Proper Knife Skills- A Public Safety Announcement

While sitting at the pool last Thursday watching some kid try to fracture his skull on the edge, I started thinking about safe practices in the kitchen.

This probably also had something to do with the fact that I had two near-miss knife accidents in the last two days. If you are cooking regularly or doing prep work regularly, you will, at some point, get hurt. I have a scar on my right index finger from a slipped serrated knife. I don’t mind the scar but considering I was cutting food and it was a jagged, deep cut, a trip to the ER would have been the smart move. However, I lived alone at the time and just wrapped it up tight until the bleeding stopped. Then kept a close eye on the finger for a few days.

Although this post is more about knife safety, I have a few tidbits about burns too. Its generally not too big a deal if an adult gets a burn in the kitchen but if there are children around, burn prevention is much more important. If you have kitchen or food related injury and aren’t sure whether its worth seeking medical attention, here are a few guidelines from WebMd:

Worth it:

  • For Long or deep cuts.
  • Cuts that open with movement of the body area, such as a cut over a joint. A cut over a joint may take a long time to heal because of the movement of the wound edges.
  • Cuts that may scar and affect the appearance or function of a body area. A cut on an eyelid or lip which does not heal well may interfere with function or leave a noticeable scar.
  • Cuts that remove all of the layers of the skin (avulsion injuries), such as slicing off the tip of a finger. An avulsion injury may take a long time to heal.
  • Cuts that have damage to underlying tissues. Injuries to nerves, tendons, or joints are more common with cuts on the hands or feet.
  • Cuts over a possible broken bone. Bacteria can get into a cut over a broken bone and infect the bone.
  • Cuts caused by a crushing injury. With this type of injury, the cut may have occurred when the skin split open from the force of the injury. The force of the injury may also damage underlying tissues and blood vessels. Crush injuries have a high risk of infection.
  • Cuts with a known or suspected object, such as glass or wood or food, in the wound.
  • A Burn from either scalding water or steam; on the face
  • A skin burn from the use of chemicals.
  • A burn that has blisters on the exposed skin

Absolutely requires medical attention, ASAP:

  • Bleeding that doesn’t slow down after 15 minutes of steady direct pressure.
  • A cut that has sliced through bones, tendons or nerves
  • A cut that involves amputation of an appendage.
  • Puncture wounds/cuts to the chest or abdomen
  • Cuts to the eyeball. If glass breaks, you could easily get small shards in your eye that can cause permanent vision loss.
  • Any second degree (or worse) burn on a child whether from heat or chemicals.
  • Chemical burns on the head or face or if there was any chance of inhalation of the fumes/smoke. (you can also get chemical and steam burns to the eyes)

If in doubt, make the trip or call 911 at minimum.

Knife Safety

To begin, my two near mishaps this week were with 2 different knives and under two different circumstances.

A. I was chopping an onion and the knife slid off the back of the onion half towards the root end and my fingers. The knife did catch in the fingernail of my right ring finger (I’m a southpaw) and shaved up a little chunk of the nail. It did hurt for a second and if I lift up the divot, that hurts but there was no blood or anything. I was practicing pretty good knife safety but I made one mistake, I had started the cut and took my eyes off the blade while continuing to push downward.

B. Preparing avocado for tacos Thursday night, I was using a time-tested method for removing the pit from the avocado. First, slice the avocado in half length-wise. Twist off one half and set aside. Hold the other half, with the pit still in it, pit side up in your hand. In one short controlled movement, tap the blade of knife in to the pit, about half-way down the blade (you aren’t Psycho, don’t stab with the point!). The blade normally goes about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way in to the pit. Twist the knife and the pit pops free.

Sound easy once you’ve practiced a few times. You can do it with the avocado resting on the cutting board but run the risk that it will slide off to the side. Make sure your free hand isn’t on the board, if so! I’ve done it with the avocado in my hand 100s of times. Sometimes the pit is really hard and doesn’t want to come out so easily but last night was a first for me: The knife split right through the pit and of course went easily through the flesh and skin, coming to rest on my skinright below the 2nd knuckle on my index finger. Again, no blood but a pretty red mark for about an hour to remind me of my stupidity.
Like I said, I’ve done the avocado maneuver 100s of times. This avocado was very ripe and the pit was very small- I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so small actually. I was fortunate in that my chosen knife was not overly sharp (we need to get that rectified anyway) and I had control of the knife and its speed the whole time.

Which leads to the first rule of knife safety:

Never, ever ever try to catch a falling knife. The laws of physics are in control here, not you. Let it fall and do your best to be sure all toes are out of the way too.

The second rule of knife safety:

A sharp knife is a safe(r) knife. Sharp knives can still do some serious damage of course but a dull knife is harder to work with and requires more force to push through the material. More force means less control of the direction of the force. Keep your knives sharpened and use a steel everytime, before you cut. Its cheaper to sharpen yourself but can be time consuming especially the first time. Steeling takes 30 seconds and does not actually sharpen the blade- it just straightens the edge out.

More rules:

  • Use the right knife for the job. Yes, I’m talking to you, the one using a Chinese Cleaver to slice a bagel.
  • Never leave a knife with the end (either end) hanging off the edge of something, the cutting board, the counter, etc. Hello puncture wound! And less stability, see Rule #1.
  • Do not put knives in sinks full of hot soapy water. Its not really good for the knife anyway but think of the fingers digging around under the surface looking for any more dishes to wash.
  • Cut on a stable surface meant for knives.
    If you decide to cut something in the pan, rest assured, it will be your nice non-stick and you will accidentally cut too deep and put a gouge in the pan surface. Wooden or plastic cutting boards or counter tops (i.e. a butcher block counter) are the best for the longevity of your knives. Glass cutting boards are pretty but are very hard and not so nice for the edge of the blade. I use both bamboo and plastic boards.

    Plastic Bamboo
    Pros: Bleachable, can be put in the dishwasher Eco-friendly, minimal care required (wash in mild soapy water, wipe lightly with oil a few times a year)
    Cons: May leach plastic in to foods, especially acidic foods like tomatoes Harder than wood, will require more frequent knife sharpening
  • Use the right knife for the job. Oh, I already said that. Well, it bears repeating. Corollary- don’t use your knives for non-knife jobs. Its not a screwdriver, a pry bar or a remover of stuck-on food. (I admit, I’ve used a butter knife as a screw driver before)
  • Practice knife skills- get a demonstration or lessons or check out this tutorial at eGullet: Basic Knife Skills
    . After you learn the proper way to hold a knife (not with your index finger out over the blade!), you can also find a sharpening and maintaining your knives class in the same forums.

A few guidelines for avoiding burns and then I’ll let you go back to your kitchens:

  • Keep handles turned towards the side of the stove or otherwise over a non hotspot. If you are a lucky bastard with an eight burner gas stove- send me your address, I’ll show how its done. Okay, just keep a dry towel or oven mitt/pad handy for grabbing handles
  • When removed the lid of a pan, open it away from you so the steam doesn’t billow in your face. Be mindful of where your fingers are- they should be protected by a towel/mitt/pad if steam escapes the back way. (this is how I got a second degree steam burn on my thumb once- its not pleasant).
  • Be cautious when mixing cold and hot ingredients especially mixing hot liquids in to cold or room temp dry ingredients. Steam can fill up underneath the dry goods then explode outward in to your face. On a related note, don’t hold your face over a pan or pot full of boiling liquids.
  • Check for bystanders before opening the oven. This one goes double if there are little kids around. They are at the perfect height for falling in towards the heat sources. And even the inside of the door gets blazing hot.
  • Last one: if you are going to cook bacon for breakfast in bed for your loved one, make sure you are wearing an apron and don’t turn your bare back to the stove.

Public service announcement over. Go back to your regularly scheduled enjoying of food.


2 thoughts on “Proper Knife Skills- A Public Safety Announcement

  1. I wasn’t using a meat cleaver to cut a bagel. I was using a very dull butcher knife to cut a bagel as hard as a rock. I now buy precut and have better knives.

    it wasn’t as bad as washing the car and slicing my finger on the tail pipe. That one got the nerve. and Ridicule from the hospital employees who think all people use the autocarwash thingie.

    Lucky me, three tetanus shots in 5 years. I feel special.

  2. any suggestions on a knife sharpener in this area? I take pretty good care of my knife and I use a Boos Block cutting board, but after a year or so, it’s starting to get a little dull…not bad, but I liked it better when it was new.

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