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Cutting, Chopping, and Knives

In your kitchen, knives are some of the most important tools, and probably the most heavily-used ones. And if mis-used, they can be dangerous. Using a knife properly and efficiently is one of the very few skills you actually need to acquire in order to be a competent home cook. But don’t worry: despite what you see on television, knife skills are not difficult to learn.

But let’s take a moment up-front to define what we mean by knife skills.  We’ve all seen videos of professional chefs and restaurant workers chopping up vegetables rapid-fire, their knife a blur of up-and-down motion. They are taught to do that in professional cooking schools. In a large-scale professional kitchen, where time is of the essence, being able to cut up large quantities of food quickly can be essential; there is simply too much prep work to be done, and not enough time to do it all. Professional cooks rely upon their training and well-practiced skills to keep them safe, even when working quickly.

At home in your kitchen, however, speed is not as much of an issue, and to the extent it does matter there are methods for cutting up items (often specific to the item) that will save you the bulk of the time anyway.  Safety is much more important than speed: you want to end every day with your hands and fingers intact. Never, ever, cut faster than you feel safe and comfortable doing so; it is simply not worth the risk. You may feel that you have something to prove when you’re cooking, but let the finished product prove it, not the speed in which you produce it.

There is one priority that we home cooks share with the professionals: consistency. When cutting up food, it is important that all of the pieces are approximately the same size. To a small extent it helps with the presentation, but the primary reason for size consistency is because it ensures that all of the pieces cook at the same rate – and are finished cooking at the same time.

To sum up:  professional cooks optimize their knife skills for speed and consistency. Home cooks should optimize for safety first, then consistency.

The basic types of kitchen knives

There are many different kinds of knives to be found in a kitchen, including chef’s knives, carving knives, bread knives, butter knives, dinner knives, cheese knives, steak knives, and oyster knives.  There are also variations of some of these specific to certain cultures or geographies, such as a santoku or an ulu.  At the point you have achieved a level of comfort and competence in your own kitchen, you can explore different knives, try them, and adopt the ones that work best for you. But before then, there are just a few that you truly need and that will get regular use: chef’s knives, a bread knife, and a carving knife.

A bread knife is a long, thin knife with a wide cerrated edge, i.e. it has large, curvy bumps. As the name implies, it’s used most often for slicing various kinds of bread; though it also can be handy with cake and other pastries.

A bread knife.

A carving knife is a long knife with a thin cerrated edge: small, parallel bumps that look like small comb teeth. It’s used mainly for carving up meat.

A small carving knife.

Chef’s knifes have a flat blade (no cerrations), and come in different sizes. A large chef’s knife can have a blade length of 8-9 inches and a handle length of about 5 inches.  A medium chef’s knife’s blade will be around 6 inches with a handle of 4 ½ inches. A small chef’s knife, often called a paring knife, has both blade and handle of around 4 inches. The larger the blade, the longer and stronger it will cut. The shorter the blade, the greater precision with which you can cut. Larger chef’s knives are also heavier, and the momentum from that extra mass can help to make your movements more steady and consistent.

Bread and carving knives are mostly special-use items; most of your meal prep will be done with chef’s knives. Ideally, you’ll have a large, medium and small one, so that you can pick the one best suited for your task.

Here’s a very important principle: a chef’s knife needs to fit well in your hand, and since everyone’s hands are different shapes and sizes, different people will do better with different knives. Don’t expect that you can pick up any chef’s knife and feel comfortable with it: the handle may be too large, too light or heavy, or the wrong shape for you to grab it well or to get good leverage on it. That means that the first time you pick up a knife, you will want to be extra careful with it and test how well you can hold it. It also means that when you buy chef’s knives, it is critically important that you check that it fits your hand well before you pay for it (more on that in a bit).

There is more than one way to hold a chef’s knife, depending on the kind of cut you’re trying to make and the size and shape of your hand, but a very common one is to grasp it such that the largest joint on your index finger is on top of the handle, right at the base of the blade.  This is how most people hold a knife to slice and chop, because it maximizes your leverage for up-and-down movements without loosening your grip on the knife or giving up any control over where the blade goes.  I mention this here because when you are checking to see whether a chef’s knife is right for you, this is the grip you will want to try first.

Chef’s knives come in several styles, as well as a number of price points that often (but not always) reflect the quality of workmanship. When evaluating a knife, some important areas to pay attention to are:

  • The blade. Make sure it’s not warped: look down the length of it to see if it curves. Also make sure that the sharp edge of the blade is straight along most of its length, so that when you press it down to cut through something it makes a clean cut all the way along (curving up near the tip is fine).
  • The handle. Make sure that the size and curvature fit your hand well, and that it’s well balanced: for large and medium-sized knives, somewhere close to where your index finger naturally rests should be the center of gravity so that you can balance the knife on your finger. Also, in a well-made knife, the piece of metal that the blade is carved from extends inside the full length of the handle and is sandwiched in place with rivets  . Cheaper chef’s knives just have a small plug of metal that inserts perhaps an inch into the end of the handle that is glued in place; these can come apart easily, and it throws off the balance of the knife.
  • The bolster: this is the thick part at the base of the blade, next to the handle. It stops your hand from slipping down onto the blade itself, and it gives you a place to push down with the lower joint of your index finger. It’s important that the bolster not extend down lower than the sharp part of the blade, otherwise you won’t be able to slice all the way through items – the bolster will hit the cutting board before the blade does.
  • The heel: below the bolster, you can use this as a mini-hammer for garlic cloves, nuts and other small items.
The bolster and heel of a knife
  • The tip: you will use this to poke holes and make shallow cuts.
The tip of a knife.

Buying a chef’s knife (or three)

A good, high-quality chef’s knife that fits your hand well is money well spent; if you take care of it, it can serve you well for years or even decades. There are many very good, very expensive knives, and also many very bad, cheap ones, but quality and price don’t always go hand-in-hand: it really is possible to find one that is very good and also not unreasonably priced.

That said, here is an important rule: don’t spend money on a chef’s knife until you’ve actually held it in your hand and verified that it fits you. That means that your first purchase shouldn’t be online: it should be in a knife shop, where you can try several knives and find the best one for you. This why knife shops exist, and it’s the employees’ job to help you with this. It’s fine to do some research online before you shop in person, so you know what the options are and are familiar with the current price range, which knives are rated highly, and the manufacturer’s suggested price when you arrive at the knife shop.

Many knife shops will have one of each of the knives they sell on display. When you go into the knife shop, you should tell an employee what kind of knife (or knives) you’re looking for, your price point, and ask to try holding some of the knives.  If the store doesn’t have “demo models” on display, they will have knives in their original boxes on shelves. If you want to try a knife, take the box over to the counter and ask an employee if it is OK for you to take the knife out of the box to try holding it. If the store you are in is any good, they already know that no one who knows what they are doing would consider buying a chef’s knife without holding it first; they will thank you for being a considerate customer and asking first before opening up the box, and then they will give you permission (or perhaps swap it with another box that has already been opened that contains an identical knife). If the employee doesn’t give you permission to hold a knife before you consider buying it, thank them and leave the store right away, because they clearly don’t understand the business they are in.

If you’ve never held a chef’s knife before, make sure you try two or three before you buy one, so that you can really understand – and feel – what your options are. The first one you try might be good, but the third one might feel so much better in your hand.

Generally speaking, it’s rude to take advantage of a knife store to try out several models and then go buy the same one online to save a few bucks. The knife store owner provided a valuable service by letting you find the best knife for you, and they ought to be compensated for that. If the price difference is small, just buy the knife in the store. If the knife store’s price is truly extraordinary, marked up well beyond online prices, then it’s okay not to buy that knife there, but buy something in the knife store to thank them for their service and to help them stay in business.

Honing and Sharpening Knives

It is very important that you keep your chef’s knives sharp. Contrary to intuition, a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. Dull knives catch and slip; sharp knives cut cleanly and predictably.

Regular daily use of a chef’s knife will cause some unevenness in the edge of the blade; you can minimize that by using a honing steel to straighten it out again – just make sure you follow the manufacturer’s directions to ensure that you’re holding the blade at the right angle to the honing steel.

Over time the blade will also get dull, i.e. the edge won’t be as thin and will have more difficulty slicing, and it will need sharpening. You can try sharpening it yourself, or you can have a professional do it for you. My advice: give your town’s knife store some business and have them do it; it’s relatively cheap ($10-15 per knife) and you know they will do it right. It’s possible for you to sharpen your own knives at home, and there are various tools you can buy to help you do this, but it’s also very easy to mess it up and permanently damage the knife. I don’t try to sharpen my own chef’s knives; I let professionals do it.

Learning to use a chef’s knife

OK, so you now have a good chef’s knife or three. It’s time to get competent with them.

First, the basic safety precautions:

  • Don’t touch the blade edge.
  • If you’re holding something with one hand while cutting with the other (which you almost always will), never hold the item so that any part of you is in the plane of the knife blade.
  • Don’t cut any faster than you feel safe or comfortable. This isn’t a race or a competition.
  • Cut so that the tip of the knife points away from you (and anyone nearby), and the blade edge is moving in a direction away from you.
  • Make sure that the cutting surface (the cutting board, plate or countertop) are stable and won’t tip or slide.
  • If you’re walking a knife from one part of your kitchen to another and someone else is in your kitchen, make yourself and your intentions well known: hold the knife over your head, horizontally with the blade edge up, and say “knife!” out loud so that everyone else knows what you’re doing and can stay out of harm’s way.

There are two ways to cut with a knife: slicing along the length of the blade, and pushing the knife through. For relatively soft items (like most fresh vegetables), pushing through with a sharp knife works and is the most common method for chopping or dicing. For harder and tougher items, pushing through can be difficult, it is more prone to accident-inducing slips, and in extreme situations it can damage the knife, so slicing is the better way to go.

When cutting anything round or irregularly-shaped, the first step is to stabilize it so that it won’t roll or otherwise move around while you are further slicing or chopping it up. You do this by slicing off one side to make a flat surface, and then re-orienting it so that the flat side is facing down. This is by far the safest way to cut round items.

Chopping, dicing and mincing:

Many recipes call for cutting up vegetables (and sometimes meat) into smaller pieces. Depending on the size of the pieces, this is called, chopping, dicing, or mincing.

  • Chopping: ½” to 1” pieces
  • Dicing: ¼” to ½” pieces
  • Mincing: 1/8” or smaller pieces

However, the technique is basically the same for all of these:

  1. Slice off a side and place the item flat-side down to stabilize it, if necessary.
  2. Cut the vegetable into slices of the desired thickness.
  3. Cut the slices into sticks of the desired width.
  4. Line up several of the sticks, and then cut across the sticks to make cubes of the desired length.

This works for all of the long, skinny veggies you’ll encounter. Here are videos of dicing up veggies so you can see this in action:

Potato (peeled or unpeeled):

  • Make a flat side, and place the potato flat-side down. The easiest way to do this is simply to cut the potato in half lengthwise.
  • Make vertical cuts lengthwise to create flat slices of the desired thickness.
  • Lay each slice down on a flat side, and make lengthwise cuts to create sticks of the desired thickness.
  • Line up several of the sticks side by side, and cut across them to make cubes of the desired thickness.

Carrot:

  • Wash the carrot thoroughly, and peel if desired (peeling is optional and is more a matter of personal preference).
  • Cut off the tip.
  • Make cross-wise cuts to create segments about 4-5 inches in length.
  • Cut each segment in half lengthwise. There are two ways to do this, both of which require care and a little practice: either lie the segment on its side and cut it lengthwise, or if the piece is thick enough to be stable stand it on its thickest end and cut down through it. Be careful doing this, and make sure to stabilize the carrot segment by keeping your hand above, not below or to the side of, the knife.  
  • Lay each half-segment down on its long flat side, and make lengthwise cuts to create sticks of the desired thickness.
  • Line up the sticks side-by-side and make cross-wise cuts to create cubes of the desired size.

Celery:

  • Wash the celery sticks thoroughly.
  • Cut off both ends of a celery stick.
  • Make cross-wise cuts to create segments about 4-5 inches in length.
  • Lay each celery segment with the curved side pointing up – this is more stable than curved-side down. Make lengthwise cuts to create sticks of the desired thickness.
  • Line up the sticks side-by-side and make cross-wise cuts to create cubes of the desired size.

Cucumber and Zucchini: (use a small spoon to scrape out the seeds)

  • Cut off both ends of the cucumber.
  • Make cross-wise cuts to create segments about 5 inches in length.
  • Stand each segment on its widest end, and cut down through the center to make two halves.
  • Grab a small spoon. Cup a half-segment in your hand, flat-side up, and run the spoon down the middle of the segment to scoop out all of the seeds.
  • Lay each segment curved-side up, and make vertical slices lengthwise to create sticks of the desired thickness. The slices on either end will be taller than the ones in the middle and may need to be sliced in half again.
  • Line up batches of sticks next to each other and make cross-wise cuts to create cubes of the desired size.

There are also special cases:

Bell pepper:

  • Lay the pepper on its side and slice off the top and the bottom. Set both aside as they are both usable but of irregular shape so they will need to be chopped up separately.
  • Stand the pepper on its end and slice off the four sides of the pepper, slicing between the mass of seeds in the middle and the outside “meat”. You will now have four rectangular slices of pepper.
  • Cut each slice lengthwise to create sticks of the desired width.
  • Line up batches of sticks side by side and cut lengthwise across them to create cubes of the desired size.
  • If desired, chop up the top and bottom of the pepper (discarding the stem).

Pineapple :

<this is instructions for “cubing” pineapple. If you are looking to create circular slices, I recommend you go buy a “pineapple corer” and follow the instructions that come with it.>

  • Lay the pineapple on its side and cut crosswise to remove the top and bottom. Try to cut far enough up so that the pineapple is close to the same thickness along its entire length – this isn’t required but it makes the next step much easier.
  • Stand the pineapple on its end, and make vertical cuts around it to remove the outside peel and barbs.
  • With the pineapple still standing on its end, make four vertical cuts in a square around the hard core of the pineapple, separating the edible “meat” from the core and creating four slices. Discard the core.
  • Lay each slice on its flat side, and make cuts lengthwise to create sticks of the desired thickness.
  • Line up batches of sticks and make crosswise cuts to create chunks of the desired thickness.

Apple (chunks for pie or salad):

  • Wash the apple, and peel it if desired.
  • Lay the apple on its side and cut off the top and bottom.
  • Stand the apple on its (now flat) end, and make four vertical cuts between the core and the “meat” of the apple to create four thick slices.
  • Lay each slice on its flat side, and make lengthwise cuts to create sticks. If necessary, lay the sticks on their side and cut them lengthwise again until the desired thickness.
  • Line up batches of sticks side by side and cut them crosswise to make chunks of the desired size.

Onion:

 <This is one of those magical techniques that once someone demonstrates it to you, and you realize how much time and frustration it saves you, you never go back. It takes a couple of tries to master, so don’t worry if you mess up in the beginning; I certainly did several times before I got the hang of it. The failures will tell you what not to do the next time. And even if you only get it 75% right, it will still save you 75% of the work of cutting up onions meticulously by hand.>

  • Cut off one end of the onion, preferably the “stem” end rather than the “root” end.
  • Stand the onion on its flat end, and cut it vertically to create two halves.
  • Peel the onion halves.
  • Lengthwise cuts method 1: make a series of end-to-end vertical cuts of the desired width, then one end-to-end horizontal cut. Stop cutting about half an inch short of the root end, so that it holds the onion together.
  • Lengthwise cuts method 2: make a series of “radial” lengthwise cuts from the outside toward the center of the onion.  Toward the base these cuts will be nearly horizontal, and at the top they will be mostly vertical. Try to space your cuts so they don’t overlap; the center vertical cut can go right through the center, but as you move down the sides try to have your cuts end each a little farther away from the center. As with method 1, stop cutting about half an inch before you reach the “root” end so that the end holds the onion together.
  • Make cross-wise cuts to create onion pieces of the desired size.

<And here’s the piece of information you REALLY want to know: how to avoid tearing up while cutting onions. Every mom and grandma has their own technique; but this is one, based on chemistry, that is pretty magical in its effectiveness and also very simple. Onions make you cry because they contain sulfur-based chemicals that travel through the air and irritate your eyes. You can render those chemicals harmless by wiping a small amount of white vinegar on your cutting board before you start cutting. I keep a small squirt-bottle of white vinegar on my counter so I can give my cutting board a quick squirt and rub it around before I start in on an onion.>

Cutting herbs

Herbs also have their own special cases.

Basil:

<The most request for cutting up basil is a “chiffenade”: essentially long, thin strips. Here’s how you chiffenade your basil>

  • Pick several basil leaves of approximately the same size, and stack them up so that their tip and stems are aligned.
  • Turn the stack so that the sides of the leaves is pointing to you (and the tips and stems are pointed to your left and right).
  • Roll up the leaves into a cigar-shaped cylinder with the tips at one end and the steps at the other.
  • Make a series of cross-wise cuts along the cylinder to create strips of the desired width.
  • Unroll the strips.

Parsley/Cilantro

<Here’s the magic insight for chopping parsley and cilantro: it’s much easier to do when it’s still attached to the stems. Also, you can easily chop just the amount you need.>

  • Turn the bunch of parsley/cilantro so that the tip and stem point to your left and right.
  • With one hand, grab it cross-wise about two inches below the tip, and squeeze to compress it together.
  • Starting at the tip, chop cross-wise to create pieces of the desired size. When you get within about an inch of your fist, move your grip further down to expose more of the parsley/cilantro. Always keep a safe distance between the knife and your hand.
  • When you’ve chopped enough, put the rest of the bunch back in a bag and return it to your refrigerator, ready to pick up where you left off the next time.

Green onions and chives:

  • Wash and dry them thoroughly.
  • Line up several stalks side-by-side.
  • Hold the stalks so that the top and bottom point to your left and right.
  • Cut off and discard the bulbs and as much of the “white” part as you prefer.
  • Starting at the end where you cut off the bulbs, make cross-wise cuts to create rings of the desired thickness. Remember to scoot your hand down when the blade starts getting near it – don’t cut too close to your hand or fingers.
  • Stop when you have enough and return the rest of the stalks to the refrigerator, ready to resume next time.

A few other notes on safe chopping technique

How you grip and position food with your “non-knife” hand can be very important. In general, keep fingertips hidden or tucked away. It’s good to become comfortable with a few different ways to hold food so you can choose the most appropriate and safest one for your task. That includes:

  • The “fist” hold;
  • The “knuckles” hold;
  • The “over the top”.
  • Practice keeping the tip of your knife in contact with the cutting board, and swiveling it up and down as you use your other hand to move food underneath it. Building up a regular rhythm or cadence to your chopping can help a lot with consistency, i.e. making sure that everything is chopped up to roughly the same size. Again, speed doesn’t matter; you can chop at whatever tempo is safe and comfortable for you and that gives you the consistency you want.
  • It may go without saying, but resist the temptation to look up from the cutting board. I try to remove distractions when I’m in the kitchen cutting up food: turn off the TV, silence the phone, and try not to engage in conversations with other people.

Cutting boards

Cutting boards are one of the most contentious issues among serious home cooks; religious wars have been fought with less vigor. Everyone has their own opinion about the best size, shape, thickness, features, and most of all materials for cutting boards.

Much of it you can ignore. You will have ample opportunity to try many different kinds and decide which ones you prefer for different tasks. There is one issue in particular, though, worth paying close attention to: cutting raw meat.  There is genuine concern that bacteria and other organisms present in raw meat can be absorbed into a cutting board and remain there – even after washing the board. But there continues to be strong disagreement about which kind of cutting surface is safest for raw meat. Wood is perhaps the most absorbent, but it turns out that some kinds of wood don’t absorb much of the micro-organisms after all. Plastic would seem the safest, but a rough-textured cutting board – or one that has become etched with deep cuts from a chef’s knife — that is more difficult to clean thoroughly could potentially hold on to more bacteria than a smooth wooden one.

The science keeps changing on this, as do the cutting boards, so there really isn’t definitive advice to be given. For what it’s worth, here’s what I do:

  • I only use wooden cutting boards for bread (but I don’t exclusively use wooden boards for bread).
  • I have three different kinds of plastic cutting boards, all dishwasher-safe: large and thick, large and thin, and small and thin. I use them for cutting both fruit/vegetables and raw meat. Order is important: I will use the same cutting board to first cut up fruit and vegetables and then meat, but never the other way around: once I’ve use a board for raw meat, it’s “out of service” until it has been thoroughly washed.
  • Any cutting board used for raw meat is rinsed with hot water in the sink, then washed in the dishwasher with hot water and a heated dry cycle.
  • When a cutting board gets too etched, I throw it away (or reuse it for a purpose other than food prep).

It’s worth pointing out that fruits and vegetables can also have both microorganisms and pesticides on them, which can be transferred to a cutting board and on to other food items. It’s important to wash fruits and vegetables as well before cutting them up.

You will learn over time which kind of surface textures you prefer for different cutting tasks. Sometimes a smooth surface makes it easier to cut all the way through; other times a rougher texture helps to prevent food from sliding around. In your kitchen you’re the boss, and you get to pick what works best for you.

Some cutting boards feature a sunken channel around the edge. This is to prevent liquid (from a tomato or juicy fruit, or even from raw meat) from running off the board onto your countertop. Again, it’s up to you to decide how important and useful that is for you. The channel can be useful, but it also cuts down on the usable cutting surface on the board. You will also find some double-sided cutting boards that only have a channel on one side, so you can get the best of both worlds.

Thin cutting mats also can be very useful for chopping up vegetables, because when you’re done you can bend them to carry the veggies and pour them into a pan, pot or bowl.

For safety’s sake, make sure that your cutting boards don’t move around while you are using them. How much this is an issue depends upon both your counters and your cutting boards. Some cutting boards have a rubberized surface underneath to stop them from slipping, but many don’t. Here’s a tip: rubberized shelf liner makes a great non-slip mat underneath a cutting board. Just buy a roll and cut it down to the sizes you need.

Another handy multi-use tool worth keeping in your kitchen is a “bench scraper”: a thin piece of plastic or metal that you can use for slicing through soft foods, pushing cut-up food around, cleaning up your countertop, and working with dough or pastry. They come in both metal and plastic.

Metal and plastic bench scrapers

Peelers 

One more kind of knife, or perhaps “cutting edge,” that you are likely to have in your kitchen is a peeler. A peeler, at its heart, is a razor blade mounted on a small handle that you can run over a fruit or vegetable to remove the peel. They come in two basic flavors: blade parallel to the handle, and blade perpendicular to the handle.

Peelers come with the blade either parallel or perpendicular to the handle

Both have advantages and disadvantages; try them both and stick with whichever works best for you. I have used and continue to use both, but I will suggest two things to consider:

  • Make sure you buy a peeler that can be used in either hand, i.e. the handle isn’t shaped or the blade mounted at an angle that requires you to use one particular hand. This is particularly important if you plan to enlist friends and family members in food-prep tasks (we lefties thank you in advance).
  • Returning to our previous conversations about using a blade to “slice” versus pushing the blade through, most of us use peelers to “push through”, and most peelers are designed for that kind of movement. But for some tougher kinds of peel and for curved fruits and veggies, pushing through can be pretty frustrating. In these situations, a peeler with the blade perpendicular to the handle has two advantages. First, you’re pulling the blade rather than pushing it, which gives you a bit more dexterity and control. Second, you can wiggle it back and forth while pulling it along, effectively adding a slicing movement that can work very well with tougher peels.

One last thought on peelers: they rust. Make sure you check your peeler often, and when you start to see rust, toss it out and get a new one.

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