Knife Skills

Most everyone has used a knife in the kitchen at one point or another, and most everyone has cut themselves with a knife in the kitchen at one point or another. Personally, I’ve ended up in the ER at least three times from a slip of the blade, so let’s talk about a few knife-related tips and skills that can save your precious fingertips!

First, how you hold the knife is important. Pinch the blade right above the handle, and hold firm between the thumb and index finger. This gives lateral stability—if the blade wants to tilt, you can control it. And please stop holding the knife with your index finger on top of the blade. This is the worst possible way to hold a knife, and creates the weakest grip possible. 

Also, while getting a grip: Make sure the cutting board is stable. If needed, use a damp towel under the board to keep it from sliding around. (Most chefs have a square of rolled up foam shelf-liner in their knife kit for just this purpose.) Plastic or wood cutting boards only, please. Glass cutting boards have some cool prints, but they’ll ruin your knives.

Choose your style. Different blade types are designed for different cutting styles. Western-style curved blades are designed to be rocked on the cutting board with the tip of the blade always in contact with the board. Simply lift the handle and gently rock the blade back towards you. Eastern-style knives have a straighter cutting edge and are designed for slicing. When slicing, the knife is lifted off the board. Start on the top of what you’re cutting and push the blade away from you as you push down. Always make sure to use the full length of the blade and try to avoid “sawing” veggies—long and steady movements are key for this style. Then there’s chopping, which is just a hot mess—or just showing off—so we won’t spend any time discussing that style!

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The position of the hand holding the item to be cut is just as important as the position of the hand holding the knife. I like to use a technique I call the “Eagle Claw.” Curl your fingers in, nice and tight, onto what is being cut—making sure to point your fingertips down. That way, your knife blade can safely glide against the top joint of your fingers as you move along cutting the item.

Always use a sharp knife. A dull blade can easily slip or bounce off of what you’re cutting and go in an undesired direction.

Always make sure your hands are clean and dry. It’s easy to get dirty in the kitchen, but clean, dry hands are better suited to hold onto blades and make sure the sharp pointy end is always facing the proper direction.

And know when to say when. I’ve seen many chefs try to get just a few more slices out of an onion and end up cutting themselves.

Now that we know proper knife skills, let’s put them to the test by making a building block of many cuisines: a mirepoix, which is a catchall term for a cooking base. It’s most often a three-ingredient powerhouse of aromatics that builds a foundation of flavor for other ingredients to complement. The three ingredients change depending on where you are in the world, but I’m going to concentrate on the classic French mirepoix—onion, celery, carrot. Try to keep the final cut ingredients around the same size so they’ll cook at the same rate, and there’s no need to caramelize the vegetables. If the vegetables brown too much, it can ruin the dish. Shoot for a small dice—¼-inch cubes—and a vegetable ratio of 2:1:1—onion, celery, carrot, respectively.

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Let’s start with celery—stick to the natural shape. It’s easy to take it down to controllable sizes—say 4 inches—then cut the ribs in half lengthwise so you can grab a few at a time and start slicing. Go with what you are comfortable with and slice away.

Carrots are easy, too. First, peel the carrot and, again, cut it down to around 4 inches. Quarter the carrot lengthwise, and you now have easily manageable sticks that you can slice down to your desired size.

The onion is the tricky one—in essence, you’re going to create a cut grid inside the onion that’s going to work with its natural rings. To do it, cut off the top of the onion but keep the root end intact to help stabilize the onion while you work. Cut the onion in half from top to root and take off the outer skin. Place ½ of the onion, cut-side down, on a cutting surface with the root end to your left (This is for right-handed cutters. Sorry, lefties). Hold the onion with your left hand with your fingers on top and well out of the way of the knife. With your right hand, hold the knife with the blade parallel to the cutting surface and carefully cut 1 to 2 horizontal slices through the onion toward the root end. The slices should be made about ¼-inch apart and should stop before reaching the root end. Now, hold your knife with the blade perpendicular to the cutting surface and make vertical cuts in the onion—again, about ¼-inch apart—starting from the side farthest from you and ending at the side closest to you—again leaving a little space between the tip of your knife and the root end. After all the cuts are made, hold the onion with your Eagle Claw grip and cut slices about ¼-inch thick, from right to left, ending near the root end. The onion should fall into a tidy, magical dice.

Now it’s time to put that mirepoix to use in all manner of soups, sauces, stir-fries, etc.!

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Mirepoix from Around the World

Ratios can change depending on your preference, but most are 2:1:1 or 2:1:1:1

French: onion, celery, carrot

Italian: onion, celery, carrot, parsley

Spanish: onion, garlic, tomato

Creole (or Cajun or Holy Trinity): onion, celery, bell pepper

Chinese: scallion, ginger, garlic

Thai: galangal, lemongrass, makrut lime

Indian: ginger, garlic, onion

By Zack Northcutt • Photography by Jenna Northcutt