cutting. If you are trying to cut an onion horizontally and exerting a ton of force from the top, you may be hindering your own abilities.

How to hone your knife: To force the edge back in place after use, you need to hone it. If you don’t you may need it professionally sharpened. Honing your knife straightens your edge back into place keeping it sharp. It wont make a dull knife sharp. Use a magnetized steel. It will help realign the blade edge to a point.

Hold knife at 15-20 degree angle . To help find that angle, first hold your knife straight up at 90 degrees. Half that angle in your mind and hold your knife at the 45 degree angle. Half that again to about the 20 degree angle and begin.

Hold steel in a comfortable position and make sure your thumb is behind the guide. Start from base of knife and base of steel and run knife along steel, ending with tip of knife at the tip of steel. Use a good grip and firm pressure, but don’t use a lot of pressure. Do both sides equally. Get a good rhythm going so you can hear the ping. You can do this vertically by securing the steel on the counter top – on a rag or something. You may feel you have better control because the steel doesn’t move around. Once you are finished honing, tiny bits of steel will be left behind so wipe the blade carefully after use. The home cook should hone a knife at least once a day to maintain a sharp edge, but ideally before each meal.

3-5 slides for each side may be all you need. You will know you are done when your knife can cut through a piece of paper like a hot knife through butter!

To reduce wear and tear on your knife, avoid running the blade of your knife against anything metal, including the magnetic strips used to hold knives. Don’t use the blade of your knife to clear your cutting area, instead use the opposite end of the blade. Proper cutting techniques will help keep the edge as well.

Here is a video showing this technique:


See ya next week!

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