From paring knives to bread knives, Santoku knives to cleavers, picking out your knives can feel like the most overwhelming part of outfitting your kitchen, especially if you want to whip up fancy restaurant-style dishes like the pros.
The good news is, despite the wide variety of knives available, there’s one that is an absolute must-have, no matter what type of cooking you’re planning on doing – and it’s almost always included in any set of kitchen knives.
What is a Chef Knife and What is it Used For?
Although it is one of a few different types of chef knives, the Western-style chef’s knife is quite possibly the most important knife in your kitchen. Whether you’re a pro or not, it’s usually the go-to tool for nearly every cutting task that comes up.
Measured where the handle meets the working part of the blade, the blades are typically between 8” to 12” in length. Western style blades have curved edge, known as the “belly” and is designed for rocking motions known as the “rock chop”, which makes slicing through ingredients a breeze once you get the hang of it.
The most versatile knife in the kitchen, the chef’s knife is designed to perform a variety of kitchen tasks, from slicing and chopping fruits and vegetables to mincing herbs to cutting through large slabs of meat and disjointing bones. The pointed tip also allows for detailed work, while the heavy-duty heel of the blade can handle the tough rinds of winter squashes and melons.
The Parts of a Chef Knife
Understanding the parts of a knife will help you determine what to look for in a chef knife, as well as how to use it to its full potential. Starting from the tang to the tip, we’ll outline each part:
Tang: The part of the blade encased inside the handle is called the ‘tang’ and is made from one entire piece of metal. ‘Partial-tang’ or ‘half-tang’ knives are often of lower quality and will not perform as well or last as long. FN Sharp knives feature full-tangs to offer better balance, better performance, and longer durability.
Handle: The knife handle is just as important as the actual blade itself. Look for an easy, natural fit in your hand that allows the knife to be an extension of your arm. FN Sharp knives are made for both left and right-handed users and offer superior grip with a G-10 handle that is lightweight and durable, unlike wood handles that can warp over time.
Rivets: Rivets keep the tang (metal portion) of the knife secured within the handle. Always look for rivets that are smooth and flush with the handle of the knife.
Bolster: Not all knives have bolsters, but quality knives with thicker bolsters indicate the blade was forged from a single piece of steel. Located at the top of the handle opposite the cutting edge, bolsters also keep your fingers from slipping while you work.
Heel: The heel is where the end of the handle meets the exposed part of the blade. This part of the knife is ideal for chopping harder items like nuts, or carrots, or even bones as it’s the strongest part of the knife.
Edge: Naturally, the edge of your knife is where the action happens. Look for a blade made of durable steel and superior ‘edge geometry’ – preferably 50/50 double bevel (sharpened on both sides).
Spine: The spine is the thick edge of the blade, opposite to the cutting edge, and extends from the handle to the tip.
Blade: There is a knife for every use and every budget, but quality knives are an investment in performance and safety. Carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen but will dull quicker. For professional and home chefs alike, blades that offer functionality as well as durability are worth the money. Look for a solid blade throughout the knife (from ‘tip to tang’) made from forged steel.
How to Use a Chef Knife
The first step to learning how to use this multipurpose cutting tool is practicing how to hold it properly. Whether you are right-handed or left-handed, knowing how to properly hold a knife not only helps you enjoy your task, but can prevent wrist strain and potential cutting injuries.
How to Hold a Chef Knife
To properly hold your chef knife, first identify the ‘bolster’ on your knife and position your right (or left) index finger underneath the bolster near the heel. Your index finger and thumb should be on opposites ends of the handle pinching the blade, which is referred to as the “pinch” or “blade” grip. Your other three fingers should be wrapped loosely around the end of the handle. Once you get the hang of it, the knife will feel like an extension of your arm.
Once you’ve mastered how to properly grip your knife, it’s time to practice some cutting techniques. Make sure your ‘guiding hand’ (the one that will be holding the food down) is in its proper position as well. Keeping your fingers safely curled away while still being able to hold the food is called the ‘claw grip.’ The knife should slide gently up and down the knuckles of the fingers on your guiding hand while the fingertips stay tucked under or holding onto the food to be cut. This method keeps the knife perpendicular to the cutting board as well. Practicing on apples or onions cut in half is a good way to perfect this technique.
This technique allows for finer control over the knife, but it isn’t comfortable for everyone. If you prefer, you can also use the handle grip, where your fingers are all wrapped around the handle of the knife. Hand size and the shape and composition of your knife’s handle make a difference, so try practicing with both grips to find what works best for you.
How to Slice with a Chef Knife
Slicing is most commonly used with larger fruits and vegetables, like onions and tomatoes. First, stabilize the ingredient on your cutting board. If it’s round or oddly shaped, cut it in half or slice a small piece off the top or bottom so it lies flat on your cutting board.
To create your slices, place the tip of your knife against the board, ahead of your fruit or vegetable. With the knife angled down toward the point, draw it straight back toward the food until it just begins to make the slice. Then use a rocking motion to push the knife down and forward to complete the slice. The tip of the knife should not leave the board, and the whole motion is almost circular as you cut.
How to Chop with a Chef Knife
If you need small, precise pieces of an ingredient, the chop is the way to go. The heel of the knife has the weight and offers the heft required to chop things like carrots, nuts, and even through bone. In general, chopping resembles slicing in reverse. Grip the knife normally, but slide your hand closer to the heel and bolster where the thickest part of the blade offers the most chopping power. Make sure the food is stable on your cutting board, then keeping the edge of the blade parallel with the board, chop downward, pushing the knife slightly forward as you do so, chopping uniformly up and down with your guiding hand in the ‘claw grip.’
There are several chopping techniques that build off of the rough chop method, from the baton cut and the julienne cut to dicing and mincing. Learn all about these different chopping methods and test your knife skills with the F.N. Sharp Guide to Knife Cuts.
How to Mince with a Chef Knife
Mincing also builds off the chopping method and is often used for garlic, ginger, shallots, onions, nuts, and herbs. The goal with mincing an ingredient is to cut it into pieces that are as small as possible, and the curved design of a chef’s knife makes this easy.
Gather the ingredient to be minced (usually herbs or small items like garlic), and anchor the tip of your knife against the board. This provides a pivot point that allows you to rock the knife down through the ingredients quickly and repeatedly. With your guiding hand open flat and positioned on the spine of the blade near or on the bolster, move the knife up and down about two to three inches up in a left-to-right fashion, creating small, uniformed pieces.
As your mincing spreads the ingredients on your cutting board, use the spine of the knife or a board scraper to gather them back up for a finer cut. Avoid using the cutting edge of your knife to scrape up your ingredients, since this dulls the blade.
Using Different Parts of the Blade
The cutting edge isn’t the only part of its design that makes it a versatile kitchen tool. Understanding how you can use each part of the knife is vital to getting the most utility out of your chef knife.
The pointed tip of the blade is often used for creating guide cuts in vegetables like squash (think pumpkins and butternut) and melons (think honeydew and watermelon), as well as piercing and separating sinew from meat and cutting delicate shapes into pastry. Avoid using the tip of your knife to cut open packages or anything else non-food related.
The flat side of the blade can be used for gently crushing vegetables or nuts and breaking open the skin of garlic cloves. Holding the knife in your hand, lay it flat (sharp edge facing away from you) on the food and gently apply pressure with your other hand with the flat side of the knife.
The heel of the blade is the thickest and heaviest part of the knife and can be used for cutting or chopping dense items like carrots, nuts, or thick pieces of meat, including bones.
The cutting edge of the blade is where the action happens. The cutting edge runs from the tip of the knife to about a third of the way to the handle and is used for everything from chopping fruits and vegetables to prepping meats to delicate tasks like finely mincing fresh herbs.
How to Maintain Your Chef Knife
A high-quality chef knife is more than an ordinary kitchen implement. For professional chefs, it is a precision tool that is almost never out of their reach. For home chefs, it provides multi-purpose function with ease and comfort. Caring for your knife will ensure its performance and durability every time you use it.
How to Keep Clean
Holding your knife in your non-dominant hand, use a non-abrasive sponge or washcloth to wipe downwards from the heel of the knife to the tip. Position the knife towards the floor to avoid cutting yourself or others. You can also lay the knife on a firm surface and wipe each side the same way. Some other tips to remember:
- Always cut on cutting boards – and be sure to choose the best cutting board for your knives.
- Always wash your knives by hand – never put them in the dishwasher.
- Don’t leave your knives in the kitchen sink or submerged in water with other dishes.
- Don’t leave your knives to dry in a dish rack.
- Don’t store your knives loosely with other utensils
- Store your knife in a knife block or other proper storage so the blade doesn’t touch anything else.
How to Sharpen
Your chef knife is more than a tool. It is the ‘thoroughbred’ of the kitchen: the race horse and the workhorse combined in one multi-purpose blade, which is why regular sharpening is a must. Cutting with a dull knife is not only inefficient but can be dangerous, as well. Using more force than necessary to cut through something with a dull blade means you’re more likely to damage your knife, produce poor results, or even cut yourself.
Knowing HOW to properly sharpen your kitchen knives is a genuine art form that takes a lot of time and practice to perfect, along with general knowledge of how the knife is made and the steels used to create the blade. Geometry plays a big role in sharpening, as the edge of the blade is sharpened at very precise angles. Not taking the time to learn about your knife and how it’s sharpened can leave a lot of room for error when sharpening yourself, including damaging or completely destroying the blade. If you’re inexperienced in knife sharpening or simply don’t have the time to learn and practice, it’s best to leave it up to the professionals so your most important kitchen tool is always up for the next task.