Breakaway Cook

Demystifying Knives — You Only Need Two!


The other day I stressed the importance of developing really good knife skills. Now, by “really good” I don’t mean training for a career in food carving; I merely mean getting supercomfortable with the knives you have and use on a regular basis so that you can get meals on the table with just minutes of prep time.

For too many years, I kind of made do with crappy knives. I guess I believed that great cooking was within reach even if all you had was a butterknife. I still think that’s true for certain situations — you find yourself in a borrowed cabin, say, and you’re determined to make a good dinner — but, ever since I’ve used good knives, and kept them sharp, I’m sold on the pure beauty and joy that they can bring to everyday life.

Lots of  cooks have knife sets. Many of you know that I’m not much of a believer in sets of anything, and this most definitely includes knives. Ask a set owner how many of the several dozen knives are used regularly, and the inevitable answer seems to be “two.” I agree with them. I have a few more, mainly because I can’t bear to throw them out, but 95 percent of my prep involves just two knives.  Professional chefs obviously need more than two, but I’m guessing that an overwhelmingly large percentage of us home cooks can cook just about everything we’ve ever wanted to with just two.

Both of the knives shown above are Japanese, but it really doesn’t matter where they’re from. You should have a large (I like six inches) chef’s knife/santoku, and a small paring knife. That’s it. But both should be really good quality. You can probably expect to spend at least $100 on the big one, and $50 on the small one. But they’re the last knives you’ll ever need.

On Sharpening

So how to keep them really sharp?

Lots of people take their knives to a professional to be sharpened; plenty of farmers’ markets these days even have mobile sharpening dudes. I really can’t recommend that route, for the sole reason that the powerful grinders they use really take off a LOT of metal. Go to them often enough and you wind up with knives that look as if they’ve had 30 percent haircuts! Besides, who wants to pack up the knives, schlep them someplace, and pay for this destruction?

I think I’ve tried every method of knife sharpening, including purchasing ceramic knives that allegedly don’t need sharpening at all. In fact, they do, and Kyocera’s solution — to box them up every once in a while and send them to Kyocera for professional sharpening — borders on the absurd; they’re great while they’re sharp though.

The best solution I’ve found is a diamond-surfaced stone, shown above. It has two sides of diamond coating: one rough and one finer. Superdull knives need the rough side, but reasonably not-dull knives work well with the finer side. Three to four strokes on each side of the knife gets them razor sharp.

You’re not quite done yet though — now just glide it up and down a sharpening steel (which would more accurately be called a honing steel, since that’s what we’re doing here) to remove the tiny burrs created by the diamond, and you will have scary-sharp knives.

On Grip

Most cooks grasp the handle of a knife, but my friend Charles Haynes showed me a method that we both believe is superior, and that offers far greater control. Move your entire hand about an inch UP the handle, toward the blade, and grasp the handle where it meets the blade, with your thumb and forefinger, and gently squeeze it. Use your other three fingers to grip the handle, but keep relaxed about it. It’s a lot like “choking up” on a baseball bat. It may sound strange, and perhaps feel awkward at first, but I urge you to try it. You’ll soon see that it becomes like an extension of your hand; it will give you confidence and remove the fear of hurting yourself. Knife slips become far less common because control is radically increased.

It’s also important to use your knives tactilely, not visually. If you rely on the fingers of both hands to do the work, you can proceed literally blindly and not worry about hurting yourself, because when your fingers talk to one another, they don’t miscue.

This is how it’s done, assuming you’re right handed: hold whatever is you’re cutting–be it an onion, a carrot, piece of meat, or whatever—with your left hand by pointing your fingertips toward the middle of your palm. Imagine that you’re imitating a cat, claws drawn—that’s the shape you want for your left hand. Now, holding the knife as described above, tap the flat, broad side of the blade against the first knuckle below your fingertips, to let your left hand “know” where the knife is.  There is virtually no chance of slicing off a fingertip if you do this—it takes the fingertip out of the equation entirely. Feeling the broad side of the blade against your left knuckle, you can now slice and dice with impunity without even looking, since you’re now proceeding by touch (i.e., feeling the blade against your knuckle), not by sight. It never ceases to alarm and amaze my friends and cooking students who watch me do this, and who tend to rely on their eyes to not lop their fingertips off. This “claw” method, along with the “high grip” method of grasping the knife, can be learned in just a few minutes, and will provide a lifetime of vastly increased pleasure and safety in using really sharp knives.

The hands do a lot better when they operate on their own, without much bossing around from the eyes or, especially, the brain. Try focusing your awareness into your hands, and letting them figure out the best way to chop something.

On Slicing

Most people use a knife like a hammer—they bring the knife straight down on a piece of food, and rarely use a sawing motion. I find that the combination of sawing and hammering is the best; it lets the sharpness of the knife do most of the work. There is also a palpable pleasure in feeling, through the fingers of your right hand, the feeling of really sharp metal glide through something.

Your left hand is the guide. If you want really thin slices of something, you barely, almost imperceptibly, move it. If you want thicker slices, you’ll move it more.

One last, if obvious, point: don’t use your precious knives for ANYTHING other than preparing food. Don’t open packages, don’t use as a screwdriver, don’t cut Styrofoam, don’t cut thread.

Anyone have any tips I haven’t covered?