How to Use a Kitchen Knife

Peeled apples and a paring knife on a wood cutting board.
Photograph by Sarah Orsag/Moment Open/Getty Images

A knife can be your best friend during food preparation, or it can cause serious injury - depending on your skill and what you know about knife safety. There are some basic safety tips and hints about using a knife properly. First of all, check recommendations from sources like Consumer Reports and Cook's Illustrated. Then buy the best quality knives that you can afford, that have no gaps at the joint where the blade and handle meet, with a finely ground blade.

A good knife should feel heavy and solid. Finally, learn how to use your good knives and care for them.

There are five basic types of kitchen knives:

  • Chef's Knife
    A chef's knife is usually the largest knife in the kitchen, with a wide blade that is 8" to 10" long. Choose a knife that feels good and balanced in your hand. The knife should have a full tang. This means that the blade should go all the way through the handle for the best wear and stability.
  • Paring Knife
    Paring knives are generally 2-1/2-4" in length. The most often used knife in the kitchen. It is ideal for peeling and coring fruits and vegetables, cutting small objects, slicing, and other hand tasks.
  • Utility Knives
    Utility knives are longer than paring knives but smaller than chef's knives, usually around 5-8" long. They are also called sandwich knives because they are just the right side for slicing meats and cheeses. I have several utility knives in my kitchen as 'extra' knives.
  • Boning Knife
    This type of knife has a more flexible blade to curve around meat and bone. Generally 4-5" long.
  • Bread Knife
    Bread knives are usually serrated. Most experts recommend a serrated knife that has pointed serrations instead of wavy serrations for better control and longer knife life. I have two bread knives in my kitchen - a long 10" knife that's great for cutting whole loaves, and a 6" knife perfect for cutting sandwich buns. You must use a sawing motion when using a serrated knife.

    Knives are made out of several types of material. High carbon stainless steel is the most expensive and will last the longest. These knives will not stain and hold a sharp edge longer than other steel types. Ceramic knives are fairly new. These knives don't need sharpening for years and should be sharpened by an expert when they do wear down. Only use a ceramic knife on a cutting board - never on another ceramic, plastic or glass surface. They're that sharp!

    Knife handles are made of wood or a plastic composite. Both are good choices. The only difference is in cleaning and maintenance. Knives with wood handles deteriorate more quickly when cleaned in the dishwasher. I know experts recommend not using a dishwasher for washing knives, but I do it all the time. I'm not keen on washing sharp blades by hand.

    Sharpening Knives

    A knife that is not sharp is dangerous. It can slip off the food you're cutting and easily cut your fingers instead. A steel should be part of your knife collection. This long, round object sharpens knives by straightening out the edge.

    Hold the knife in your dominant hand and the steel in the other, with the steel point pressed into a solid waist-high surface. Hold the knife base at the top of the steel at a 20-degree angle.

    Slowly draw the knife down the length of the steel, pulling the knife back so the entire blade, from base to tip, moves against the steel as if you were slicing off pieces of the steel. Repeat on the other side. Do this five or six times, then rinse the knife off and dry immediately. Make sure you sharpen each side the same number of times to retain the knife's balance.

    Using a Knife

    Using kitchen knives requires following a few rules and becoming comfortable using your hands in a different way. Seeing pictures about correctly using a knife for different kitchen tasks is the best way to learn. Take a look at Knife Skills and Master Techniques and Knife Skills and other technique videos.

    The most important tip I can give you is to chop slowly and carefully. Always cut away from your body. Make sure your hands are dry and the surface you're working on it nonslip.

    Make sure that you curl your fingers under on the hand holding the food. This takes a while to get used to but will become second nature with practice. If your fingers are curled under, the chances are good you will never cut yourself. Watch what you're doing at all times. And keep kids and pets out of the kitchen when you're working with knives! Using your dominant hand, hold the knife firmly and, using a rocking motion, cut through the food. The knife should not leave the surface you're working on. Move your hand (with the curled under fingers) along as the knife cuts the food.

    Caring For Your Knives

    Store your knives in a knife block or on a Magnetic Knife Rack. When knives are thrown into a drawer, they will become dull more quickly, plus there's a good chance you'll cut yourself reaching in to retrieve one. Most manufacturers recommend that high-quality knives be washed by hand and dried immediately. I have full tang, wooden handle knives and I have always washed them in my dishwasher. My knives don't look new, but they still work fine, with frequent sharpening.

    Informative Knife Sites:

    How to Use a Chef's Knife

    Caring For Your Knives