How to Use and Care for a Chef's Knife

The right technique and care make for easy cutting

Chef knife on cutting board with sliced cucumber Illustration: Brown Bird Design

When it comes to kitchen prep, the right tool and technique make all the difference. But despite being the most important tool in the kitchen, knives are also the most dangerous. According to data compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 322,000 people landed in the emergency room in 2017 (the last year the CPSC gathered the data) as a direct result of a knife mishap.

Fortunately, good technique and safer storage habits can significantly reduce that risk, not to mention make for easier prep work.

To find out how consumers use their chef’s knives, we conducted a study with 15 participants, asking detailed questions about everything from how they grip their knife to how they store them, as well as about sharpening and cleaning habits. The group included men and women of various ages and skill levels, and included people who had owned a chef’s knife for at least 6 months, as well as those who had owned and used a knife for more than a decade. 

More on Kitchen Prep

We also spoke to an expert in using and caring for knives, chef Branden Lewis, associate professor at the college of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. Chef Lewis teaches culinary school students, as well as novices who attend his knife skills courses at the university. He’s also a knife enthusiast. We asked him about ideal technique, as well as the proper use and care regimen to ensure easy cutting for years to come.

To be clear, we’re focusing on chef’s knives, the workhorse of western kitchens—and arguably the most important knife in your arsenal. You can see our recent assessment of chef’s knives for help on finding the best model, or start with our kitchen knife buying guide for more general shopping advice. Here’s what you need to know to get great performance from your chef’s knife.

In the market for a chef's knife?

Check the results of our tests of 8-inch chef’s knives from Henckels, Mac, Wüsthof, and other top brands.

Knife Technique

Hold the Knife Right
Using the appropriate grip for your chef’s knife maximizes control, improves speed, and minimizes the likelihood you’ll cut yourself. The cutting style of our study participants varied, with some gripping the entire handle and others reporting that they simply did whatever felt comfortable. But the best approach is to use what professional chefs call a pinch or pincer grip.

Hand Properly holding a chef's knife

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

“Pretend your dominant hand is a lobster claw,” says Lewis. “The small claw is your thumb, and should rest on one side of the blade, while your remaining fingers form the larger part of the claw, which should rest on the opposing side of the blade.” You should be pinching the blade just above the handle, where it meets the blade. This approach provides the perfect blend of control and leverage. If the pinch grip continues to feel unnatural, even with practice, opt for the standard grip, shown below. Wrap all five fingers around the handle of the knife creating a secure grip. Never use your index finger on the back of the blade, and if a knife feels unwieldy with the standard grip, consider downsizing to a 6- or 7-inch chef’s knife.

Guide Food With Your Opposing Hand

Once you’re holding the knife correctly, focus on your non-dominant hand. The idea is for this hand to safely hold and position foods while you cut with your dominant hand. Curl your fingers so that your fingertips are gripping the food, but the portion of your fingers between the first and second knuckle should be flat and standing up to the knife blade, with your thumb tucked out of the way, as shown below. This approach ensures that even if the knife butts up against your fingers, the blade will simply rub against the flat portion of your fingers, leaving your fingertips far less vulnerable.

Cutting an onion on a cutting board properly holding a chef's knife

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Knife Use and Care

Keep Your Chef’s Knife Sharp
A sharp knife makes for easier cutting, but it also makes for safer prepping. “I’ve long said that the sharper your knife is, the safer it is,” says Lewis. “With a dull knife, you’re forced to exert more pressure, making it more likely that the knife will slip, leaving you prone to injury.”

Instead of fighting with a dull blade, you should periodically sharpen your knife to keep it working its best. Participants in our study almost all reported sharpening their knives regularly, but the interval varied from once a week to once a year. You can use a sharpening stone, or an electric or handheld knife sharpener.

Honing a chef's knife and sharpening

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

But take note that just because a knife feels dull doesn’t mean it needs to be sharpened. Honing, which involves running a knife over a honing rod several times on each side at the angle specified by the manufacturer, can often restore a sharp edge to a dull knife. If you’re unfamiliar with honing, rest assured that half the participants in our study either didn’t hone their knives or didn’t know what honing was. The difference between honing and sharpening is simple. When you cut with a knife, the sharp edge—which is fairly brittle, thin metal—curls in one direction over time. Running the knife on a honing rod—which is usually about 12 inches long—can straighten out the edge, helping the knife cut well again. Sharpening, on the other hand, strips or grinds away the metal edge, forming a new one. You should always try to hone a knife first, before sharpening, because sharpening removes a little bit of metal each time, gradually wearing down the size of the blade over time.  

Washing Your Chef's Knife

Most of the participants in our study reported always washing knives by hand, which is the way to go. The hot water and high-temperature drying of a dishwasher can wreak havoc on a knife handle, especially those made from wood, and cause it to discolor or even come apart over time. And even for knives with a metal or dishwasher-safe handle, the dishwasher is still a bad idea because the knife can bang into other items, dulling the blade, or worse, someone can easily get cut if whoever happens to be unloading the dishwasher isn’t expecting to encounter a sharp knife.

Cleaning a chef's knife with a sponge

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Storing Your Chef's Knife

In our study, folks varied in how they preferred to store their knives. Some used magnetic knife strips, while others used storage blocks. Some just kept them in a kitchen drawer, sometimes sheathed and sometimes in a holder or organizer that separated the knives. “I like to display my knives on a magnetic strip, but any alternative is fine, too,” says Lewis. “The only thing to avoid is leaving knives loose in a drawer—the edge can dull prematurely if your knives are bumping into each other, and worse, you can get cut easily when you reach in to grab a knife.”

Knife storage magnetic strip and block

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.