Whether your students are slicing, mincing, or dicing, knives are one of the most essential, and potentially dangerous culinary tools in your FCS classroom. That’s why it’s important to teach students how to properly handle and use knives, in addition to showing them how to keep them in optimal working condition. This can help fine-tune their culinary skills, while reducing the risk of injuries at the same time.
Safety always comes first
Regardless of whether your students are seeking a career in culinary arts or learning new techniques to use at home, knife safety should always be a top priority. The following basic guidelines are often posted in restaurant kitchens as a reminder for even top-level chefs. They can also be good tips to share with your students as they begin learning knife-handling techniques.
- Keep knives sharp: Sharp knives make cutting easier, which reduces the risk of applying unsafe pressure.
- Wear a cutting glove: This helps prevent cuts and injuries.
- Always cut away from yourself: Sharp culinary tools can often slip, especially when they aren’t maintained properly.
- Cut on a stable surface: An uneven surface can cause cutting tools to slip, so it’s always good to use a stable surface, such as a cutting board.
- Keep the cutting area clean: Decreased clutter means decreased risk of accidents.
How to choose the right culinary tool for the job
Knives come in all shapes and sizes and can serve different functions, so when it comes getting the job done, it’s important for students to know how to select the right one for the task at hand. Choosing the wrong knife can make cutting more difficult, which increases the risk of injuries. To help make selection easier, first explain the basic anatomy of a knife:
- Spine: The portion of steel at the top of the blade
- Tip of the blade: Sharp point at the end of the blade
- Blade: Cutting edge of the knife
- Bolster: On a forged knife this is the portion of steel at the collar
- Handle: Grip portion of the knife
- Tang: Lower portion of the handle that gives a knife balance and attaches the handle to the blade
Forged versus stamped knives
For most chopping and cutting situations in the FCS classroom, Chris Parker, sales director, and corporate chef at Mercer Culinary®, suggests using either a forged or stamped knife.
A forged knife, like the Mercer® Genesis® 8-inch Chef’s Knife, is constructed of a single piece of high-quality, high-carbon stainless steel that extends from the tip of the blade to the end of the handle, Parker explains. As a popular culinary tool, a forged knife is often heavier, but the durable blade edge allows for more balanced cutting and tends to require less routine maintenance.
As a more economical choice, a stamped knife, like the Mercer® Millennia® 10-inch Chef’s Knife, is cut from a large sheet of steel and stamped out using a mass-production approach. Though this is also a high-quality knife constructed of high-carbon, stain-free Japanese steel, Parker says these knives tend to be lighter, thinner, and cost less, which makes them more attractive to consumers. However, they do require more routine maintenance.
Proper knife maintenance = increased safety
Maintaining culinary tools is important for proper use as well as safety, and this begins with sharpening and honing. According to Parker, honing is the process of adjusting the edge of a knife, while sharpening is physically grinding the steel to make it sharper. Both methods, he adds, will keep knife edges straight and polished, which allows for optimal cutting pressure.
After extended periods of use, a knife edge can roll, making it more difficult to achieve a safe, clean cut, Parker explains. By honing a culinary tool, you are essentially realigning the blade edge by bending the steel back into a straight position. This can be accomplished using a honing steel and cutting board and following these four steps:
- Firmly grip the honing steel while holding it straight down on the cutting board.
- Align the knife at a 20-degree angle on the steel by setting the knife at a 90-degree angle first (perpendicular to the steel) and then cut the angle in half twice.
- Move the knife down the steel with a consistent stroke.
- Alternate to the opposite side with four to five strokes per side.
Sharpening methods and tools
Regardless of their use or the method used to manufacture them, all culinary knives will need to be sharpened at some point, Parker says. This is due to the blade edge of a knife rounding, or dulling, over time. As the surface area of a dulled knife edge increases, the output pressure of the culinary tool itself decreases. This means more pressure is required to cut through food, which increases the risk of potential slips and cuts. To sharpen a knife, Parker suggests using one of the following methods and/or tools.
Like honing, sharpening stones require using a technique, as well as the use of a sharpening guide that clips onto the back of the knife, essentially acting as “training wheels.” Follow these steps to sharpen a knife with a sharpening stone:
- Move the knife across the stone using the same 20-degree angle you used on the honing steel.
- Move the blade straight across the entire length of the stone.
- Complete 4-5 strokes on each side of the knife.
Ideal for classroom use because of their cost and size, Parker says these sharpeners are light-weight, easy to use, and help achieve a clean, polished blade.
Generally used for high-volume use in heavy-duty kitchens, electric grinders are usually available in three-stage units with coarse stone for physically damaged knife edges, medium stone for more routine damage, and regular stone for polishing edges.
Practice makes perfect
Now that your students understand how to use and maintain their culinary tools, you can allow them to safely practice knife-handling and cutting techniques before they begin working with real food.
By using plastic cutlery and moldable dough, like those included in the Nasco Culinary Knife Cuts Practice Kit, students can get the feel of handling and gripping a knife without the risk of injuring themselves in the process. The “Culinary knife cuts practice” lesson plan can also guide them in executing cutting techniques while using the appropriate pressure. For a cost-effective approach that offers enough materials for every student in your class, The Nasco Knife Safety Classroom Kit includes the lesson plan mentioned above, as well as nonstick chef knives, moldable dough, cut-resistant gloves, cutting trays, cutting rulers, and much more.
Once your students gain the confidence to put their knowledge and skills to work, they’ll be more than ready to begin demonstrating their knife-handling skills in the FCS classroom and beyond.
For a more guided approach to honing and sharpening, watch the full video with Chef Chris Parker below.