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Dec 16, 2010 10:30 AM

Unlearning bad knife skills

Okay, so I recently bought Norman Weinstein's book/DVD 'Mastering Knife Skills' and am working my way through it like a good apprentice should. I was a bit shocked to discover how wrongly I've been using my knives for lo these many years. :-( My face is red with shame but can I plead ignorance, Your Honor? ;-)

I'm making fairly good progress on correcting my worst habits, although I still need to often give myself some verbal coaching while cutting, such as "No death grip" (on the handle), and "Glide forward, don't press down" . The most frustrating thing, though, is that I realized I haven't been holding the knife blade perpendicular to the board; I tend to tilt my wrist so that instead of the blade and board forming a 90-degree angle, as I'm sure is proper, it's more like ... oh I don't know, maybe 100 or 110 or so. In other words when I look down, I see a portion of the side of the blade, and I am sure that is Not A Good Technique, either for proper cutting or for the blade edge itself. This is by far the hardest bad knife habit for me to correct, I'm finding out. :-(

I suspect that part of it (other than pure muscle memory, as Weinstein mentions in his book) has to do with my stance at the board -- how my body is postioned relative to the angle that I have habitually held my knife and food when cutting. Another thing I have to consciously work on, apparantly!

What bad knife skills habits did you all have to overcome, once you were shown how to do it correctly, and how long did it take you to correct them?

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  1. Laying my forefinger along the spine.

    I took a cooking class & every time one of us did that, the chef would put a big X in permanent marker on the back of the offending hand.

    No hand escaped unscathed. :-D

    It only took a few days to drop that habit; I was still afraid of being marked!

    4 Replies
    1. re: Eiron

      The index finger on the spine is very common. A light pinch grip is much preferred but if you look at how some Japanese use a knife you will often see the finger on the spine when using a deba for fish fabrication.!

      1. re: scubadoo97

        Thanks scubadoo, I was getting the impression that I had showed up to the wrong class!

        I guess this particular chef had a "thing" for not laying your finger on the spine. (Maybe she felt it prevented you from using a pinch grip?) Anyway, I suppose a difference in rules & teaching styles is to be expected.

        1. re: Eiron

          Eiron, when I said the finger on the spine was very common I was inferring that it was a common mistake. When slicing and chopping with a standard chef knife it's preferred that you use a light pinch grip. You will feel a higher level of control when you do this. The finger on the spine when fabrication a fish in the Japanese style helps to control the delicate fine movements when cutting along the bones

      2. re: Eiron

        Finger on the spine of the knife is how my grandpop (old school commando training) taught me to hold a blade in defense..
        Pointer finger laid gently along the spine of the blade..the other three not a death grip but not too loose around the handle..
        this allows freedom of wrist movement in multiple directions.. almost like where you point is where the blade slices.. fluid movements..

        But self defense is not cooking.. the chicken is not attacking us! :)
        I had to unlearn the finger on the spine too.

      3. I knew the "proper" way to hold a knife for quite some time, but always found the correct stance / grip (especially on the non-dominant hand) really unnatural until I took a short knife skills class in person and had someone guide my hands through the motions and position everything correctly. Once that "clicked", I found that unlearning bad habits went pretty quickly.

        If you've got the side of the knife against your knuckles and the tip on the board, it should be pretty easy to hold it at a right angle to the board.

        1. Norman Weinstein does not believe in Japanese knives, so a few of his knowledge does not apply to East Asian knife skill. For example, it is not unacceptable to cut straight up and down within East Asian knife skill. In short, your up and down is not necessary a bad form. I hate to disappoint you, but the Bob Kramer Shun knife from Williams Sonoma (as opposed to Sur La Table) is more suitable for the up and down down.

          What other bad knife skills I had? Pretty much everything. I used to grab the knife handle with my entire hand, instead of pinch grab. I didn't use to roll the fingers on my other hands. For narrower knives like a boning knife, I still put my forefinger on the knife spine.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            Oh, no disappointment ;-) , because I don't like the handles on the Williams Sonoma Kramers, LOL.

            I used to use the full-hand grip also, but I found that the easiest to change once I read/saw what the correct one is. I do still catch myself with "unrolled" fingers on my guide hand though; I'd say about 50% of the time but I'm gradually getting better. I tend to 'revert' when I'm reaching for the next piece of whatever, and don't take the extra few seconds to consciously set myself up properly.

            According to Norman Weinstein, the forefinger on the spine is the correct hold for a utility knife, actually. The other day I was using my (Sabatier) boning knife for the first time since my "apprenticeship" and IMHO there was no way I could possibly hold the thing in a chef's knife grip .... at least not with the 5" blade that I have. So I used the finger-on-spine utility-knife grip.

            1. re: dessert_diva

              :) I was just teasing you about the two Kramer Shun knives.

              I was able to learn to comfortably grab food with a rolled-finger hand in a few weeks. It took me much longer (probably more than a year) before I absolutely never unroll my fingers.

              I misspoke. It is not wrong to put the forefinger on the spine of a narrow blade knife like a boning knife.

          2. Interesting topic. I've never felt the need to take a cooking class though I have often wished for a class to help me with knives; even sharpening. I know I am doing it wrong but never thought of looking for a how-to video. Funny. Doing it wrong. LOL I am doing something right if the food gets cut up. But wow does my wrist hurt when prepping for large gatherings (two days in the kitchen).

            Thank you for this thread! I will look into videos and maybe I'll finally pick up some speed too!

            1. As in many aspects of life, first you have to want to change. My wife is a pretty good cook (not quite as into it as I am, but she does enjoy it), but no amount of me showing her how to use knives more effectively has ever gotten her to change her habit of using her old favorite semi-sharp utility knife, with the same inefficient cutting technique, for just about everything.

              I've given up trying. But when she has something like a large quantity of garlic cloves to be finely chopped, I've been known to step in and say "let me do those" and mince the entire pile with my trusty Sabatier chef's knife in less time than it would take her to cut two into chunks.

              1 Reply
              1. re: BobB

                Don't give up; trust me, there IS hope! :-) I was exactly like your wife: used my 10+ year old Sabatier 6" utility knife for everything, even though there was a perfectly good 'companion' 8" chef's knife right there (I always thought it was "too big", LOL). Worse yet, I used the dreaded press-down/chop technique for everything. :-(

                Then one day about a month ago I happened to go to the one Sur la Table store in our area, in order to get one of their oversized cookie racks which nobody else apparantly carries. While browsing around the store I arrived at the knife section. The instant I laid eyes and hand on their Shun Bob Kramer it was love at first sight, LOL. I walked out of there with the utility knife, but Santa is definitely going to be on my personal S-list if I don't get enough S la T gift certificates to enable me to go back there on the 26th and get the chef's knife! ;-)

                The feel and look of the Shun is what inspired me to learn about "doing the right thing" with it (and my other knives, which I then got professionally sharpened for the first time). To continue hacking away as I had been doing up till now, would be tantamount to taking a Ferrari to "Joe's Corner Garage" for service, IMHO! ;-)

                I'd also like to add that food prep, which I'd heretofore always considered a necessary-evil chore, is rapidly becoming a pleasurable part of the process. And the more I am learning about knives, the more my interest in them is piqued. They are no longer just pieces of metal, but fine tools that are worthy of respect and the best possible use and care.

                Especially those drop-dead-gorgeous Shuns, LOL ;-D