Kitchen Dangerous (part 4): Knives and Other Sharp Things

Knife Safety Guidelines



This post is part of the Geeking Out series which presents data-driven information on food and farming, safety in the kitchen, practical science for cooks, cooking techniques and processes and other relevant nerdy stuff that every cook should know.  This topic is from the chapter, Safety 101.

In parts 1 to 3 of Kitchen Dangerous, we covered fire prevention, what to do if a fire occurs, preventing burns from frying and other hot items and first aid using ingredients you probably have at home.  In this installment of Kitchen Dangerous, we’ll talk about kitchen safety with regard to Knives and Other Sharp things.  Read Kitchen Dangerous:  part 1,part 2, and part 3.

Knives and Other Sharp Things

As a pianist, I’m particularly careful with my hands. While I may have an impressive collection of stories about averted fire disasters, knife mishaps are thankfully few.  If you know any pianists, I think you’ll find we’ve elevated finger-protection to an art form.  There’s a reason I was never great at sports.  If you throw a ball my way, I will run away.

So I’ve developed knife techniques that may not always be in step with what’s taught at culinary schools.  You know how chefs peel their apples with a paring knife, the blade very near the thumb? That’s not me. The idea of a knife slip to my thumb is not something I will risk.  I use a vegetable peeler instead.  Boring maybe, but safe.

So instead of talking about techniques I don’t actually follow, I will share general guidelines on knife safety and some of my methods.  What about celebrity chefs who look you in the eye while slicing and dicing at lightning speed explaining complex mathematical equations?  Okay, maybe not math equations exactly, but anything that requires cognitive effort, not watching what you’re doing and speed means less attention to keeping fingers intact. The razzle dazzle may be impressive but it comes at a risk. Speed and pizzazz are nice, but safety first.

For those of you beginning the journey as a lifestyle cook, you can be confident that repetition guarantees improvement.  That includes knife skills. Practice makes perfect.  When I handle sharp tools, I give it my undivided attention. And this is why in the twenty plus years I’ve been cooking, I’ve only cut myself once with a knife. Knock on wood!  

A few years ago, I was slicing parsley with a new Shun Chef’s knife I had gotten Jeff for Christmas.  It’s a knife with a beautiful hammered finish. If you remember in my overview on kitchen knives, hammered finishes, like granton edges, are supposed to reduce air drag so food doesn’t stick to the blade sides.  I concluded that I hadn’t found this to be true, or more precisely, that any difference the feature makes is not noticeable to me.  

I wiped away the parsley stuck on the sides of the knife blade, just as I’d always done whenever food sticks to the blades. This time, I gave myself a nice clean cut.  Setting aside shock and dismay, I was suitably impressed.  My Shun was a very sharp knife. The kind of knife every cook dreams of.  But I had underestimated its edge and was careless.  If you’re wondering why I’m waxing lyrical about sharpness being a great thing, then it’s time to discuss:

Rule number eleven: Follow Knife Safety guidelines.

Some of these guidelines might also apply when handling food processor and blender blades, kitchen shears, mandoline slicers, cork screws, ice picks and other sharp kitchen objects.

Knife Safety Guidelines

1.      Keep your knives sharp. 

It might seem counter-intuitive, but excepting my Shun miscalculation, dull blades are what cause many accidents. It was my fault for underestimating the razor sharp edge of a knife handcrafted in the tradition of Samurai swords. With a sharp knife, the blade does all the work. A dull one forces you to compensate by exerting pressure, increasing the chance of a knife-slip on unwieldy surfaces like onion skin, for instance. Knives dull over time and need to be honed regularly.  Sharpening should only be done when needed. What’s the difference?  Honing with a honing steel or whet stone realigns the blade’s edge to make it sharp.  Sharpening is taking metal off the blade to improve sharpness.  The latter should only be done when needed through a knife whetter (professional knife sharpener) or with knife sharpening tools and appliances.  Note that some specialty knives like the ones from Shun may require a specialized honing steel or whet stone designed for its blades.

2.      Use the correct knife or tool for the job.

In the overview on kitchen knives and cutting Tools, I emphasized the importance of  using the right tool for the job because:

 Using the right tool for the job=
less effort = safety = a more pleasant experience

Large knives like a Chef’s knife and Santoku make peeling fruits and vegetables not only awkward, but dangerous because they don’t give you the control necessary for fine movements.  A large knife makes it hard to negotiate the curves of an apple or ginger, but a vegetable peeler makes easy work of it.  And on a side note, I often prefer a spoon to peeling ginger over a vegetable peeler! On the other hand, trying to slice open something as large as a butternut squash with anything smaller than a Chef’s knife or Santoku is going to be difficult.  And anything difficult means you’re likely to exert more effort, which can lead to accidents.

3.      Handle knives correctly.       

  • Get a good grip and hold knife firmly using all fingers.
    A tentative grip means tentative control-- the knife can easily be knocked out of your hand or move in directions you didn’t plan on.  I’ve seen many people hold knives so gingerly they probably would have dropped it if I said “Boo!” 

  • Keep your fingers intact. 
    Use your knuckles as a guide to guard against the blade and tuck your fingers so they’re not splayed out ready for the guillotine. That’s a bit of bad news if you have long fingernails because it will be harder to tuck your fingers in with the nails in the way.  If you can’t live without really long nails, just be extra careful.

  • Keep fingers and body parts away from the knife’s path. 
    I was demonstrating in class how to pit an avocado safely.  I had the avocado cheek with pit on my cutting board and drove my Chef’s knife into the pit, gave it a slight twist, yanked it out and then hit it against the side of the compost bin to dislodge. I was showing the participants how my fingers were nowhere near the knife’s path, unlike the method I’d seen where the avocado was held in one hand when slicing and de-pitting.  A participant chimed in to say that was how he did it, then admitted he had slipped once and the knife had ended up in the palm of his hand. 

  • Slice or peel away from your body or body part.
    This is where I might depart from chefs’ paring techniques whether using knives or vegetable peelers. While I understand that the thumb pressed down is meant to provide control, I won’t risk nicks when I can achieve the same results, perhaps not as gracefully, with a vegetable peeler slicing away from me. 

  • Be careful when using fingers to wipe off a knife blade. 
    Granton edge or hammered finish notwithstanding, food will stick to the sides of a knife blade.  While I should probably say, don’t use your fingers to wipe it away as I did in my knife accident, I’ll be the first to break that rule.  So while I sometimes brush off stuck food against the side of a bowl, I often use my fingers, but this time I make sure to wipe at an angle away from and not too close to the blade’s edge.

4.  When slicing, establish a stable and flat surface whenever possible.

  • Slicing a moving target such as a rolling onion is not only difficult, but unsafe.  To establish a stable surface, slice off the poles first (the top and root ends) to create a flat top and bottom. Set the onion on one of the flat sides and slice down the middle to split. Peel the onion. Now that each half has a flat side, it will be much easier to slice the onion.  Conversely,

  • Only slice on non-slip cutting boards and on a flat surface.
    A cutting board that slides around your countertop is not a stable surface. Use cutting boards that are heavy enough or made from non-slip material to keep them from sliding around.  If you have some slippery plastic boards like I do, you’ll need to put a non-slip mat underneath. I use rubber rug pads leftover from our carpets and it does the job.   

5. Always pick up knives and other sharp implements by the handle. 

That may seem obvious, but this also relates to how you arrange them in dishwashers, dish racks, and storage. With anything sharp, keep the blade or sharp area face down. The basic idea is to make it harder to access the sharp parts accidentally. When storing, consider knife blocks, magnetic racks or in-drawer systems designed to safely store knives.  Note: It is recommended that kitchen knives are hand-washed, especially if they’re of high quality, to protect them from damage.

6.  Avoid putting kitchen knives and other sharp objects in the sink where it can be buried by dishes.

A knife hidden underneath a pile of dirty dishes or soap suds is an accident waiting to happen. I’m sure you can imagine how this scenario can go. If you can’t wash your kitchen knives right away, place them somewhere highly visible to everyone.   I leave mine on the kitchen counter next to the sink on top of dishes or on a cutting board.

7.  Don’t leave knives or other sharp implements too close to the counter edge.

Knives extended over or too close to the counter edge can be reached by children, are easy to bump and for articles of clothing to catch on.  Even if your foot dodges impalement, you can damage an expensive knife.  Which brings us to:

8.  Consider wearing closed footwear in the kitchen.

Knife slips happen and you don’t want any exposed toes in its trajectory.

9.  Don’t be intoxicated when doing tasks that may be dangerous or that require your full attention.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a huge proponent of having fun in the kitchen, and that means libations are totally on the table and practically required especially when doing dishes. But not with anything that requires my undivided attention, such as when handling knives and sharp implements or cooking with high heat like frying.

Jeff’s knife story

Slicing open hard squashes used to intimidate me.  Their surfaces are often slippery and hard to penetrate, even with a sharp knife. Before I learned that microwaving for a couple of minutes softens squash and makes slicing easier, I was quite hesitant and approached a squash very cautiously. So cautiously that one day Jeff, who was watching impatiently as I fudged around an acorn squash, offered to slice it for me.  I was happy to relinquish the task.

Instead of the chef’s knife in my hand, Jeff grabbed the serrated bread knife and proceeded to attack the squash with zeal and energy, making quick and large strokes.  I was already shouting to be careful when the knife caught the side of a finger and blood spurted, accompanied by a stream of expletives. 

This leads me to the last guideline. 

10.   Be patient.

I started this post talking about knife speed.  We’re not in a contest and there’s no reason to rush through slicing or any activity involving knives or other sharp objects.  We’re not in a restaurant kitchen where speed may be necessary; we’re home cooks where cooking can and should be leisurely.

Jeff’s finger healed, but it’s a story I invoke many times (perhaps too smugly) to remind him of the virtues of patience.  Take your time. As to whether or not to use a serrated knife for hard squashes?  There may be a serrated knife out there that will do the job, but I’ve not seen it and it’s definitely not a bread knife. My personal preference, after first softening in the microwave oven for 1-2 minutes, is to slice the top of,  puncture the middle with the tip of a chef’s knife and then so very gently push the knife in until I can slice through first one side, then the other. 

This is the end of part 4 of Kitchen Dangerous.  In part 5, the last installment, we will cover First Aid for Cuts.