Any Way You Slice It

Any Way You Slice It

You need only three knives for efficient food prep. Learn which ones, along with the skills that will help you feel like a pro.

As Julia Child once famously wrote, “You can save a tremendous amount of time, and also derive a modest pride, in learning how to use a knife professionally.” Turns out that mastering just three knives will carry you through the majority of your slicing, dicing, chopping, and carving tasks. 

  • 6- to 8-inch chef’s knife. By all accounts, this is the most versatile knife in the block. Use it for anything from chopping onions and carrots to butterflying a pork tenderloin. Holding the knife correctly is the key to getting the best performance out of it. Grip the “heel” (the widest part of the knife where the blade meets the handle) with your thumb and forefinger as you wrap your other fingers around the handle. This “feel the steel” hold will give you the most precision and control.
  • Paring knife. It looks like a mini chef’s knife but is used for more detailed and controlled cutting, such as peeling fruits and vegetables. While a chef’s knife is always used on a cutting board, a paring knife can be held aloft, like an extension of the hand. Make sure the handle fits comfortably in your palm and that the grip is made of a material that won’t become slippery when wet.
  • Serrated knife. Just right for slicing through bread, a serrated blade is also used to cut into soft foods—like sandwiches and tomatoes—without tearing or shredding. This knife is designed for slicing, not chopping or dicing. With a firm grip, use a back-and-forth sawing motion. 

Learn to Cut Like a Pro 

Whether you’re chopping vegetables or slicing a bagel, you need to know how to hold food in place in order to use the knife properly. It may take practice, but mastering what to do with your opposite or “guiding,” hand is important for safe and uniform cutting.

The “claw grip” affords the most protection. Here your fingers are curled inward so that the tips are securing the food in place and your knuckles provide some protection. In fact, the leading knuckle of your guiding hand actually rests against the side of the knife blade, helping to keep the blade perpendicular to the cutting surface. If you are slicing a bagel or roll, however, you’ll want to hold the food down with the heel of your hand and insert a serrated knife parallel to the board while using a back and forth motion to cut. (Hint: if your cutting board wobbles or slips, placing a damp towel underneath it will help keep it in place.)

When used correctly, a sharp knife will slice cleanly with little effort and is safer to use than a dull blade. “Invest in the best-quality knives you can afford,” suggests Mark McDonough, a Panera Bread® chef and Food Team member. “A good knife will last a lifetime with proper care.” 

Experts recommend washing knives by hand in warm soapy water and immediately towel-dry them. Also, have your knives sharpened professionally once a year. Find a pro in your area by checking the Yellow Pages or searching online using “professional knife sharpener” and your location.