It’s time to level up your knife game, but with a slew of options out there, where does one begin? Simple: Assess your kitchen routine. What do you eat, and what do you prep the most? Once you’ve answered those questions, find the type of knives that fit your lifestyle and buy those that feel good in your hand. A comfortable, reliable chef’s knife, for example, can change your entire perspective on cooking, making even the most arduous prep work go by in a flash.
A quality, individualized knife set is an investment, so you will have to spend money, but as you slice and dice your way through dinner like a world-class ninja, you’ll appreciate the splurge. Abide by a few dos and don’ts in terms of maintenance and care, and your new sidekicks will last for years.
1. Cut to the Chase
There are essential knives, such as a chef’s knife or a santoku knife and a paring knife, and there are specialty knives you can add depending on your cooking style. If you buy a lot of whole fish, consider a boning knife. If you’re a salad goddess, a mezzaluna might be your secret weapon. Replacing dull or inferior knives is always a good idea – it’s just safer that way – but you don’t need to drop hundreds of dollars all at once, and never feel pressured into purchasing an entire set. Make a list of which knives you use, most to least, and buy them in that order. Do your research and be aware of look, feel and balance before making your final decision.
2. The Shape I'm In
You’ve found a great new dish that sounds delicious, but as you start to read the recipe, whoa! Julienne? Chiffonade? Brunoise? There are knife cuts out there that some of us home cooks have never heard of, much less mastered. Before you get flustered, know this: Knife cuts and sizes are methodical and easy to decode once you understand how they all work together. There are only two main types you need to know: strips and cubes – the former often acting as the jumping-off point to achieve the latter. While there are other specialty cuts, you’re unlikely to come across a recipe that requires you to pont neuf a potato or lozenge carrots. If you do, Google it.
Chiffonade sounds fancy, but it’s simply a way to slice flat leaves – from fresh basil to sage – into thin ribbons. To chiffonade, stack leaves one on top of the other in a pile. Use your work surface to tightly roll them up and secure the roll with your nondominant hand. Position your chef’s knife over the roll so the tip is on the work surface and the knife is elevated, and then, using a rocking motion, slice leaves into thin strips from one end of the roll to the other. The strips will come off in tightly wound bundles; you can leave them like this for presentation purposes or separate them a bit so your dinner guests don’t bite into a large clump of herbs.
3. Get a Grip
Paring knives don’t get the credit they deserve, but they’re ideal for smaller detail work. Keep several good ones on hand; they’re very affordable, and they function as tiny workhorses for a variety of kitchen tasks.
PEELING FRUIT. To peel round fruits, grip your paring knife with all four fingers wrapped comfortably around the base – your fingertips should wrap around the bottom while the top rests where your fingers meet your palm. Hold what you’re peeling in your nondominant hand and angle the blade toward you. Rest your dominant thumb on the food for stability and begin to apply pressure with your dominant hand to peel skin away from food. As you work, use your nondominant hand to rotate the item in the opposite direction.
MINCING GARLIC. Mincing can – and should – be done with a chef’s knife, but for small tasks such as mincing garlic, using a paring knife works just as well. Peel garlic and lay it on a cutting board, flattest side down. Wrap your middle, ring and pinkie fingers around the base of your paring knife and position your thumb on the opposite side of the base to secure it to your palm. Place your index finger on top of the blade to guide and apply pressure as you slice. Secure garlic with your nondominant hand and use knife to slice strips into garlic from tip to tail, then adjust angle and mince into ¹⁄₁₆-inch cubes.
REMOVING SEEDS, PITS AND VEINS. Perhaps the best use of a paring knife is to dig unwanted pits and parts out of small items. Start by holding the knife as you would to mince garlic, and place the food against your cutting board for stability. For cherries, use the knife tip to make a circular cut at the top of the fruit, then angle the tip in and pop the pit out. For lemon and other seeds, use the knife tip to “dig” out unwanted seeds. To devein shrimp, make a shallow slice down the middle of its back, deep enough to get to the black vein; use the knife tip to loosen the vein and scrape it out.
4. Never a Dull Moment
You wouldn’t buy a new car and never get the oil changed, so don’t buy a good knife and never sharpen it. A little proactive maintenance goes a long way in keeping your knives safe, sharp and ready for action.
Bang it around. If you’re chopping in the correct manner, you’re keeping the blade of your knife on the work surface and using either a front-to-back rocking motion (for rounded knives such as a chef’s knife) or a straight up-and-down motion (for straight-edge knives such as a santoku knife). Constantly thwapping your knife against the work surface at crazy angles will damage it over time. Think of it like working out: Proper form keeps your joints protected, but too much impact (or the wrong type) means at some point you’ll be hurting.
Be lazy. No matter what the manufacturer says, it is not OK to put your knives in the dishwasher. The heat and chemicals in there can warp and damage them to the point of no return. Don’t soak them either! Wash them by hand with mild soap. Once clean, dry them thoroughly before storing them.
Hone (frequently). Don’t confuse honing with sharpening. A standard honing steel – basically a rod of steel – has ridges along its length that gently guide a blade back into alignment as you draw the knife over it. To hone a knife, hold the handle of the steel and plant the tip into a cutting board. Place the heel of the knife against the top of the steel at a 15- to 20-degree angle. Applying light pressure, draw the knife down the steel, using the full length of the steel and pulling across the full length of the knife, while maintaining a constant angle. Follow the same steps for the other side of the blade. To keep your knives in tip-top shape, get into the habit of honing them every day before you begin prepping dinner.
Sharpen (annually or semi-annually). Knives lose their edge gradually, so it’s easy to get used to them not being as sharp as they should be. But dull knives slide all over the place, making some tasks impossible and potentially doing serious damage to your fingers. If chopping becomes a chore, it’s time to sharpen your knives. Buy a hand-held sharpener for your home, or watch for sharpening services to pop up at grocery and hardware stores – typically in the fall, prior to the start of the holiday season, and in the spring, before grass cutting commences (because lawnmower blades need love too).
Provide a safe home. We all have that one haphazard kitchen drawer into which we fling our random collection of large utensils and knives; don’t let your good knifes live there. Keep your knives and your family safe by storing them in their boxes or plastic sheaths, sticking them to an out-of-the-way magnetic wall strip or keeping them in a fabric knife wrap. I don’t recommend wood knife blocks because most store the knives vertically, with the weight on the sharp side of the blade, putting unnecessary wear on them and dulling them quicker.
Strop It! If knives are your thing, consider buying a leather strop. Stropping removes the last imperfections of the cut, with even greater sharpness as a result. It’s also aesthetically pleasing: Stropping removes any excess metal and polishes and smooths the blade until it shines like a mirror.
5. Put Your New Skills to Use
It’s time to use your new knife skills. If you don’t remember the sizes of each cut, refer to the specs on p. 40. Done right, this recipe will yield a vibrant spring salad with all sorts of shapes to sink your teeth into. The assortment of pickled vegetables and balanced spices and herbs hits all the right flavor notes, and it’s absolutely gorgeous perched atop a nest of fresh greens.