Master the most important kitchen tool. Learn how to use a chef’s knife.

Learn how to use a kitchen knife to chop properly. Then test your knife skills by making a braised lamb with beans.
March 15, 2022
How to use a chef's knife. A knife seems like a simple tool, but learning to chop properly can transform your kitchen experiences. Photo: Getty Images.
How to use a chef’s knife. A knife seems like a simple tool, but learning to chop properly can transform your kitchen experiences. Photo: Getty Images.

The most important thing in your kitchen is also the simplest. It’s the knife.

Increasingly, bless them, many foods come prepared for the home cook (frozen chopped onions, say, or diced canned tomatoes). Nonetheless, most of us use our kitchen knives daily. And, sad to say, most of us abuse our knives daily too. We toss them in a drawer along with all the other gadgets. We sharpen them on Halley’s comet. We hold them incorrectly — hence, unsafely.

Here are several suggestions to keep in mind when knifing around the kitchen. I’ll discuss just two types of knives among the many possible knives to own: the chef’s knife and the paring knife. 

Read other great articles and recipes by Bill St. John.

If you had to own only one knife, make it a chef’s knife. With it, you can do almost anything another knife does. (It doesn’t pare well, however, and occasionally you could do with a cleaver. 

Simple tips: How to use a chef’s knife

Hold the knife properly

Hold a chef’s knife where the blade meets the handle for the best balance, never by the handle alone. Wrap your forefinger and thumb around that point, with your three remaining fingers grasping the handle.

Use the “finger curl”

When chopping or dicing foods, curl the fingers of the opposite hand. Your knuckles will prevent you from cutting yourself.

Use the flattening trick

To cut up a round food such as a potato, flatten one side to stabilize it.

Hold it where the blade meets the handle for the best balance, never by the handle alone. Wrap your forefinger and thumb around that point, with your three remaining fingers grasping the handle.

For doing close paring with a paring knife, you may hold the typically small paring knife by its blade, well up near the point. Your fingers are safe there because you aren’t going to cut down forcibly into anything. You’ll merely be flicking away at small outer plant leaves (such as with a Brussels sprout) or trimming away garlic clove “paper” or cutting away a mushroom stem.

When dicing or chopping with a chef’s knife, use the knuckles of your opposite hand, curled, as a guide for the chef’s knife’s blade and to keep the blade away from your fingers. Your fingertips (and possibly fingernails) will hold the food steady. If the food is round, such as a potato or carrot, flatten one side to stabilize it, then proceed with more cutting, dicing, slicing.

It is imperative that the knife—notably, its handle—is dry. Little else is more dangerous in the kitchen than a slippery knife. The cutting board should be dry, too, and frequently wiped dry.

I also like to immobilize the cutting board by first laying down on the counter a wet paper towel, then topping it with the cutting board or sheet. Furthermore, I avoid cross-contamination of food pathogens by using one board for meat, fowl and fish; another, for vegetables, nuts and fruit. And I rinse any cutting board of one type of food before introducing another.

Sharpening our knives is our gift to them. They return the favor by giving good cut. You may not own an electric knife sharpening appliance; you may not have a “steel” (ceramic or metal) in your gadget drawer.

But you have a coffee or tea mug. Its underside is typically unglazed and rough, close in character to a honing stone. If that’s all you have with which to sharpen your knives, go ahead and use it, holding each knife at a low angle and rubbing the blade’s edge back and forth.

Braised Lamb Neck with White Beans

Practice how to use a chef's knife by making braised lamb with beans.
A bowl of braised lamb neck meat with white beans, diced carrots and herbs. Photo by Bill St. John for UCHealth.

 

Your butcher can get you lamb neck or (for instance, at Whole Foods) you will find it in their freezer case. In a pinch, substitute lamb shank, even more readily available. Serves 4-6 depending on portion size.

Ingredients

2 pounds lamb necks

Olive oil, for browning

6 cups water or low-sodium chicken stock

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

3 medium carrots, peeled and large diced

1 celery stalk, small diced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 pound dry white beans (flageolet, cannellini, Great Northern or the like), rinsed and soaked 6-8 hours, drained

3 sprigs fresh thyme, plus more for garnish

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Trim the lamb necks of any superfluous fat. Brown the lamb all over in 1-2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the liquid and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a slow simmer and cook for 2 hours, the lid of the pot just ajar. Set aside.

Over medium-high heat in another large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, cook the onions, carrots and celery in 2 tablespoons olive oil, stirring, for 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes, assuring that the garlic does not burn.

Add back the lamb necks, their cooking liquid and the drained beans. Toss in the herb sprigs and the salt and pepper. Stir all together, bring to a slow boil and cook at a steady simmer, pot lid ajar, for another 2 hours or until the beans are cooked to tender but not mealy.

Let the braise cool overnight in its pot, covered. When ready to serve, remove the congealed fat that will have risen to the surface and solidified; remove the herb stems; pull away the lamb meat from its bones (there will be many nooks and crannies) adding back the meat bits to the braise.

To serve: reheat the braise, adjust for seasoning and serve sprinkled with fresh thyme leaves.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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