culinary 101: knife skills

welcome back to culinary 101! today, we're going to cover knives and how to use them.

so, let's take a look at the knives generally in a knife block - chances are that 30% are collecting dust and still factory-sharp (i know, i don't use them either). let's find out what they're for and if you should be using some of those strangely shaped ones in the back.

left to right: chef's 10" knife, filet knife, tourne, paring, santoku, turning fork, boning, bread.

left to right: chef's 10" knife, filet knife, tourne, paring, santoku, turning fork, boning, bread.

what you see here is my standard school-issue knife kit, similar to what you'll find in a premade knife block. one thing you'll notice, were you to look closely at these blades, are the amount of marks and scratches on my commonly used blades and the factory-sharpness of the ones, like tourne, that we literally only used once. 

are you in the market for knives? great! i recommend, like alton brown does, to pick up just three - get a chef's knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife (that serrated edge comes in handy for a lot of things!). my personal favorites vary from knife to knife, but generally I'm a fan of the shun classic and pro, which i find keep a better edge and are comfortable to wield. wusthofs and henckels are, while great, are also heavier to wield and my five-foot-one-with-child-sized-hands find them slightly less comfortable. However, if you're not leprechaun-sized, you might prefer them! (in fact, i prefer their heft for butchery) you can check out any of these at a professional knife shop or local kitchen store.

so let's take a look at each.

i actually have two chef's knives - the top is a western-style japanese blade from  korin . the bottom is my school-issue wusthof blade. 

i actually have two chef's knives - the top is a western-style japanese blade from korin. the bottom is my school-issue wusthof blade. 

chef's knife

oh, that chef's knife. let's take a look there. i know chefs that refuse to use any other knife but that (i disagree, but i digress). the point here is that the chef's knife is your best friend. it's your sous chef. the main knife in your arsenal. get to know it. love it. let it become an extension of yourself.

get a waterstone and learn how to sharpen it. 


this export from japan is a general purpose knife, very similar to a chef's knife but generally shorter and with the rounded tip. often, you can interchange the chef's and the santoku, so if you're looking to stock knives i'd get just one or the other. one of the virtues of the santoku is the shorter blade. if you're just getting started, the 5.5-7" blade may be more comfortable. 

i'm incredibly partial to santoku knives for really wet prep work like slicing tomatoes. those dimples, called a granton edge help to create air pockets between the blade and the food, reducing the likelihood it'll stick to the edge of the blade after chopping. this should increase your speed and efficiency!

fileting knife

long, flexible. bendy, even. this is your wingman when you've got a piece of fish in front of you and you want to filet it. this is a knife you can bend and press up against the ribs of the fish to get all of the meat off. 

boning knife

similar to the filet knife but with a finer point and slightly less flexibility. this knife is fantastic for working into small joints to slice through fibers and sinew and for snaking under silverskin. this is also the knife you want to use to french a rack of lamb.

paring knife

small, about 2.5 - 3 inches. no flexibility. this is what you want for mincing garlic and shallots, for fine knife work, and for checking to see if your potatoes are done. the paring knife is indispensible in the kitchen. need to segment an orange? use a paring knife. want to chiffonade some basil? your paring knife.

tourne knife

don't get this. if you have it, put it away, sell it, get rid of it - whatever. the point is that you'll never use it and you can free up that space in your knife block for a second good paring knife (you can never have too many and i love the kuhn rikon ones that are $10 a pop and come in a fantastic color assortment). 

nobody tournes anymore except culinary students when they're forced to. even then, i preferred my paring to the tourne. 

how to hold the knife

like this.

like this.

not this.

not this.

on our first day, we learned we've been holding knives wrong our entire lives. 

hand positioning - make sure your index finger wraps around the blade and doesn't rest on the tang. this will give you more control on the knife and pressure applied. it will also tire your hand out less when slicing six flats of carrots. 

keep your other hand slightly turned into you at about a 75 degree angle. this should feel uncomfortable. curl your fingers completely under and tuck your thumb into them. the blade of the knife should be able to press against your knuckles.

body positioning - turn your hip so you're at just under a 90 degree angle with the counter. why? look at the way your arm moves. it's now at a 90 degree angle with the counter and with the item you're chopping. if you're flush with the table, your arm is more often at a 45 degree angle and you'll wind up with angled, uneven knife cuts.


knife cuts

let's look at the basic knife cuts. we're going to use a potato. any will do if you'd like to practice. i recommend using something like this first instead of a hard vegetable like carrot. the measurements given are exact and we were graded on perfection. definitely use a ruler when practicing to ensure you're hitting the target!

my cuts aren't perfect here - this is definitely a less than stellar score on a practical.

my cuts aren't perfect here - this is definitely a less than stellar score on a practical.

small dice / medium dice / large dice

perfectly cubed. cut your batons first and then you can easily dice them.

small dice: 1/4 inch x 1/4 inch x 1/4 inch
Medium dice: 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch
large dice: 3/4 inch x 3/4 inch x 3/4 inch


this is also easily cut from a medium baton. 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x 1/8 inch. looks like a scrabble tile. great for minestrone.


comes in small, medium, large, following the same dimensions of the dice cuts. can be any length.

julienne / matchstick

this is the starting point for brunoise. 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch x any length.


my favorite knife cut. 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch.


tourner, in french, means 'to turn'. these, turned potatoes, are meant to look like seven-sided footballs. this is often considered the truest knife skills test but has fallen out of fashion in the current decade.


did you miss last week's culinary 101 lesson? catch up here!

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