How to Improve Your Basic Knife Skills

Knife Skills
Thursday, October 8, 2020

So, you want to improve your knife skills? There are many reasons why it is important to have an understanding of basic cutting techniques. As young people begin to enter the phase of adulthood where they can only rely on themselves, the need to eat and feed oneself becomes a real challenge for some. Unless you have the financial ability to order takeout and eat at restaurants on the regular, you will find yourself in the kitchen faced with the challenge of cooking for yourself. 

It’s easy to turn to frozen foods, but the desire for a delicious, fresh, and home cooked meal will overpower the frozen TV dinners each time. Therefore, if you want to be able to cook for yourself as you come into adulthood, you’ll need to learn, practice, and expand upon your knife skills.

The first necessary action is to learn the proper knife grip. There is nothing worse than picking up a knife and feeling uncomfortable using it -- meaning you feel an uneven weight distribution in your hand, which throws off your balance and may lead to the knife slipping and possibly cutting yourself. Having a knowledge of the proper way to hold a knife will provide you with ease, comfort, control, and stability when cutting ingredients and as a result you will feel more inclined to keep cooking and learning new knife skills. 

Next, you’ll need to learn a few basic knife skills -- dicing, mincing, julienning, and chiffonade. Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy method to mastering these skills. Once you have a basic understanding of the technique and how to achieve the knife cut you’re going for, there are no extra tips and tricks that will make the skills come quicker. 

The best way to master knife skills is to practice. We will cover the basics from grip to the different cutting techniques listed above:

Grip

Demonstration of the blade grip -- you’ll notice the thumb and index finger pinch the blade while the other three fingers rest on the handle. Image courtesy of Not a Cook

Knowing the proper way to grip your knife will go a long way when it comes to improving and eventually mastering knife skills. A proper grip will save you from potentially cutting yourself and make the knife feel naturally comfortable in your hand. 

There are two styles to gripping your knife -- the handle grip and the blade grip. The handle grip is self explanatory -- your whole hand will rest on the handle of the knife. Your thumb will rest just behind the blade while your other four fingers will wrap around the handle. You never want to have your index finger pointing straight out, resting on the top of the blade. The handle grip is generally used by beginner chef’s due to its comfortability, but it does not offer the same control as the blade grip.

The blade grip is typically used by professional chef’s. Your thumb and index finger will rest in front of the handle and pinch the heel of the blade. Your remaining three fingers will wrap around the knife’s handle. This style of grip provides more control and stability. 

Your nondominant hand will be used to hold and balance the ingredients you are working with. Rather than keeping your hand flat with all of your fingers pointing straight out, use the claw method to keep ingredients in place. Make a flaw shape with your hand and rest it on your ingredient, your fingers should be curled inward while your knuckles function as a guide for your knife. 

Types of Knives

Knives from left to right -- paring, utility, nakiri, chef’s, serrated, all made of 3 layers of 440c composite steel with a Black Micarta handle. Image courtesy of Overlord Knives.  

It’s always a good idea to have a collection of knives on hand for various tasks because different types of blades are used for different purposes. 

Beginning with a chef’s knife, this larger 8 inch blade is often the favorite of professional chef’s. It is an all purpose piece of equipment that can accomplish nearly all prepwork -- slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing, julienning, deboning, etc. It works well with most produce and larger ingredients like meats and watermelons. 

A paring knife has a smaller blade -- usually 3.5 inches and serves the same purpose as a chef’s knife. It is a multipurpose tool that accomplishes the same tasks as a chef’s knife, only with smaller ingredients like garlic, fruits, and herbs. 

A serrated knife has a scalloped edge that is used to apply more force with each sawing motion than a knife with a smooth blade. It is best used with ingredients that have strong or tough exteriors or skins and easily crushed or damaged insides -- breads, pies, citrus fruits, and tomatoes. 

Another knife you might choose to pick up is a utility knife. These knives are mid-sized -- smaller than a chef’s knife, but bigger than a paring knife, typically boasting a 5 inch blade. Any and all prepwork can be done using a utility knife as long as the blade can handle the size of the ingredient. 

The first three knives -- chef’s, paring, and serrated will make up a workable collection for beginner cooks. A utility knife is a fantastic addition, but can be spared if you’re restricted under a tight budget. 

Techniques 

The different types of knife cuts -- julienne, dice, mince, and chiffonade are the techniques we will explain. Image courtesy of What’s for Dinner?

Dicing

Dicing is your most basic and common style of knife cut. It is the predecessor of other styles like mincing, which begins as a rough chop. Dicing breaks an ingredient down into uniformly sized cubes that significantly improve the quality of your dish. 

Uniform knife cuts are extremely important for two main reasons. Imagine you chop an onion with no emphasis on how the cuts turn out -- you’re left with small pieces and large pieces. Next, you’ll drop the pieces into your hot skillet and soon you’ll notice the smaller pieces cook faster than the larger ones. As the small onions reach perfect doneness, the larger ones are still raw -- and as you wait for them to finish, the small pieces become overdone and may even burn. So, uniform knife cuts will leave you with an even cook while simultaneously upgrading your presentation. 

To dice an onion, cut it in half at the root with the skin on, then peel the outer layers. Lay the onion down on its flat side and cut a few layers horizontally into the onion. Rotate it so that the root is facing you and cut some layers vertically into the onion -- make sure not to cut the whole way through. Rotate the onion once more and this time chop clean through the sections you’ve made. Once finished you will be left with diced pieces of onion. You can choose to make the sections smaller and closer together or wider depending on how finely diced the recipe requires the onion to be. 

Mincing

This technique can be expanded upon from dicing. If you have diced your onion into large pieces, you can still finely mince it. Garlic is one of the most commonly minced ingredients because it has a strong flavor. A fine mince allows it to be better incorporated into the dish so the flavor will be more evenly spread out. Garlic can be diced and then minced the same way as an onion, but for our purposes we will be continuing with our onion as an example.

To do this, scoop your pieces of onion into a pile -- overlapping is acceptable. With your nondominant hand resting on the spine of the blade, beginning at one end of the pile, start rocking the knife over the ingredient, following along with its natural curve. Once you rock the knife forward to its tip, rock back while moving your knife through the pile -- follow the motion until you have finely chopped your onion. 

When you want to mince other ingredients, start by dicing what you’re working with then use the rocking technique to turn the diced pieces into a fine mince. 

Julienning

This technique takes a rounded ingredient, turns it into a square shape, then cuts it into fine matchsticks. For our purposes, we will be using a carrot to julienne. 

Start by peeling the skin from your carrot. Cut off the top where the stem was attached and the tip, then break the remaining carrot down into 2-3 inch sections. This is your square section of carrot. 

Create a flat side by slicing off one side of the carrot. Lay the carrot down on its flat side. Next, start cutting the carrot into slices that are an 8th of an inch wide.

Stack the slices on top of each other and cut them again into an 8th inch. You will be left with finely cut, uniform matchsticks. 

Chiffonade 

This technique is commonly used with herbs that garnish a dish -- like parsley and basil. It allows you to break down the leaves into fine ribbon-like strips. We will be using basil as an example. 

Start by removing the basil leaves from the stem and stacking them on top of each other in a small pile. Tightly roll the leaves together until you’ve formed a shape similar to a cigar. 

Using your finger to keep the leaves in place, make very thin slices the whole way across the rolled leaves. You will have fine ribbon-like basil strips as a result. 

These four basic techniques will kickstart your culinary journey and allow you to cook a variety of meals as these knife cuts are among the most common. Remember, when it comes to mastering these skills -- practice makes perfect. Cheap produce like onions and carrots will allow you to improve your skills without breaking the bank.