Sharpen your Skills! How to Chop and Why It Matters

6 Apr

Confession: I have been holding my knife incorrectly for the last twenty years, using the wrong knives and making life in the kitchen WAY more difficult for myself than necessary. Laura Dewell, Green Plate Special Executive Director, to the rescue!

Green Plate Special (GPS) incorporates knife skills techniques (Western European to be precise)  into the first session of a program-series, camp week and field trip to GPS. These introductions were designed by Laura to create a consistent message for youth and adult educators while engaging youth in the process and respecting that many of them already have experience cutting and chopping.  As a team, working with the same technique together, they feel prepared to power through each cut, skill and vegetable on their cutting boards.

Diggit? Ready to learn more? (I know I am!) Check out our interview with Laura below, and photos from a recent GPS program.

-Amee Bhavsar


Q: Why Knife Skills? How much time does it really save?

LD: Learning and practicing a safe and efficient way to use knives will minimize cutting yourself and others; with practice you will increase quality of the cut (same sizes) and speed of cutting. I can’t say how much time is saved but will say that you will get faster than you were when you started; you will enjoy the cooking process much more; and the end result will look and taste better. Making food from scratch can be  challenging at first, so good knife skills will help speed up the process and give you a whole lot more ways to cook healthier and with more diversity in your cooking.

Q: What do you believe are the most fundamental cuts in recipe preparation?

LD: The most basic terms for knife cuts are “rough chop”, “chop”, “slice”, “mince”, “dice”, “mash” (with the side of your knife). At GPS we use French and English words for our different cuts:

  • French:
    Batonnet (Baton)
    Julienne –very thin “baton”
    Chiffinode –“ribbons”
    Mince (French and English)
  • English
    Dice (large, medium, small)
    Mince (English and French)

The terms we use are real and authentic so students love to use these terms and therefore remember the cut and how they are used. We emphasize that this is part of the “learning curve” and the more we practice , the more we will enjoy the process and become efficient with our time.

Q: What is your favorite knife to use and knife skill/method?

LD: At GPS we use a small (6inch) “chef knife” and a paring knife for all our classes. With practice you can use your chef knife and paring knife for anything you want to cut, including meat, fish, and bread; anything you can think of!

Other types of Western European knifes:

  • Boning (taking meat off the bone)
  • Slicer (long thin cuts)
  • Fish (cutting fish into smaller pieces or cutting smaller fish off the bone)
  • Fillet (cutting larger fish off the bone and cutting larger pieces of meat already off their bone)

Q: What are the best practices to keep our knives clean, maintained and sharp?


1. Always hand wash your knife using warm water and soap (dishwasher will dull a sharp knife and harsh detergents will damage any blade.

2.To keep your knives sharp you need to run the knife through a small hand held “honing” tool. Since even professionals don’t always know how to properly use a long “honing steel,” I suggest buying a much less expensive version of this tool. One that uses ceramic or diamond coated wheels that you run the blade of your knife through, 3-5 times after a day or few hours of cutting with it. You can even find a pretty good one at Ikea and it’s about $3.00 (the other long handled honing steels can cost as much as $75).

3. There is a big difference in “sharpening” your knife (putting a new edge on it) and “honing” your knife (keeping a good sharp edge on it for a long time –up to 1-year).
Q: Tell us about teaching your first Knife Skills class. What did you like best about the experience and what are the overall challenges that come with teaching and learning knife skills?

LD: Teaching is a journey and all about what you learn from your students. I’ve learned that most of the time “less is more” and that the words you use make all the difference in engaging students. The way I know we’ve made an impact is when  the youth go back to their cooking stations they first consider how they hold the knife and where their fingers are, then they think about and discuss what they want to cut and get very excited about the size of what they cut as a group.

The biggest challenge is to take myself back to the very basics of all the actions I do without thinking about it. Where is my elbow? Where are my fingers on the handle/blade? How does that rocking action actually help make cuts easier and quicker?   I also focus on acknowledging that many students have been using a knife  for some time already in their life and that we may be asking them to do it differently than how they learned by an important figure in their lives. We ask them to try the “GPS” way while they are with us, with the understanding that we respect what they have already learned.

Q: What are the most common aspects we forget when it comes to knife skills and safety?


1.  Where are my fingers as I cut and guide the knife? The thumb is almost always the first thing that gets cut, sticking out there for the knife to see.

2.  Never point the knife directly at the other hand (slice down toward the cutting board, not horizontally toward the guiding hand) and when you wipe the knife clean with a towel, the blade should be pointed AWAY from the hand that is wiping.

3.  Keep everything you are cutting solidly on the cutting board! Unless you have been using a knife for years, holding things in one hand while cutting them can be dangerous. Until you are familiar with knifes, even cutting an avocado in your hand can be a dangerous thing.