Knife Skills – The Basics [video lesson]

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I’ve interviewed dozens of home cooks and hands down (pun intended), the most valuable thing a home cook can do is to get a decent chef’s knife and learn how to use it. Below, you’ll find a quick video lesson. After that, you’ll find basics on buying and caring for a chef’s knife.

A good knife is a worthwhile investment. If you buy a quality one and take care of it, you will have it for a lifetime and will easily pay for itself over time. Cooking will be much more enjoyable, so you’ll spend less money on restaurants and takeouts. A good knife is also safer, so you’ll spend less on bandages.

What Kind of Knives Do You Need?

I personally believe that most home cooks only need a few knives. A chef’s knife would be the first one I’d suggest purchasing, followed by a serrated bread knife and then a paring knife. After that, it depends on what your life is like. Plan on filleting a lot of fish? Get a filet knife. Eat a lot of red meat? Get a set of steak knives. Most people never use the bulk of the knives in a knife block if they’ve got one.

How to Care for a Knife

Next, never put a sharp knife in the dishwasher. Repeat that out loud. Dishwashers clean by essentially sand blasting an abrasive detergent. This will dull the edges of your knives and potentially damage it to the point it can no longer be sharpened. The steam setting that dries your dishes isn’t going to do the metal any favors. Neither aspect will do much for the handle, especially if it’s made of wood or involves glue to keep it together.  

Keep Your Knives Sharp

If you already own a good chef’s knife, get it sharpened. Any place that sells kitchenware should be able to recommend a professional sharpener. It will cost about $5 to $7. Depending on how much you cook, you’ll need to get it sharpened once or twice a year. A sharp knife will make it easier to get through an ingredient list. 

Buying a Knife

Before you buy knives, learn their anatomy. Knives are made up of four parts: the blade, the handle, the bolster, and the tang.

The blade can be made of stainless steel, carbon steel, high-carbon steel or ceramic. Metal blades can either be stamped (pressed out of metal) or forged (molded under high heat). Forged knives are heftier and tend to last longer, though stamped blades are useful for lighter work like filleting.

  • Stainless steel knives are inexpensive, but cannot be sharpened once they lose their edge.
  • Carbon steel knives hold their edges remarkably well, require careful cleaning and drying, and will eventually discolor, turning black over time. There’s nothing bad about the discoloration; it’s a matter of preference.
  • High-carbon steel gives you the sharpen-ability of carbon steel without the discoloration. Most professional knives are made of this material.
  • Ceramic knives stay sharp the longest but can break easily.

The handle can be made of wood, plastic, rubber or metal. Though wood can be beautiful, the other materials are more durable. The handle can either be riveted to the blade or molded around it. Riveted ones are believed to be the strongest, but the most important thing about a handle is that it feels good in your hand and you feel comfortable holding it.

The bolster is the thick ridge between the blade and the handle. It’s standard on forged knives and rare on stamped knives. It’s usually ground down towards the bottom to make sharpening easier.

The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. “Full-tang” knives are made out of one piece of metal that extends all the way back to the handle. This is the heftiest and priciest option, but the tang shouldn’t be a deciding factor unless you plan on regularly using the knife for heavy-duty chopping (say, bones).

Below, you’ll find a video from my partner, on how to hone your knife with a steel.

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of “The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry,” “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School” and “Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good.” All are published by Viking/Penguin.


  1. Love that your video doesn’t sound as if you’re in a giant tin can!

    Good basic knife skills are something so many people need refreshers on. (Is there a Share button for this post? )

    • Thanks! I find that when I visit home cooks in their kitchens (something I’ve done a lot of in the past few years), the first thing I notice and we talk about comes down to knives. They don’t feel confident, they never learned, they apologize for not having fancier knives. But it’s so essential. After all, you can eat “whole foods” until you cut them up first! 🙂

  2. I took a knife skills class a few years ago and it truly was the BEST thing I could have done for motivating me to cook. I also only own three knifes (chefs, serrated, and paring) – it feels good to have affirmation that that is all I need!

    • It’s amazing what knife skills can do. Although I cooked a lot, until I went to Le Cordon Bleu, I didn’t know how to hold a knife correctly. It was literally life changing.

  3. Karen Shannon-Wilson says:

    I have read both of your books but still couldn’t “see” how to hold the knife and cut the onion properly. I guess I am a visual learner so the video is great for me. I’ll have to watch it again when I am in the kitchen so I cab practice right along with you! Thank you!

  4. Do you have a shopping list of what the essentials are when stocking a pantry? I’m exactly the kind of person you wrote for: not a terribly bad cook, but unsure and insecure in the kitchen. I loved Kitchen Counter, and am inspired to try on my own, but I’m not sure what staples I should have on hand. Please help!

    • That’s a great question! I have posed it to some of my fearless friends and I’ll be posting it as a blog post, probably next week. Thanks for the kind words on Kitchen Counter!


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