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Here's How to Master Your First Kitchen Knife

It's amazing how much difference a good knife makes when you're cooking. It will help you prepare food faster and more efficiently. You'll get better results preparing almost any dish when you use a sharp knife to make clean, even cuts. You don't need to sign up for culinary school to get all these benefits, just consider a few basic tips on getting your first real knife and then getting comfortable using it.

The Obvious Choice

An 8-inch chef's knife is the best, most versatile choice if you're looking for one good knife. While others can be helpful too -- a long serrated knife to slice bread, or a paring knife for fiddly jobs like segmenting grapefruit -- nothing else is as versatile and all-around useful.

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Try Before You Buy

Different people swear by different brand names, but figuring out the best knife for you is a personal choice. Most kitchen supply stores will let you handle different options to see what fits and feels the best in your own hand. You'll want one that feels well-balanced. It shouldn't seem flimsy but it also shouldn't be so heavy that it tires out your hand after a few minutes of use. While high-quality knives can be expensive new, stores offer frequent sales. We've also had great luck finding used top-brand knives at thrift stores, where they're super-cheap.

Looking Sharp

A sharp knife might seem intimidating, but it's actually safer than a dull blade that might slip or skid. If you don't own a knife sharpener, here's a secret: Many grocery stores or kitchen supply shops will sharpen knives either for free or for a small fee. In between sharpenings, it's a good idea to keep your knife in shape by honing it with a knife steel (here's our guide.)

Taking Care

Wash your knife by hand instead of putting it in the dishwasher, and dry it promptly so it doesn't rust. Store it in a knife block instead of a drawer so it doesn't get banged around -- or, even better, hang it on a magnetic strip.

Practice Makes Perfect

The video belowshows you how to hold a knife safely and how to slice, chop and dice food in uniform pieces with your knife.

No matter how many times you watch a video, though, nothing teaches knife skills like practice. Most chefs say their ability to cut fast, neat, uniform pieces of food came from chopping up sacks of vegetables, doing hours of prep work day after day after day. You may never log that many hours with your knife and cutting board, but we recommend building your skills by cutting up lots of onions. Then make some nice French onion soup or caramelized onions or a hot onion dip to serve at the party you'll throw to celebrate your new skills.

Chopping garlic and parsley or cilantro and tomatoes all make for good practice too... or show them all off together in an awesomely diced-up pico de gallo.

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Ex-girlfriend's Mom's Salsa Fresca (Pico de Gallo) | Photo by naples34102

More: We've got a guide to other specialty knives, along with some related advice, over here.

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About Rebekah Denn

Rebekah Denn, winner of two James Beard awards for food writing, wakes up thinking about breakfast and goes to bed remembering dinner. She is the curator of the "Edible City" exhibit at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, and cooks at home with her omnivorous husband and three vegetarian children.