Food & Beverage
Skill Builder: Knife Skills 101

This excerpt from Jeff Potter’s book, Cooking for Geeks, which I cannot praise highly enough, covers the basics of knife play in the kitchen. -Gareth

Knife Basics

The sound of a failed disk drive grinding itself down is pretty bad, but watching someone use a knife improperly is far worse. I swear, if I were going to develop PTKD (post-traumatic kitchen disorder) over something, it’d be from watching people use knives improperly.

I treat knives as the second most dangerous implements in the average kitchen. (Microplanes and mandolins hold the top spot.) When using a knife, I’m always thinking about the “failure mode.” If it slips, or something goes wrong, how is it going to go wrong? Where is the knife going to go if it does slip? How can I use the knife and position myself such that if an exception does occur, it isn’t fatal? Of course, getting a good, clean cut and keeping the knife in good working order are also important. Here are my top tips for knife usage:

Feed the food into the cutting plane with your fingers positioned so that they can’t get cut. Keep the fingers of the hand holding the item curled back, so that if you misjudge where the knife is, or it slips, your fingers are out of harm’s way. You can also rub the upper side of the knife against your knuckles to get better control over the location of the knife. Use a smooth, long motion when cutting. Don’t saw back and forth, and don’t just press straight down (except for soft things like a block of cheese or a banana). Let the knife do the work!

When scraping food off a cutting board, flip the knife over and use the dull side of the blade. This will keep the sharpened side sharper.

There’s more than one way to hold a knife: try using a “pinch grip” instead of a “club grip.” A pinch grip allows for more flexibility, as it gives you more dexterity in moving the knife.

Don’t use the edge of the blade to whack or crack hard objects, such as a walnut shell or a coconut; you’ll nick it! Repeat after me: knives are not hammers (you know who you are). Unless, of course, you have a commercial knife that has a butt that actually is a hammer, in which case, go right ahead… You can, however, use the side of the blade as a quick way to crush garlic or pit cherries or olives. Place food on board, place side of blade on top of food, press down on blade with fist.

Knife Sharpening

Keeping your knives sharp is the kitchen equivalent of backing up your files: it’s something you should do more often than you think. A sharper knife is safer and easier to use:

  • Sharp knives require less pressure for making cuts so there’s less force involved—meaning you’re less likely to slip and cut yourself.
  • Sharp knives cut cleaner; there is less “tear” through whatever you’re cutting.
  • Sharp knives keep your arm from getting tired because you don’t have to muscle through things. Of course, you’d probably need to be slicing and dicing for many hours to notice.

Keeping your knives in good working order involves both keeping the blade “true” (in alignment) and grinding down the blade to reshape the edge if the trued shape is lost. To keep your knives true, use a sharpening steel (those steel rods ubiquitous in celebrity chef photos) as part of your cleanup and wash routine at the end of a cooking session. By running the knife against the sharpening steel, you push any portion of the edge that is out of alignment (“burrs”) back into alignment. (Never try to true a serrated knife, such as a bread knife—the sharpening steel won’t fit against the serrated edge.) Look for a diamond-coated sharpening steel; the diamond coating is harder than the steel, so it can not only realign the burrs but also create a new edge, keeping the knife truly sharp and actually removing the need to reshape the edge.

More serious sharpening involves grinding down the blade to form a new edge and can be done against any hard surface: a sharpening stone, a grinding wheel, even a brick! (See the interview with Buck Raper on the preceding pages for details.) If it comes to that, I find it easier to have my knives professionally sharpened. Grinding down the edge isn’t a great thing, though, because creating the new edge removes material. Knives used in restaurants can be “sharpened through” in under a year—that is, sharpened down to a point where the new edge on the knife becomes too thick to hold a sharp edge for long.



In the Maker Shed:
Cooking for Geeks
Jeff Potter, O’Reilly, 2010
Are you the innovative type, the cook who marches to a different drummer, used to expressing your creativity instead of just following recipes? Are you interested in the science behind what happens to food while it’s cooking? Do you want to learn what makes a recipe work so you can improvise and create your own unique dish? Author Jeff Potter has done the cubicle thing, the startup thing, and the entrepreneur thing, and through it all maintained his sanity by cooking for his friends.


Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn