Why are kitchen knife skills so necessary?

Cutting and chopping vegetables and other foods is easier and safer with the right kitchen knife skills

Proper kitchen knife skills help fuel your body and make your cooking experience fun, fast, flavourful and safer!

The truth is we need to nourish our bodies with a large variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and the reality is that it can be time consuming to prepare them. Let me make it easier for you by listing some fundamentals about cutting and chopping fruits and vegetables in your kitchen so it is not a chore.

I am on a personal mission to eliminate tiny, blunt chopping knives and teeny, slippery cutting boards from Ontario kitchens!!! Put those little, blunt paring knives away! Everyone needs one sharp, large knife to save time and to remain safe in the kitchen. Blunt knives require you to put extra force behind a job or action. That can lead to the knife moving unexpectedly and a forceful trauma to your body. Very often, one sharp, large kitchen knife is ALL you need to do most of your knife-related jobs in the kitchen. Efficiency in your movement is tied to the heft, shape and balance of the knife. The blade streamlines your work for you, if it measures between eight and 14 inches in length and looks somewhat triangular. This allows for an energy-efficient rocking motion. Have a look at cooking shows on TV or online to get a sense of the movement you are looking for. Paring knives also need to be sharp. They are used only when you require finer kitchen work – cutting something with smaller motor control.

There are a few intricacies to the style, shape and materials of a proper knife. They can be called a German-style knife, French-style knife or Japanese-style knife, for instance. As a general rule, cost is an indication of the quality of the knife’s blade and handle and/or the life of the knife, but that is not always the case. Do your research and/or inquire at a reputable kitchenware store. In my area of Dundas, Ontario, I LOVE the knowledgeable and helpful customer service – and source my quality knives – at The Keeping Room. I also source utilitarian chef knives from Nella Cutlery. Also, check out Sharp Knife Shop, a local Hamilton shop for knives, sharpening and knife skills classes. You do not need to buy the best. Many affordable options are out there. It will likely be made of stainless steel or high carbon stainless steel, or have a ceramic blade. It is helpful to hold a kitchen knife to test how it feels in your hand. If you have never held one before, it may feel a little strange, but it should not feel unwieldy or unbalanced. Ask questions. Each knife has its small advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to choose one that can be sharpened. There is no such thing as a permanently sharp chef’s knife!

Source a location that will sharpen your knives for you. In my area I source my knives and get them sharpened at a Dundas, Ontario, kitchenware store, The Keeping Room. Test the bluntness of your knife by slicing through a fresh tomato’s skin. If it slides through the skin like butter, it is sharp. If it crushes the tomato’s skin and flesh even a little bit, it is dull and in need of sharpening. The blade needs a professional grinding (sharpening) or a very good home-sharpening device and a professional grinding several times/year. Most professional chefs sharpen their knives every week.

Throw away your tiny cutting board! You need a large cutting board made out of wood, composite wood or pliable plastic so your knife can rock efficiently without slipping or catching on the board. The board should measure at least 18 inches by 12 inches. NEVER use glass or glass-like plastic boards for chopping as they are very slippery. They should be outlawed!

You need to anchor your cutting board in place on top of your counter with something that grips your cutting board to the counter. Place a slightly damp, clean kitchen cloth or rubber “keygrip” (sheet used to line drawers or tool boxes) under your cutting board AT ALL times! It makes your job so much easier.

Feet are flat on the floor with closed, not open-toed, shoes while chopping. Keep alert and pay attention at all times when you are chopping. Keep organized and tidy while working. Never load up food on the board. Continuously clean away your chopped items so you are not crowded while working – being crowded impedes your chopping motion. Stop, clear the board and continue.

Chef Nancy demonstrates proper food cutting technique

Keep your non-knife-holding fingers bent and anchoring the food item in such a way that only the flat base of your knuckles are exposed to the knife blade. This would be your intermediate phalanges of your index finger, middle finger and ring finger. It will look somewhat like you are playing the piano on the food item. Observe this position watching a professional chef in action. Fingertips are kept out of the way of the blade at all times. In case you make a mistake, but your knuckles/fingers are correctly positioned, you will only graze the skin of the flat face of your finger, and you will avoid making a more serious error.

Never catch a falling knife – just let it fall! Never cut toward your body.

Consider how to balance your food on your cutting board for your safest cut; do not rush. If something is tipping, slipping, rolling or wobbling while you are working, reposition it to ensure your safety. For example, when I am chopping round fruits and vegetables, I lop the ends off of the rounded object to create a flat surface to station them on the board.

Hand wash your knives with soapy water one at a time. Never leave a knife in sudsy water, as it will camouflage and is guaranteed to slice someone. Never wash your knives in the dishwasher – this will dull them.

Store kitchen knives in knife blocks, on magnetic knife strips or in knife-protective (finger-protective!) knife drawers. When you are walking around the kitchen with your knife, point the tip down to the floor with the sharp blade facing behind you. If you are approached unexpectedly while you or they are rushing around the kitchen, they will only bump up against the dullest edge of the knife.

The vegetables pictured above were chopped by adult students – who were completely new to holding chef knives – during a two-hour session of knife kitchen skills hands-on instruction. This is the precise, large-quantity result!!! Every time I taught that class, I was so impressed with people’s inherent skills – they are just waiting to be nurtured a little bit. I offered kitchen knife skills classes (and included a knife to take home) several times a year at Tree House Kitchen.*

Students learning knife skills from Chef Nancy Henley

I hope I have inspired you to consider upgrading your kitchen chopping equipment – it is money well-spent.

*Update: We’re so proud of the work we’ve done in our hands-on teaching and dinner party classes. Working with you, our clients has played such an important part in the new direction of Tree House Kitchen as a food literacy company, specializing in problem-solving skills and resources for busy families, and community members – like you! We hope you enjoy reading about our past classes, and also where we’re headed moving forward. 

2 replies
  1. Tannlege oslo
    Tannlege oslo says:

    Aw, this was a very good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to make a really good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

    • Nancy Henley
      Nancy Henley says:

      We are happy to hear that you enjoyed our kitchen knife skills tips! Creating new habits one small step at a time is a good way to move past procrastination. If you have a specific situation that you would like help with, please let us know. Also you can ask your cooking question using our “Ask a Chef!” form – find the button at the top of the website. Bon appetit!


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