Essential Knife Skills for Chinese Cooking: Knife & Board

The first time I tried to julienne potatoes right out of college, I had no idea how to really use a knife. Even knife cuts are particularly important in Chinese cooking for high-heat stir fries. The short cook time requires evenly cut food for everything to cook at the same speed. The so-called “fancy French cuts” don’t only belong in fancy restaurant kitchens! They actually form the basis of Chinese 刀工 (dāo gōng) knife skills.

When I first started cooking, I watched a ton of videos on basic knife skills, how to julienne, brunoise, chiffonade, etc. All of them featured very nice graphics, but none of them really helped me learn. Most basic knife skills videos somehow feature perfect big, square carrots, but my local grocery store mostly carries skinny, uneven carrots. Of course, only practice can make perfect, but let’s make sure you’re set up for success.

1Wood Cutting Boards
2Plastic Cutting Boards
3Cutting Board Care
4菜刀 Caidao Chinese Vegetable Cleavers
5Western-Style Chef’s Knives
6How to Hold a Knife
7Knife Care
8Glossary of Chinese Knife Cuts

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Cutting Board

I like a really big cutting board… because I’d rather not to more dishes. By using a big cutting board, I can move piles of ingredients to the side during mise en place prep work without dirtying a bunch of bowls. For me, 14 x 20 inches is the minimum for my primary cutting board.

Wood Cutting Boards

Wooden cutting board with a variety of Chinese knife cuts (rondelle and julienne)
Ikea Lamplig cutting board (older beech wood version) with a variety of Chinese knife cuts

I’ve used an older version of the huge Ikea Lamplig cutting board every day for almost 10 years. The current bamboo version is still economical, and it’s a solid choice if you’re just starting out. However, bamboo is not my favorite cutting surface. Bamboo cutting boards are relatively hard, which will wear out your knives faster. But if you’re willing to hone and sharpen your knife, it will definitely get the job done.

I strongly prefer wood cutting boards like this acacia board by Ironwood Gourmet for vegetable prep. A big wood cutting board looks nice on the counter, which is important because it’ll likely live on the counter at all times. More importantly, wood is gentle on your knives while being naturally antimicrobial. Many wood cutting boards can be sanded down to even them out after extended use.

Acacia is a good choice for medium budget cutting boards. It’s soft enough not to wear down your knives and durable enough to last many years, but it’s relatively affordable. The gold standard for wood cutting boards is end-grain maple, which is beautiful, gentle on the knives, and very durable. If money is no object, the Carolina Maple Slab by the BoardSmith is truly the best of the best.

For more about different types of wood used in cutting boards, check out this article by the knife company Misen.

Plastic Cutting Boards

The only real downside to wood cutting boards is that they must be hand washed. If you’re looking for dishwasher safe, a plastic cutting board is the way to go. I use a plastic cutting board for raw meat, so it can go directly into the dishwasher.

For a plastic cutting board, I recommend this OXO Carving and Cutting Board. Keep in mind that wood cutting boards for vegetable prep really only need to be wiped down with a little dish soap and rinsed with warm water. Plastic will develop scratches over time which can harbor bacteria, so they need to be replaced when worn.

Cutting Board Materials to Avoid

Whichever you pick, absolutely do not use a glass cutting board, marble/slate/stone board, or metal work surface for cutting. They will destroy the edge on your knifes. Dull knives aren’t just annoying to use, they’re dangerous because you’re forced to push down harder, putting your fingers at risk.

Cutting Board Care

Wood boards must be treated with oil occasionally to prevent drying them from drying out. Dried out cutting boards will warp and crack. There are pricey cutting board treatments available, but my solution is far cheaper. For under $5, buy a bottle of pure mineral oil from the laxative aisle of your local pharmacy or Amazon. It’s the primary ingredient in most specialty wood board treatments, and the version at the pharmacy is 100% food safe.

Chef’s Knife

The single most important prep tool in any Chinese kitchen is a well-sharpened all-purpose knife. It will cover slicing, chopping, dicing, and mincing any vegetable or boneless protein.

A few of the knives in our kitchen, from top: Kiwi Chinese cleaver, Winco KC-201R, Wusthof Grad Prix II 8″ chef’s knife, Togiharu Damascus gyuto 240mm, Wusthof honing steel, Wusthof Grand Prix II paring knife, Ikea 365+ parking knife

Chinese Caidao Vegetable Knife

Although these days, I mostly use a Western-style chef’s knife with a pointed tip and curved blade, I still have and often use the inexpensive 菜刀 (cài dāo) Chinese vegetable cleaver I bought right out of college. A good 菜刀 Chinese cleaver deftly handles the finest of cuts just as well as any chef’s knife, and the wide blade is great for smashing garlic or transferring ingredients off the cutting board.

A traditional Chinese cleaver knife blade is at least 3″ tall, which means your hand is higher off the board. The relatively straight edge lends itself to chopping, and the blade is lifted off the board on every cut. The wide edge allows fast knife work because the wide blade always stays flush against the knuckles on your guide hand.

On a budget, you can’t go wrong with a well-made small Chinese vegetable cleaver. We’ve had this little Winco KC-201R for almost 10 years, and everyone who has tried it can’t believe the price. It has a shorter 2″ blade height — like a Japanese nakiri — which is easier for those who are new to the kitchen. For a more traditional tall Chinese cleaver, try the 3.5″ Winco KC-101.

Most online reviews for budget chef knives will recommend something like the Victorinox Fibrox, but I find these Chinese cleavers to be far more comfortable and durable.

Western Chef’s Knife for Chinese Cooking

In contrast, when using a Western chef’s knife, usually the tip of the knife stays on the board for a slicing action. The basic principles are the same, and the knife skills I’ll introduce for Chinese cooking apply equally to both types.

If you’re looking to upgrade, I like the Wusthof 8″ forged chef knives. We have and love the Wusthof Grand Prix II 8-inch Cook’s Knife). All of the Wusthof forged knives (e.g. Classic, Ikon, Grand Prix, etc) use the same steel, so it’s a matter of picking the handle that works for you.

Togiharu Hammered Texture Damascus Gyuto 240mm
Togiharu textured Damascus gyuto 240mm from Korin Knives

The knife in most of my photos and videos is a gyuto Japanese-made, Western-style chef’s knife. Our 240mm = 9.4″ Togiharu Hammered Damascus Gytuo by Korin was a gift from a dear friend and is the pride and joy of our kitchen. If you’re just starting out in the kitchen, I recommend either a Chinese vegetable cleaver or a Western 8″ chef’s knife instead. This ideal medium length will cover all of your kitchen needs while remaining manageable.

Bone (Meat) Cleaver

If you’ll be working with a lot of chicken, duck, or pork, a 砍骨刀 (kǎn gǔ dāo) bone cleaver is a worthwhile investment. These are much thicker and heavier than the vegetable cleavers above, useful for cutting through small to medium bones. They’re perfect for cleanly chopping through chicken bones or pork ribs. Mastering the a bone cleaver will allow you to buy whole slabs of pork ribs or whole chickens and break them down with ease — saving money and opening up more options in the kitchen!

Knife Use and Care

How to Hold a Knife

Pinch grip is the safest, most stable way to hold a knife, like for Chinese julienned potatoes

The correct hand grip on your knife is known as a pinch grip. Pinch the blade between your thumb and pointer finger, then curl your others fingers around the handle. For a large Chinese vegetable cleaver, you can pinch between your thumb, pointer, and middle finger for extra control. Regardless of knife style, this pinch grip is the steadiest, safest way to hold a knife.

Knife Care

Never ever put your knives in the dishwasher! The heat is not good for the wood handles, and the jostling for the knife cycle destroys the edges. Always hand wash your knives with a sponge and dish detergent.

To keep your knife operating well on a daily basis, you should hone it regularly. Holding your honing steel or ceramic rod with the point on the cutting board, run your knife along the honing rod from heel to tip at the same angle as the knife’s edge. Honing a knife does not remove metal from the edge the way proper sharpening does. The purpose is to realign any microscopic curl or bend in the knife edge.

Eventually, the knife edge will wear down, and honing will no longer be effective. Depending on how often you cook and the hardness of your knife, your Chinese cleaver or chef knife will need a proper sharpening to create a new edge (at least once a year for most home cooks). The easiest option to create a good edge is a high-quality electric knife sharpener like the Chef’s Choice Trizor XV (15° edge angle suitable for all knives I recommended). A less expensive alternative is the manual Chef’s Choice ProntoPro.

The two knife sharpeners above are not suitable for carbon steel knives (found in some Chinese cleavers and Japanese knives). In addition, traditional Japanese knives are often sharpened to different edge angles on each side. None of the knives I’ve recommended fall in this category, which require hand sharpening on whetstones. Sharpening a knife by hand gives the best edge but has a learning curve. It’s beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re interested in learning more, Korin has a great how-to series.

Finally, the approach I would use at least occasionally is simply to send my knives into to a master knife sharpener. Korin’s mail-in service is well-priced and truly masterful.

The best way to pick…

The best way to pick a new chef’s knife is to visit a store and test them in person. Try different brands, and choose the model that feels the best in your hand. My favorite retailer for testing a wide variety is Sur La Table. They are happy to let you try a bunch of knives, and they provide vegetables and a cutting board for testing. If you’re interested in high-end Japanese knives Korin in NYC is my happy place (no affiliate relationship, just a very happy shopper).

The world of high-end chef knives is out of the scope of this article, but a couple things to note when shopping:

  • Forged knives are made from a single piece of steel that is heated and pounded into shape. Stamped knives are cut out of a sheet of steel like a cookie-cutter. Forged knives are more durable, stay sharper, and are easier to sharpen, but they are more expensive. If you’re looking to spend more than the budget Winco knives I recommended above, I strongly recommend forged steel.
  • HRC (Rockwell C hardness) is a measure of hardness against deformation. Higher number = harder metal = less likely to dent. A soft knife will easily bend out of shape, but one that is too hard will be brittle and could snap. If you’re looking to upgrade your knives, look for HRC 57 to 62. Japanese knives tend to be on the higher end of that range, which makes the edge durable but more difficult to maintain.

Basic Chinese Knife Cuts

酸辣土豆丝 Sichuan Hot & Sour Julienned Potatoes

There are infinite variations of knife cuts used in Chinese cooking, from 剁(duò) rough chop to 盘龙 (pán lóng) spiral hasselback (tornado cut). Here are the essential cuts that we’re most likely to encounter, with Chinese, pinyin, English/French, and a description:

Did you try this?

What kind of knife do you use, and are you happy with your knife skills for Chinese cooking? If you’ve encountered any knife cuts that are particularly difficult to master, please let us know in the comments below. We’ll make sure to cover those cuts in upcoming posts in this Essential Knife Cuts for Chinese Cooking series!

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