Preparing ingredients is a big part of cooking with whole foods, especially fresh produce! It’s important to know what the heck you’re doing when you’re flailing around a blade in the kitchen. Here, we’ll go over how to choose the right knife, how to hold a knife, and simple (and safe!) ways to use knives in the kitchen. They are sharp, but they don’t have to be scary!
(Tip #1: Don’t flail your knives around in the kitchen.)
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How to Choose the Right Knife
If you don’t own any knives, you should probably go buy at least one. They don’t have to be incredibly expensive or top-of-the-line. As long as your knives are sharp, you’ll do great! I use a KitchenAid set that I absolutely love. (The one linked is the same as mine, but in a beautiful red which I totally wish I had!) This knife set is very affordable and offers a variety of knives that will cover any kind of cut you’ll need to make as a budding home cook! Plus, they’ll last quite a while, so a small initial investment will give you years of joyous cooking.
There are a lot of different kinds of knives. Some are specialty knives, some you’ll use all the time, and some are for tiny and precise cuts. It’s important to pick the right knife for the job to minimize the risk of cutting yourself and looking ridiculous. (Think about using a HUGE butcher’s knife on a little strawberry. That’s silly.)
To choose the right kind of knife, you’ll need to know the different types of knives and what they’re used for. Let’s do that! By the way, this definitely isn’t a comprehensive list of every type of knife. We’re beginners here. These are the ones most commonly used in your kitchen at home! Luckily, there are only three that you’ll really need.
A chef’s knife is a cook’s best friend. It’s so versatile and big enough to cut through an onion or a slab of steak. The chef’s knife will have a straight edged blade for smooth cuts. This knife can be used for chopping and slicing. If you only have one knife in your kitchen, make it a sharp chef’s knife!
The serrated knife has little teeth on the edge of the blade. This type of knife is used in a sawing motion to cut through more delicate items, like bread or tomatoes. The teeth allow the knife to cut through the ingredient more easily, so not a lot of force is required (and would often ruin the delicate ingredient!)
Shorter serrated knives are usually used for fruits ,and are called serrated utility knives. A longer serrated knife is better used for big loaves of bread, and are aptly called bread knives!
A smaller knife, paring knives are used for more precise cuts, like peeling an apple or hulling a strawberry.
Not a knife, a steel is a long cylinder that helps keep your knives sharp and straight. Run the edge of the blade along the steel, alternating sides of the blade. As you use your knife, the blade tends to bend to one side, making it appear and feel dull. The steel helps to straighten the blade, allowing your knife to cut through ingredients much more easily. This means you don’t have to use as much force, and the cut will be much cleaner. Less force and cleaner cuts mean fewer slips, which means fewer cuts on your fingers!
For more information on honing your blades and sharpening your knives, check out this post!
Also not a knife, but rather, your knife’s best friend! (Also your counter’s best friend! Cutting board is a swinger like that.) There are lots of different cutting boards out there, but regardless of which one you get, just make sure that before you start cutting your cutting board is stable. Make sure it doesn’t wiggle around, make sure it’s not uneven. If you start cutting and the board underneath is moving, you’ll lose the grip on your ingredient or the control of your knife, and accidents will happen! To keep a cutting board steady, place a rubber mat or a wet paper towel beneath it.
Glass cutting boards dull knives faster than other cutting boards, but are nonporous. Many plastic or wood cutting boards have a well around the edge to catch any juices, but may be subject to little grooves where bacteria can hang out. As a beginner, just choose whichever one you have on hand or is within your budget – there are pros and cons to all kinds of cutting boards!
How to Hold a Knife (and the food you’re cutting!)
The grip on your knife is important to make sure your fingers are out of the way and you’ve got control of the knife. Grasp the handle against your palm and wrap your three fingers around it. Your thumb and index finger should be pinching close to the blade. Chefs often use these two fingers on the actual blade to gain more control over the knife. Do whatever feels more comfortable for you!
Many people rest their index finger along the back of the blade as they cut. I’ll admit it – I was guilty of doing this for the past five years before I realized it’s actually not the right thing to do! I’ve been retraining my hand to hold a knife the proper way (and still catch myself doing it wrong!) With your index finger on the back of the blade, you’re actually limiting your range of motion and the amount of control you have over the knife.
Don’t give your knife a death grip. Your hand shouldn’t be exhausted from squeezing the heck out of your knife! Use a relaxed but controlled grip – you’ll get the hang of it once you start cutting.
But, what about your other hand? The fingers that are truly at risk are the ones holding the ingredient you’re trying to cut! It’s super important to keep your fingertips out of the way of the blade. The best way to do this is to curl your fingers so that your knuckles are closest to the blade. I call this the gorilla grip. Others call it “the claw”. It takes a few times to get used to holding an ingredient this way, but it’s much better than losing a fingertip!
If you’re working with a piece that’s already so small you can’t use the gorilla grip, I suggest “the tunnel”. Pinch your ingredient on either side with your thumb and index finger. Lift your three fingers up and out of the way (fancy-style!). Then, slide the blade between your fingers, like a car going through a tunnel!
Different Methods of Cutting
For the most part, you won’t be using your knives like a jigsaw. You’ll be making straight, clean lines. Because of this, many of the cuts you’ll make will be squares or strips. There are a lot of different names for these based on size or thickness. For home cooks, you don’t need to get out a ruler (although they do make cutting boards with rulers printed on them!). So long as the pieces are roughly the same size, they’ll be just fine.
We want similar items to be the same size so that they’ll cook at the same time. If you’ve got half tiny pieces and half huge pieces, you’ll get uneven cooking, and your dish will come out half-cooked, and you’ll think you’ve failed as a chef, and you’ll give up on cooking forever. Save yourself the frustration – just make your cuts about the same size.
There are also a couple different ways to bring the knife to your ingredient. First, if you can, make a flat side on your ingredient. It’s much easier (and safer!) to cut something that’s not trying to rock and roll away from you!
You can chop ingredients by bringing the knife straight up and straight down, where the whole blade meets the cutting board at the same time. You can also chop ingredients by keeping the tip of the knife on the cutting board and rocking it back and forth in an arc over your ingredients (a rocking chop). This produces a fine chop or mince, and is great for getting ingredients really small, like garlic, onion, or an herb.
You can also slice ingredients. I like to think of this method as a combination of the two above chopping methods. Keeping the tip of your knife on/near the cutting board, slice through your ingredient by moving your knife in a vertical circle while cutting down with each rotation. (Video of these will be uploaded soon!)
Shapes and Sizes of Cuts
I mentioned that you can basically make straight lines with your knives, resulting in squares or strips. Some recipes will call for variations of these, usually with size. Here’s a quick reference!
Whatever the shape of your veggie is, cut it crosswise over and over again. You’ve got slices. Boom.
My favorite cut, roughly chopped means you don’t need to be precise at all, and you don’t need to get real tiny! You can chop the ingredient into uneven shapes – but try to keep the size roughly the same (heh). This will mostly mean larger chunks.
Dicing an ingredient means cutting it into a perfect little cube. Small dice, medium dice, and large dice all mean to cut the ingredient in the same way, but in different sizes. Technically, a small dice is about ¼ inch, medium dice is ½ inch, and large dice is ¾ inch. But honestly, no one is going to be measuring your dice, unless you’ve invited Gordon Ramsay to dinner. Eyeball it! FYI – truly dicing an ingredient means cutting off edges to create perfectly square bits. This leads to a lot of waste, so “diced” on Salt and Skillet means “diced-ish”. No waste!!
Mincing something means getting it basically as small as you can. Using a rocking chop is a great way to get ingredients very small. Garlic is the most common ingredient that gets minced.
Thin slices are called julienne, or matchstick. Stick-shaped and thin, julienne can be turned 90° and cut into even smaller dice than small dice, also called brunoise.
You’re a pro!
You’re now familiar with basic knife skills, including some types of knives, how to hold them, and how to cut some ingredients. I’ll be putting up how-to’s on trickier ingredients, such as onions and peppers, soon. But, for now, you’re ready to go forth and safely use your knives! Prep work has never been so fun!
For more information on knives and how to use them, check out these posts: