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.
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.