Knife skills 101: The basics of knife skills for the home chef

The most important thing in your kitchen is also the simplest. It’s the knife.

Increasingly, many foods come prepared for the home cook (frozen chopped onions, say, or diced canned tomatoes) and bless them. Nonetheless, most of us use our kitchen knives daily. And, sad to say, most of us abuse our knives daily too. We toss them in a drawer along with all the other gadgets. We sharpen them on Halley’s comet. We hold them incorrectly — hence, unsafely.

Here are several suggestions to keep in mind when knifing around the kitchen. I’ll discuss just two types of knives among the many possible knives to own: the chef’s knife and the paring knife.

If you had to own only one knife, make it a chef’s knife. With it, you can do almost anything another knife does. (It doesn’t pare well, however, and occasionally you could do with a cleaver.)

Hold it where the blade meets the handle for the best balance, never by the handle alone. Wrap your forefinger and thumb around that point, with your three remaining fingers grasping the handle.

For doing close paring with a paring knife, you may hold the typically small paring knife by its blade, well up near the point. Your fingers are safe there because you aren’t going to cut down into anything. You’ll merely be flicking away at small outer plant leaves (such as with a Brussels sprout) or trimming away garlic clove “paper” or cutting away a mushroom stem.

When dicing or chopping with a chef’s knife, use the knuckles of your opposite hand, curled, as a guide for the chef’s knife’s blade and to keep the blade away from your fingers. Your fingertips (and possibly fingernails) will hold the food steady. If the food is round, such as a potato or carrot, flatten one side to stabilize it.

It is imperative that the knife — notably, its handle — is dry. Little else is more dangerous in the kitchen than a slippery knife. The cutting board should be dry, too, and frequently wiped down.

I also like to immobilize the cutting board by first laying down on the counter a wet paper towel, then topping it with the cutting board or sheet. Furthermore, I avoid cross-contamination of food pathogens by using one board for meat, fowl and fish; another, for vegetables, nuts and fruit. And I rinse any cutting board of one type of food before introducing another.

Sharpening our knives is our gift to them. They return the favor by giving good cut. You may not own an electric knife sharpening appliance; you may not have a “steel” (ceramic or metal) in your gadget drawer.

But you have a coffee or tea mug. Its underside is typically unglazed and rough, close in character to a honing stone. If that’s all you have with which to sharpen your knives, go ahead and use it, holding each knife at a low angle and rubbing the blade’s edge back and forth.

Crispy Italian Vegetable Cakes

Adapted from recipe at; serves 4


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 cups baby spinach
  • 1 medium potato, grated
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Kalamata olives, chopped
  • 1/4 cup artichoke hearts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/4 cup yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste


Heat half the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 additional minute only, being sure the garlic does not burn. Add the spinach and stir until wilted. Turn off the heat and transfer to a large bowl.

Add the potato, oregano, tomatoes, olives, artichokes, and peppers to the medium mixing bowl and stir. Add the eggs and flour, and season with salt and pepper. Form the mixture into patties. Or, if made as an entrée, form into two large cakes.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet and cook the cakes until crispy and browned on both sides. Slice cakes into individual servings and serve hot. Top with an olive tapenade or chopped fresh herbs, if desired.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]

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