Knife tips

paring knife

Few kitchen tools are more important than good, sharp knives. Whether you're chiffonading fresh basil or boning a chicken, feeling comfortable with your knives is key to good cooking.

See photos of many types of cuts and view a lesson on knife safety, how to grip knives properly, and step-by-step instructions for cutting — including how to dice an onion, pit a mango, and portion citrus fruits — at eGullet.

Five basic types of kitchen knives

basics
Chef's knife
A chef's knife is usually the largest knife in the kitchen, with a wide blade 8 to 10 inches long. Choose a knife that feels good and balanced in your hand. The knife should have a full tang. This means the blade should run all the way up the handle for the best wear and stability.
Paring knife
Paring knives are generally 2 1/2 to 4 inches in length. This is often the most used knife in the kitchen. It is ideal for peeling and coring fruits and vegetables, cutting small objects, slicing, and other hand tasks.
Utility knife
Utility knives are longer than paring knives but smaller than chef's knives, usually around 5 to 8 inches long. They are also called sandwich knives because they are just the right size for slicing meats and cheeses.
Boning knife
This type of knife has a more flexible blade to curve around meat and bone, generally 4 to 5 inches long.
Bread knife
Bread knives usually are serrated. Most experts recommend a serrated knife that has pointed serrations instead of wavy serrations for better control and longer knife life. I have two bread knives in my kitchen — a long 10-inch knife that's great for cutting whole loaves, and a 6-inch knife perfect for cutting sandwich buns. Use a sawing motion when using a serrated knife.

Steeling your knife

Steeling regularly is the most critical maintenance you can perform on your knife. Whenever you use your knife, especially soft kitchen knives, the edge can turn out a bit.

Turn the knife with the edge pointing to the ceiling under strong light. You shouldn't be able to see it. The edge itself should be invisible. If, however, you see glints of light, those are spots where the edge has rolled. The edge is still reasonably sharp, it's just not pointing straight down anymore. The steel realigns the edge of the knife, forcing the rolled spots back into line, making it useable again.

Stand the steel straight up and down with the handle up and the tip resting on a folded towel to keep it from slipping. Then place the knife edge against the steel with the blade perpendicular to the steel. Rotate your wrist to reduce the angle by half — 45 degrees. Then reduce that by half.

When you're steeling, lock your wrist and stroke the knife from heel to tip by unhinging at the shoulder — it's your pivot point — and slowly dropping your forearm. The key is to maintain a consistent angle all the way through the stroke. By locking your wrist and elbow, you will keep your angle stable from top to bottom.

Go slowly and follow all the way through the tip. You don't have to press very hard to realign the edge. Steeling requires barely more pressure than the weight of the knife itself.

Alternate from side to side, keeping the same alignment and angle on both sides. It takes only four or five strokes per side to get your knife ready for more work.

When should you steel? Every time you use your knife. Oddly enough, steeling before you use the knife is much more effective than steeling afterward.

A steeled edge can be very sharp but it is not as durable as a freshly honed edge. If you don't use a steeled edge right away it actually can relax back into its blunted state.

The same is true of a blunted edge. If you really degrade the edge of your knife in a heavy cutting session, let it sit overnight before sharpening. It will be in much better shape than it was the day before.

Steeling does not sharpen your knife edge, it simply brings it back into alignment in between sharpening and use. Be sure to get your knives sharpened regularly.

— Information courtesy of PCC Cooks instructor Seppo Farrey. Seppo frequently teaches knife skills classes at PCC. For information or to sign up, call 206-545-7112 or e-mail

More about: cooking tips, kitchen tools