Knives 101

Sharp, professional-quality knives are any cook's best friends.


It may be easier to find a good knife than to acquire a best friend, but if you care for both of them devotedly, they will take care of you. Only your trusty knife, however, makes prep work go faster and spares your fingers from pointed assault.

Start by purchasing a good knife. A high-quality knife may seem costly, but compare buying a $70 knife you use for 20 years with the $10 knife you replace each year.

What should you get for your money? A forged, high-carbon, stain-resistant, steel-blade knife is your best buy. It should be rigid and feel heavy, yet balance lightly in your hand.

The value of good knives is in the way their stronger metal maintains a sharp edge. Contrary to what you might think, a dull knife can be more dangerous than a sharp one, since it may slip when you have to force it to cut.

Here's what to consider when shopping for knives:

Blades: Most higher-quality, more-expensive knives are forged (hammered) or stamped from a piece of high-carbon, stain-resistant steel. This type of metal alloy allows the blade to hold a sharp edge and sharpen easily. Also, a quality knife should have a full tang (end of the blade that extends all or most of the way through the handle) for balance and added strength.

The blades of most inexpensive knives are made of stainless steel, making them tough and very sharp. However, these knives lack the weight, balance, and craftsmanship of more expensive models.

Handles: Heat-proof, water-resistant plastic handles usually do not warp, chip, crack, or peel. Some folks prefer attractive wood-handled knives. To avoid damaging the wood finish, hand-wash and do not soak.

Prolong the Life of Your Knife

Most kitchen professionals have a favorite knife or knives they've used for decades. Here's how they prolong their knives' lives: They carefully hand-wash a knife in hot, soapy water, using a cloth or plastic scouring sponge. Unless a knife says it is "dishwasher safe," wash it by hand. Dishwashing may be harmful to both the blade and the handle of the knife.

Immediately dry the blade and handle with a clean towel and return the knife to a storage tray or block, sometimes after rubbing a little cooking oil into the blade.

Always use a cutting board when using a knife. The best choice for cutting meats and poultry is a plastic (polyethelene) board. This kind doesn't warp or crack like wood boards can, and it is dishwasher safe.

To sharpen knives, use a whetstone (a honing block used with cooking oil or water) or professional-style grinding wheel, or hire a professional service; some even make house calls.

Once your knives are sharp, keep them that way with the occasional use of a sharpening steel -- a ridged rod made of diamond-coated steel or ceramic.

Here's how to use the sharpening steel:

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1. Rest the sharpening steel vertically with the tip pressed against a stable cutting surface. Place the knife edge near the handle at a 20-degree angle to the steel near the sharpening steel's handle.

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2. In one smooth, slow motion, draw the knife blade gently down the full length of the steel, pulling the knife toward you as it moves down the steel.

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3. When you finish the stroke, the tip of the blade -- still at an angle -- should be near the tip of the steel. Repeat with the other side of the knife blade.

Now that your knives are sharp, you are ready to use them properly and efficiently. Here's how:

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1. Rest the tip of the knife on the cutting surface for guidance and control. Protect your fingertips by curling your fingers inward as you grip the food to be cut.

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2. With a single motion, slice through the food along the length of the knife blade, as you would use a saw, pushing the tip away from you. This makes the knife do all the work, reducing your effort and the strain and stress on your hands.

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3. Finish your slice in a single motion that takes you to the end of the blade edge. For rough chopping, use the back half of the blade near the handle, keeping the tip of the knife on the cutting surface and chopping with even motions.

a. Chef's Knife: This traditional knife, also called a French knife, is designed for chopping and slicing. The curved blade rocks back and forth as you cut, allowing you to work quickly.

b. Bread Knife: Most bread knives have a serrated cutting edge, which helps to cut through crisp crusts and gently saw through the tender bread inside. Use this knife for slicing tomatoes too.

c. Slicer/Carver: Slice bone-in meats and poultry with a carving knife and boneless meats with a long-bladed, round-tipped slicer. Some knife companies make one knife for both uses.

d. Boning Knife: The blade of this knife is usually narrow and curves to a point, making it flexible for cutting around bones. Use this knife to separate meat, poultry, and fish from the bone.

e. Paring Knife: Use this handy, all-purpose knife for trimming meats, light chopping and slicing, and peeling fruits and vegetables.

  • Always cut away from yourself. Use knives for cutting and slicing, not as can openers or screwdrivers.
  • Always use an appropriate, firmly fixed, cutting surface. A damp towel under a cutting board keeps it from sliding around the countertop.
  • Keep your knives sharp. A dull blade can be more dangerous than a sharp one.
  • Use the right knife for the right job: paring knives for paring, boning knives for boning, etc.
  • Hand-wash your knives. Never soak a dirty knife in a suds-filled sink. Not only can soapy water dull the blade and cause the wooden handle to split and warp, it's dangerous to have a sharp blade lurking invisibly beneath sudsy or murky water.
  • Always hold a knife by the handle. Draw the knife away from you to cut and slice, using the full length of the blade.
  • Carry knives blade down, and store knives in blade-down position.
  • Store knives with their blades covered, if possible. Knife racks, sheaths, or blocks are best. When storing in a utensil drawer, keep knives in a separate compartment to protect them and your fingers.
  • Never wash knives in the dishwasher. Dishwashers ruin knife blades, loosen rivets, and cause cracks in the handles.
  • If you drop a knife, let it come to a complete rest before you attempt to pick it up. Never grab for a falling knife.

A cook's best friend and most important utensil is a sharp knife. You might not notice, but as your knives slowly become dull, the amount of time you spend cutting and chopping increases. Most kitchen accidents are knife-related, and dull knives are the usual culprits. Dull knives have to be forced to perform, and when forced, they have a tendency to slip.

The most important thing you can do to ensure safety with knives is to purchase good knives. A good knife is heavy and well-balanced compared to a flimsy knife, which may easily bend or snap. Poorly constructed knives also have a hard time maintaining their edge, and they can warp over time. A good, forged (not stamped), knife with high carbon content and a molded handle, will last forever if cared for properly.

On the Board

Always use a cutting board. Kitchen counters and knives were not meant for each other, and using a knife on a counter invites slipping and sliding. Hard plastic and marble are better for working pastry, not chopping and slicing. Harder boards quickly dull a knife and cause it to slip more easily. Another point to consider is how you hold the food to be cut. Remember, the best tips to mind are your fingertips: Curl them slightly, with your thumb tucked under, to keep them out of the way of the blade.

Keeping It Sharp

With the right knives and the right surface, you are two-thirds of the way to knife safety. Now you need to keep your knives sharp. Grinding wheels put on the best edge, but few of us have a diamond-faced grinding wheel on our kitchen counter. But there are many other tools, such as steels, whetstones, and hand sharpeners, available to keep your knives sharp.

Steel and Stone

Many knife sets include a steel, a long sharpening rod. Don't rely solely on a steel to sharpen knives. It should be used for quick rehoning. Excessive use of a steel will fold or crumble the edge of a knife. Steels take a little extra skill to work with. To use a steel, hold it in one hand with the knife in your other hand at a 20-degree angle to the steel. Draw the knife's blade edge over the steel, starting from the base of the blade and working to the tip with a slicing motion that goes across and down at the same time. Applying only a little pressure, use careful, even strokes as if peeling a carrot.

The sharpening stone, or whetstone, uses the same motions as described for the steel. Fix the stone securely on the countertop and with both hands hold the knife gently against the stone. Starting from the base of the knife, draw the blade edge along the stone working to the tip using a slicing motion. Keep sharpening stones oiled with food-grade mineral oil. Other oils can ruin the stone.

Hand Sharpeners

Manual and electric hand-sharpeners have improved greatly and there are many user-friendly ones on the market. Since sharpeners vary drastically, be sure to follow the operating instructions to the letter. Any way you slice it, good knife safety will help keep you a cut above danger in the kitchen.

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