The Best Way to Hold a Knife

A really good knife is an essential part of any kitchen. Really good knives are also really sharp, and must be handled with care. I originally got this lecture in my first job in a restaurant kitchen. And after years working my way through kitchens – from dishwasher to line cook – I never cut myself with a kitchen knife.  Not after learning these basic techniques from a sous chef. I did, however, cut myself on everything else. Including a spoon.

The Wrong Way

There is an epidemic of what I call the “hammer grip.” This is when someone just grips the handle of a knife in a fist and whacks away at whatever is on the cutting board. This works great for a Spartan warrior on the battlefield.  It’s even useful to a butcher hacking apart bones and joints. It has not place in a gourmet kitchen where fine cuts and textures are an important part of getting the job done.

A knife needs to be handled as a knife. By gripping it like a hammer, or even a cleaver, you lose all control. It’s far more likely to miss and take a piece off a finger or hand. It’s just as important to correctly hold the food you’re preparing. Getting fingers and thumbs in the way is asking for disaster. This is what I was doing before getting a very stern (and filthy) talking to by the sous chef.

Instead, he told me to do this.

The Pinch

The first step is holding the knife itself correctly. The pinch is meant to get keep the blade stable. It makes the blade of the knife an extension of the arm. It’s one continuous line. More importantly, it prevents the knife from turning side to side. The resulting movement is smooth, straight, and completely under control.

The first step is to pinch the blade (not the handle) between the thumb and the forefinger (or index finger) of the cutting hand. The thumb should be quite straight, and the forefinger should be bent.  A straight finger will probably extend it far enough that it will get caught under the blade during cutting.  Somewhat counter productive in the safety department.

The other three fingers (middle, ring, and pinky) wrap around the handle. It’s best to have a firm grip, but not too tight.  A lot of the control comes from tightening and loosening these fingers as you go through different cutting techniques.

knife safety how to hold a knife

The Shun Ken Onion knives are all specifically designed to accommodate this knife grip.

The Claw

Holding the knife for more control is the first step.  The second step is keeping your other hand out of harm’s way. Most chef’s I worked with as a younger man had chopped off the tip of a finger at some point or another. It was a hazard of the job, and it was an unpleasant visit to the hospital to get it re-attached.

These tragedies could have been avoided just by getting the fingers out of the way of a very sharp knife. Never extend the fingers straight.  Instead, crook them like claws. The nail (the TRIMMED nail) should be resting on the cutting surface. The middle section of the fingers should be 90-degrees from the cutting surface. The top section should be attached to the rest of the hand, and stay that way throughout your cooking career. The thumb hides behind the fingers, not poking out where it can get caught under the knife.

This claw lets the cook safely control whatever they’re cutting while not taking off bits of finger or knuckle.  The middle sections of the fingers act as a guide to keep the blade moving vertically and not slipping side to side. The edge of the knife shouldn’t ever go above those second knuckles. The thumb hides behind the fingers, and can push or grip whatever food is being cut from back there. Again, the thumb shouldn’t extend past the fingers.

knife safety how to hold food

And that’s it… Years and years of cutting safety based only on those two minor techniques. It’s a surprisingly simple adjustment, but once you make it, there will be almost no chance of doing serious damage with your knife. Sure, you might have the odd nick or cut, but there will be no trips to the emergency room with part of you in a bag of ice beside you. Happy cooking!

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