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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

              2. it depends on who you ask. my wife would say i sharpen my knives too much ;P

                my worst lazy habit is an 8 sided tournée, no one at home would know the difference but it bugs me whenever I do it...but not enough to change the habit.

                1. Ok, How do I learn these skills? My husband actually bought me one of those mesh steel gloves to wear while chopping after I nearly removed a finger during thanksgiving prep last year. Seriously, I scare him he won't watch me chop onions. And I'd love to learn to do it right, but....how does one learn this stuff? Especially since the 8 yo wants to learn to chop and I won't let him near the knives as I can't do it right, how the heck amd I gonna teach him how to do it right? Seriously I was slicing carrots and there was no way I was gonna let him chop carrots. I got the glove out, put him in it and got out the mandoline and the food guard and put him to work on the celery. But that was it for his food prep. And really, I'd love for my kid to love to do the dirty...um.. prep work.

                  Someone, please, help me help myself.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: aggiecat

                    This is the book I mentioned in my first post. IMHO it is really excellent, not only because it comes with a DVD so that you can watch the techniques in realtime, but because it is clearly and profusely illustrated throughout. I looked through several different knife-skills books but this one was definitely the one I found by far the most user-friendly. Bought mine on Amazon because they have the best price. ;-)


                    You could also take a knife skills class if one is offered nearby. The Viking Culinary Center offers one, and so does Sur la Table. However, those will definitely cost more than the book; both are in the $70+ range in my area ("area" being defined as within a 50-mile radius of where I live).

                    Some people learn better in a classroom situation, others do better with books. I'm a printed-word person myself, given a choice.

                    1. re: aggiecat

                      Edit: Dessert_diva beat me to the punch, a lot of the same information ;)

                      mandolins are frightful devices, also known as sponge ruiners, and i would not feel comfortable putting some of the adults i know to work with with one even clad with a protective glove! I might be bias though, the one at my parents has bitten me on a couple occasions and i've never used it for food prep.

                      depending on the type of learner you are, you can go to youtube and put in "knife skills" or "culinary cuts" to find a good amount of tutorials on how to do things in the traditional manner. then practice. lots. go get a 10 pound bag of taters and slice, dice, brunoise, julienne, etc etc etc your heart out :D

                      You can learn a lot from youtube, but sometimes you just need that human interaction to show you the nuances of how to perfect your technique. there are often knife skills classes at sur la table, and if you search for local "knife skills" in google you should find a few places offering such services, and often they are not too expensive. I would suggest taking the class with your kids, it could be a lot of fun and exemplify that you never stop learning no matter how old you are

                      1. re: cannibal

                        cannibal: You ever dig up that scorch data? Hope you had a nice vacation.

                        1. re: kaleokahu

                          just got back actually!
                          i'll search for it tonight, it's all on a server that's out in the garage. I need to fire it up for other stuff as well so it's likely that it'll happen sooner rather than later.
                          vacation was good :)

                      2. re: aggiecat

                        "Help me help myself"? You must be watching too many Tom Cruise ... :)

                        I like to add there is no one single universal way to use a knife, but there are some common theme. I don't know how much you know about knife skill, so I will start with the simplest.

                        First, make sure hold your Chef's knife with pinch grip
                        Second, hold down your food with your other hand by rolling your finger inward, also known as a claw hand.

                        Here is a short video which summarizes the above two points:


                        Now, if you are more into rock chop, then you can start to master the so called low and high techniques. Rock chop is more popular among European style knives. Here is a video from Norman Weinstein:


                        Now, there is push cut (often combine with some forward motion). This cut is very suitable for East Asian style of knives like Nakiri, Santoku and Chinese cleavers. Salty does a great demonstration here:

                        (you can skip the sharpening part)

                      3. Even though my "project hand" is doing that bear-claw thing I occasionally leave my thumb alongside my fingers instead of behind them, with predictable results. I'm most susceptible to making this error when I'm trying to cut something small and unevenly shaped like a clove of garlic that is tough to hold steady with just my bent fingers.

                        I'm open to any tips for avoiding that...

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: jzerocsk

                          "I occasionally leave my thumb alongside my fingers instead of behind them, with predictable results"

                          Agree. That had/has been a tough habit to break.

                          What you said is true because our thumb is what allows us to make secure grip. So we have the tendency to put the thumb in unsafe place. There are two things I do to avoid putting my thumb in the way of a knife. One is to secure the small items (garlic) by placing the thumb behind the item instead of on the side of the item. The other is to place use the middle finger and index finger as the guide for the knife instead of the forefinger and middle finger. Using the middle finger and the index finger as the guide, it force the knife make an angle much further away from your thumb.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Chem: "[O]ur thumb is what allows us to make secure grip."

                            I can't resist a Holiday tweak: Actually, our thumbs are what make us catarrhines (and a few of us lemurs and lorises).

                            You are a wealth of information, my friend, and I have learned a lot from you in 2010. Thank You. Happy Holidays.

                            1. re: kaleokahu

                              Yes, and our opposable thumbs are what allow us to grip onto objects. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult for our ancestors to make stone tools or throw spears.

                            2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              Typo. Most people use "index finger and middle finger" as the knife guide, including me. However, one will cut the thumb, if it stay ahead of the line form by the "index finger and middle finger". If you stay close to the cutting board, you can rotate your guide hand just a bit more so that your knife blade is pressing against "only the middle finger" or "middle finger and ring finger". It is a bit of an exaggerated move, but it helped me to break the bad habit. By using the "middle finger and ring finger", it is much tougher to cut the thumb. Once you are comfortable, then you can switch back to the "index finger and middle finger".

                              A better way to look at this is to make sure your left forearm and right forearm form a ~90o angle against one and other and the two hands are parallel to the respectively forearms. If the angle is much greater than 90o, then the stance will put stress on your shoulders and probably other joints. If the angle is much less than 90o, then you will tend to put the thumb too close to the knife. This is why it is important to stay close to the cutting boards as cowboy has stated. If you are too far from the cutting board, you will be forced to form an small angle between the two forearms.

                            3. re: jzerocsk

                              That's probably my biggest bad habit too. It helps to keep your claw hand rotated inwards and to likewise make sure you're standing close to the cutting board and not cutting on the far side of the board. Helps keep the thumb away from the knife. I also like to push out my index finger a bit and use that as a guide to buy me some leeway - just be careful to make sure it's still tucked under enough not to be in danger itself.

                              Still, especially if I'm going fast, it's easy to get sloppy with my thumb. It's just a bit easier now to keep my thumb out of the way - my thumb is now a milimeter or so shorter than it used to be.

                            4. Take your time. You are not juggling flaming chainsaws or doing a 30 second infomercial. Haste makes waste, and those hand cuts take forever to heal. "My, what's in your red sauce? It sure is ...different."

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Veggo

                                Lol ... red sauce ...!!!
                                Yah, my cut from over a year ago - Seems the scar tissue weighs heavier in the cold weather or something ... That'll get you serious about knife skills.
                                Otherwise, my press down/chopping habit is still so difficult to break. But 'taking your time' is exactly what I do. I still slow everything down and exaggerate my movements of 'gliding forward / circular-like' motion from time to time, just so I can check my progress. My grip has improved and I'm more comfortable dealing with all my knives in general.
                                Now if I can only stop my boyfriend's habit of putting my knives in the sink!

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  I'll second taking your time. make sure your technique is solid and fluid, speed will follow. there's a saying I heard once that goes "slow is smooth. smooth is fast" it was in the context of structural mechanics, but it applies everywhere. take your time to do things right and you won't have to go back and do it again, as your skill progresses so will your speed.

                                2. My bad habit was to not curl my fingers. The near loss of a finger tip solved that problem. I got serious about the "claw" and now use it without thought

                                  1. DD, besides knife angles and stance at board, I'd also check the height of your cutting surface. It's important to have an ergonomic workspace. Some of your bad habits could be from years or working on a counter that's too high or too low.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: pdxgastro

                                      Good point, but it's just your typical standard kitchen counter height. Unfortunately I can't get away from the fact that my years of bad habits probably come from never being aware that there was a right way and a wrong way to do it.

                                      Love the "flaming chainsaws" description, btw. :-)

                                      The more I am using the chef's knife, the more I am amazed that I used to always reach for the 6" utility knife for everything, and I do mean everything! The chefs knife, which I always considered "too big and clunky" and only used when I had to cut through chicken joints (I know, I know, 20 lashes for that transgression, especially when a perfectly good pair of shears was sitting in the back of the drawer), seems like a no-brainer now that I'm learning how to use it.