Knife Skills 101: Choosing and Using a Knife

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

The knife:  No other tool is so elemental, so representative of the cook than the well-honed blade. It is, in essence, the extension of a cook’s hand and in every culture a kitchen is simply not a kitchen without one. Yet few tools in the contemporary American home are treated so casually. If you’re one of those home cooks who has a handful of knives, purchased God-knows-when, stored in a drawer with the can opener and that gadget you got for Christmas, it’s time to change your ways.

Let’s get over the first hurdle right off the bat: yes, good knives are expensive. I suggest, though, that unless you happen to be a carpenter there will be no tool in your life that you will use more often, and that your knives should command a certain respect, even reverence. A well-made knife, well-cared for, is something you will leave to your grandchildren and they to theirs – a once in many lifetimes purchase.

knife-skills-postThe Lineup

There is disagreement among chefs as to how many kitchen knives are absolutely necessary. One school holds that you need a different knife for each specific task. A few chefs believe they can do any job with just one or two. I fall squarely in the middle. While I own perhaps 30 knives, I consider just four of them to be indispensable and another to be nearly so:

Chef’s knife — The “chef’s” knife, or French knife, is the one that probably comes to mind when you think of a kitchen knife. It has a wide hilt and a straight, sharp edge that tapers to a point.  Chef’s knives range in length from 6 to 14 inches, but an 8- to 10-inch blade is sufficient for nearly any task.

Boning Knife — A boning knife is smaller, with a 6-inch blade roughly as wide as the handle and a straight edge that curves up toward the tip.

Paring Knife — The paring knife is smaller still, 3 to 5 inches long and narrow as the handle, and is used for finer, more intricate work.

Serrated Knife — The serrated knife comes in many shapes and sizes, but I prefer one about 8 inches long that’s offset to prevent scraping one’s knuckles on the cutting board.

The Desert Island Knife — Then there’s the knife that has been essential in Asian kitchens for centuries and is now gaining is gaining popularity in the West. What the Japanese call a “santoku” has come to be known as a “snub” in professional American kitchens because of the rounded shape of the tip. It is versatile and light, and in the “desert island” scenario, this would be the knife I would choose.

The Brand

Saying, “A knife is a knife” is like saying, “a car is a car.” Sure the car will get you there, but how safely, how comfortably, how efficiently? Just as you choose a car that fits your needs and style, you’ll want to choose the brand of knife that’s right for you. In most professional kitchens you’ll find chefs who swear by one of three brands: Henkels, Wüsthof-Trident, or Global. Those who like the German knives, the Henkels and the Wüsthofs, like them for their classic style, their balance, their long lasting edge and their weight. These knives are fairly hefty and, for some, that’s a good thing. Conversely, the Japanese Globals are much lighter and thinner, and are made from one piece of steel from handle to tip. This not only adds strength, but is also more sanitary since there are no little crevices to hold bacteria. The folks at Wüsthof have recently followed suit with their Culinaire line, honed from single pieces of high carbon stainless steel.

In general, which of these three you choose is a matter of taste; try each and decide which feels best. (One important factor to keep in mind, though, is that while Henkels and Wüsthofs are guaranteed for life, the Globals have no guarantee at all.)

Keeping the Edge

Keeping a knife sharp is vital. I recommend using a three-stone sharpening system (my favorite is the one made by Norton Abrasives available, among other places, at and a good steel. The sharpening stones—one coarse, one medium and one fine—you’ll use every few months to really hone the edge. The steel, on the other hand (the metal stick you see chefs rubbing against their knives at the roast beef carving station during Sunday brunch), you’ll want to use every time you pull your knives out to removes the burrs and the wire edge that can be produced from hard use. Make sure you a steel coated with industrial diamond dust; it will last forever and all the care it needs is an occasional wash with warm soapy water.

Cutting Surfaces

Now that you’ve got nice, sharp knifes you need a suitable surface to cut on. I recommend hardwood because it gives the knives something meaty to bite into—which makes it safer for you and healthier for the knives. Hardwood does require a bit more care, though. After using, wash your board with an antibacterial soap (by hand, never in a machine) and dry it right away; a little water won’t hurt, but a lot of water and heat will ruin the wood. If the crevices on the board get too deep, give it a light sanding (once a year ought to do it) and you’ll have a fresh surface.


Once you’ve chosen the right blades and the right board, there’s the small matter of knowing how to use them. We’ll be back with Knife Skills 102: The Basic Cuts in a bit (you can also see videos of mincing and dicing in Kitchen Tips Video Clips), but for now let’s cover the basics of safe slicing. The golden rule is to curl your fingers back towards your palm and keep the blade of the knife flush up against the stretch of fingers between your first and second knuckles. It’s awkward at first, but with practice becomes almost second nature.

Kurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+

Roasted Root Veggies

This basic recipe  for roasted winter root veggies is one we turn to again and again with different mixtures depending on what’s at the market. I love how, after about 15 minutes, the kitchen is perfumed with a deep, sweet scent that lingers well past dinner. These seasonal winter vegetables are super versatile too. Serve them with anything–or on their own–or fold them into pasta or a frittata. And it’s a perfect recipe to practice your knife skills.

Roasted Root Veggies


Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 8


  1. 10 cups (1-inch-cubed) mixed root vegetables (like turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery root and rutabaga)
  2. 2 cups thickly sliced onion
  3. 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  4. Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  5. 3 sprigs of thyme
  6. 2 tablespoons cider vinegar


Preheat oven to 450 F.

In a large bowl, toss vegetables with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Spread into a large roasting pan and lay thyme sprigs on top.

Roast for 45 minutes, turning the vegetables with a sturdy spatula every 10 minutes after the first 15 minutes. Vegetables should be caramelized on the outside and tender on the inside, and some will be slightly charred and collapsed.

When vegetables are done, remove from oven, pour in vinegar and toss to coat, scraping up and bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Season with additional salt and pepper if desired.

  • Pingback: Kurt Michael Friese » Knife Skills 101: Choosing and Using a Knife | Nourish Network()

  • Christine Cuda

    Great Kurt. I hadn’t thought about it before but I definitely use my chef’s knife more than any other tool, daily at least. My serrated and paring knives only a little less often. And after 17 years, my Wusthofs are in terrific shape and I hope my niece or nephew will appreciate them one day ;)

  • jacqueline church

    Someone once told me the best knife is the one you’ll use. I find the Globals are a good weight and size for my hand. I also have some Wusthoff and Henckels. The worst is going to someone else’s house and finding nothing but supermarket “steak knives”. The magnetic knife bar is a great way to keep them safe and at hand.

  • Alicia

    I just got a Forschner chef’s knife and blogged about it here!

    Thanks for the references, Chef!

    Any good tips on how to learn to use the stone without destroying the blade?

    • Kurt Michael Friese

      Yes! Practice on cheap blades! Seriously, though, I’ve recorded a video that will be posted here soon that demonstrates the proper use of the sharpening stone – so stay tuned!

  • Alison Ashton

    I learned the value of a good boning knife in the meat fabrication class in culinary school–it’s a great tool that everyone should have. Also, I’m a big fan of the Japanese-made Mac knives. They’re well balanced and maintain a sharp edge.

  • julz

    We have the Globals, and I absolutely love them…the Santoku being my own Desert Island Knife. As Jacqueline pointed out, the magnetic bar is a fantastic tool for keeping them safe and out of the way.

    I love knife articles. Now I need to go research sharpening tools.

  • Lia Huber

    I’m with you guys on being curious about sharpening. Kurt, I’m sensing that’s a subject we might have to dig into deeper ;-).

    I used to love my chef’s knifes until I got a Henckel’s snub, which is both my desert island and my kitchen island knife. I love how light and precise it is, yet it’s still got the grip of a chef’s knife. I don’t have the strongest grip, and I’ve found that the globals twist in my hand.

    • Kurt Michael Friese

      OK Lia, so let’s get that video up!

  • Renata

    Those potatoes look delicious!

  • mountainrn

    Had to chuckle a bit at the brands of knives . . my oldest son sold “Cutco” knives while in college – just to family members and then he quit. So, that’s my brand. Actually – they cut fine. Of course, I’m a neophyte. ;-) steph

  • Pingback: The Local Beet: Chicago » Back to School with this Weekly Harvest of Eat Local Links()