8 Knife Skills Every Beginner Cook Should Know
Sharpen up on these essential knife skills—pun intended.
Mastering basic knife skills is the quickest and easiest way to appear like a whiz in the kitchen, even if you’re just starting out on your cooking journey. Whether you’ve been casually maneuvering around the kitchen your whole life or are just now learning how to boil a pot of water, sharpening up on the essential knife skills—pun intended—will make you the best chef you can be.
Before any slicing or dicing comes into play, you’ll want to secure a solid, sharp knife that will give you precise cuts while posing no safety hazard. Invest in a good-quality, all-purpose chef’s knife, like this one, and keep your knife sharp by using a kitchen steel and by ideally getting it professionally sharpened at least once a year. You should also always wash your chef’s knives by hand, as running them through the dishwasher can speed up the dulling process. As a rule, the sharper your knife is, the more precise your cuts will be.
Once you have a durable, sharp knife in hand, these knife skills will have you looking like a seasoned culinary pro in no time.
Holding Your Knife
Before digging into various knife techniques, it's important to first learn how to hold your tool correctly to guarantee the most precise cuts while keeping your fingers intact.
When gripping a chef’s knife, wrap your hand around the handle of the knife while pinching the top of the blade with your thumb and index finger, where it meets the handle. Although your instinct might be to keep all of your fingers on the handle, pinching the blade with your fingers will give you much more control while it’s in use.
Once your knife is in action, rather than laying all of the fingers of your opposite hand flat on the board to hold down and/or guide your ingredients, curl back your fingers into a claw formation, so that your knuckles are the first thing the side of your knife hits. This will keep your fingertips safe from any accidental slips, and safely give you more control of the ingredients to speed up the overall process.
Positioning Your Knife
While using a knife might seem like a fairly instinctual process—after all, you’ve been cutting food at the dinner table your whole life—it’s a mistake to use a chef’s knife in a similar way as your table knife. For the majority of quick knife cuts, rather than repeatedly lifting the knife and digging through the food, you should keep the front tip of the knife softly planted into the cutting board at all times and rock the blade back and forth from front to back across the ingredients to ensure clean, even cuts.
To perform this fundamental skill, lay your ingredient flat on the board and hold your knife perpendicular to your ingredient. Use your non-dominant hand to guide the ingredients to the knife, drawing the knife through the ingredient in even slices while following the previous rule of not lifting the front end of the blade off the cutting board. While the width of your slices will vary depending on what you’re making, always be sure you’re making uniform cuts, which will allow all of the ingredients to cook evenly.
Dicing, the process of cutting your ingredients into small, uniform pieces, is one of the most commonly utilized knife skills. In the case your ingredient doesn’t lie flat against the surface, slice it in half before dicing so that each half sits flat against the cutting board. Make thin slices in one direction before rotating the ingredient and slicing in the opposite direction, resulting in somewhat square-shaped pieces.
When dicing an onion, start by peeling and slicing it in half down the middle and cutting off just the base of each half of the onion, leaving the top intact. With the onion lying flat on the surface, make a number of incisions through the onion onion almost all the way through, stopping just short so that the pieces remain attached at the top. Then, rotate the onion and slice through perpendicular to the first set of cuts, resulting in even, diced pieces of the vegetable.
Once you’ve mastered a basic dice, you can practice changing up your dice size with a small dice (macedoine) or even smaller dice (brunoise), which create ¼-inch and ⅛-inch cubes respectively. To alter the size of your dice, simply make thinner slices in either direction that align with the size you’re aiming for.
This somewhat rougher and more free-form knife skill is most commonly used for herbs and other ingredients that don’t require a clean, even slice or dice. To perform a proper chop, move your knife through the ingredients roughly using a rocking motion starting from the tip of the knife. To get the most flavor out of your herbs, make sure to use a super-sharp knife for chopping, and to go the extra mile stack, bunch, or roll your herbs together to chop quickly with minimal cuts, which will result in more flavorful chopped herbs.
This knife skill, which is most commonly associated with garlic, is similar to dicing but requires additional rotations of the ingredient. Start by slicing through your garlic (or other ingredient) in one direction before rotating your knife 90 degrees and slicing perpendicularly through the previous cuts. Then, gather your diced ingredient into a pile and repeat this process again, slicing through the pile in each direction until you’ve achieved extremely fine pieces that will disappear into a dish.
Julienning involves slicing your vegetable or other ingredient into thin, matchstick like pieces that are uniform in size. Begin by cutting your vegetable—like a carrot—into 2-inch-long segments to create a uniform length for your julienned pieces. Then, lay your slices flat on the cutting board and hold your knife parallel to the length of the vegetable and slice into ⅛ inch-thin slices. Stack your slices and repeat this process again once more parallel to your first slices, resulting in matchstick-like, 2-inch-long pieces.
This knife skill, which is used primarily with leafy vegetables, is used to create thin, even slices of herbs to include in a dish or act as garnishes. Begin by stacking the leaves of your herb or leafy greens—like basil—in a uniform pile before rolling them into a cigar-like shape. Securing the rolled shape with one finger, slice through the cigar perpendicularly, resulting in thin, ribbon-like pieces.