Five tips for getting the most out of your knives

Last month whilst I was researching l’heure de l’apéro at our house in France, some people, namely Neil, were back in Toronto, slaving away on blog stories. In fact, this isn’t as much of a hardship as it sounds – he was lucky enough to represent eat. live. travel. write. at a couple of events.  It’s a tough job but someone has to do it!  Over to you, Neil…

Zwilling knife set on
Image courtesy NKPR

I was extremely interested to attend the interactive knife skills seminar hosted by Zwilling J.A. Henckels – makers of cutlery tools since 1731.  The company has a long tradition of fine craftsmanship, and are among the most coveted knives by serious home cooks and professionals alike.  (In fact, several years ago our household made a major investment in Henckel knives.)   Today the company portfolio includes Staub French cookware and Miyabi Japanese knives.

Staub knife set on
Image courtesy NKPR
Miyabi knife set on
Image courtesy NKPR

Chef Jonathan Collins walked the group through a great variety of quality knives, and offered a hands-on demonstration.

Jonathon Collins for Zwilling JA Henckels on
Image courtesy NKPR

Apart from some sobering statistics (such as citing the average Canadian spends a scant 15 minutes or less preparing dinner) and food trivia (did you know how to tell a “male” and “female” capsicum apart from each other?**), the event offered some great tips on using knives.  While many may be considered basic, these would be my:

Top five tips for getting the most out of your knives

1. Use sharp knives.

Too many people are scared of sharp knives.  But in fact, using a dull knife is far less safe than using a properly sharpened knife.  A dull knife is more likely to slip off the object you are trying to cut.  It also takes more effort, increasing your need for pressure – which again may increase risk.  With a sharp knife, you more directly have that tactile connection with your cutting.  Says Mrinal Sharma, president of Zwilling J.A. Henckels Canada:  “With sharp knives, your level of engagement with cooking goes up.

2.  Use the “pinch grip”.

It was interesting to see, amongst the 30 people at the event, the variety of ways in which people first hold their knives, ready to use.  Several had their index finger along the top.  This is not stable.  Pinch the knife, where the blade meets the handle:  thumb on one side, index finger on the other.  It keeps the knife stable – and errant slips of the finger out of the way as well.

3.  Let the knife do the work.

Apart from trying to impress your friends, wildly chopping away, knife flying, is not particularly useful.  If you have a lot of chopping and cutting to do, it’s far less straining to use the knife, and let it do the work.  With a chef’s knife, the tip generally never leaves the cutting board.  With the tip on the board, and the knife held at an angle, draw it down and away from you, slicing the item.  Draw it back, and repeat.  That tip never leaves the board, and the natural weight of the knife aids the cutting motion.  It’s also safer, as that blade isn’t coming up and down; so easier to curl your fingers and keep them out of harm’s way.  Go ahead; try it making a batch of chips tonight:  do ten potatoes this way, and ten more lifting your knife up each time.  You’ll feel the difference in stability, fatigue, and speed.

4.  Use the correct knife for the job.

I must admit, the eat. live. travel. write. household can be slightly obsessive with kitchen items.  We have a plethora of knives, and more wine and beverage glasses than we have room for.  And while you don’t need two dozen knives, there are very specific knives that are much more suited for particular uses.  The chef’s knife is the standard, but if you do a lot of roasting, a carving knife will be welcome.  A boning knife makes breaking down poultry and meats much easier.  If you love bread as much as we do, a quality bread knife is a must.  Serrated and paring knives would round out a good set.  Any good knife retailer will let you examine the different types, explain their particular features.

5.  Honing is not the same as sharpening.

The last tip relates to the first:  if you should use a sharp knife, what do you do when it’s dull?  Well, a honing steel is a must for your kitchen drawer.  It does exactly that; helps hone a knife and keep its edge.  But when a knife is truly dull, no amount of honing will sharpen it.  To sharpen, you need a proper two-sided sharpening stone.  It’s really not difficult to use, and once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t have one years earlier.  It was my guilty realization of the evening.

And a final, bonus sixth tip:  buy a knife you feel comfortable with.  Knives are very personal.  Some prefer them forward-heavy, others medium balanced.  Some prefer an extra-long chef’s knife.  Some love wood handles.  Whatever your preference, try different ones out in a shop.  If it feels right, and comfortable in your hands, you’ll enjoy using it.

Thanks to Zwilling J.A. Henckels for an entertaining event, and Montecito Restaurant for some delightful post-seminar dishes.

** For those wondering about the capsicums (peppers): A male pepper has four dimples on the bottom; a female pepper has three.  Now you know.

Disclosure: Neil attended this event as a guest on behalf of eat. live. travel. write. We were not required to write a post about the event and are not being further compensated for doing so. All opinions are our own (as are the Henckels knives we’ve had since 2009!)

3 thoughts on “Five tips for getting the most out of your knives”

  1. Great post Mr Neil – can’t go past decent knives. Though a bit disappointed no pic of you in action with the steel 😉

    I remember visiting the Wüsthof factory in Solingen, Germany years ago and tossing up whether or not to buy myself a set of kitchen knives considering the cost.

    So glad I did, when I returned to Oz, I saw a paring knife here was the same price as what I paid for the entire set 🙂

    Now back to read Tips 1 and 5!!!!

    • I love someone who gets souvenirs like “a set of knives”, LOL! Reminds me of when Mardi and I went to Chicago for the weekend, and I (just barely) crammed a chopping board into my carry-on… 😉

  2. Excellent post, Neil. Most people, I think, take knives for granted. Keeping them sharp would seem critical but, sharpening them is difficult (or scary) for most people. Nice piece, Neil.


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