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Be Careful With Kitchen Knives

Every year about thousands of people end up in emergency rooms with injuries caused by using kitchen knives, according to the National Safety Council. But with a few cutting-edge tips from experts who use knives for a living -- top chefs -- you can avoid the biggest danger of kitchen work. Here's how:

Halve it

When chopping or dicing curved foods -- from eggplant to zucchini -- start by cutting the object in half to create a flat, stable end, says chef Tom Hickey of Sullivan College's National Center for Hospitality Studies in Louisville, Ky. Place the flat surface against the cutting board and go to work.

Hold it

Chefs learn a special holding technique that protects their fingertips. "Curve your fingers under, sort of like a claw," says Mr. Hickey. Press against the food with the tips of your fingers and let your knuckles guide the knife.

Use a sharp knife

"You actually have a greater chance of cutting yourself with a dull blade than with a properly sharpened one," says Chef Gary Trevisani, director of curriculum development at the Restaurant School in Philadelphia. Here's why: A dull blade requires more pressure to cut, increasing the chance that the knife will slip with great force behind it. A sharp knife "bites" the surface more readily, Mr. Trevisani says.

Use the right cutting surface

Cutting on a metal stovetop, on a plate or on a tile or Formica counter dulls your blades, Mr. Hickey says. It's best to use a plastic or wood cutting board.

Flip a pepper

"I don't know why people always want to cut through bell peppers with that tough, waxy skin," says Mr. Hickey. He suggests cutting the pepper in half, and then, in a slight violation of the first rule, slicing or chopping it by placing the meaty side up.

Palm that bagel

It's easy to cut yourself when halving a bagel -- if you try to hold the bagel in your hand. Here's the trick, says Mr. Trevisani: Place the bagel flat on a cutting board, put your palm on top to steady it, then slice parallel to the cutting board. Cut about halfway through the bagel. Finish either by rotating the bagel with the knife in place or stand the bagel on end and "saw" through to the end.

Most bagel mishaps occur on weekends, says Dale Birenbaum, M.D., academic director of Florida Emergency Physicians, based on Orlando, Fla. "We see a few bagel injuries every weekend," Dr. Birenbaum says. "You could almost imagine the scene on Sunday morning: They have the day off, they want their bagel and they're not as careful as they could be."

How to choose the proper blade

Knives are tools, and it's best to use the right one for the job. A good knife will have a carbon or carbon and stainless steel blade that runs all the way through the knife handle, Mr. Trevisani says. It should feel balanced and comfortable in your hand. Here's a look at the cutlery of a well-stocked kitchen:

  • Chef's knife - With its 8- to 12-inch blade, this knife is good for slicing tomatoes and dicing carrots. It's also adept at cutting roasts and other large, thick meats, says Mr. Trevisani.

  • Paring knife - With a thin, sharp, 3- to 4-inch blade, this knife is small enough for peeling apples, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables.

  • Serrated knife - Perfect for cutting crusty bread or anything with a hard exterior and soft interior. But don't use it to cut meat. Its saw-toothed edge will shred the flesh.

  • Boning knife - With an extremely sharp and very thin blade that ends almost in a point, this knife is good for delicate cutting jobs like boning chicken and filleting flounder.

  • Utility knife - Similar to a chef's knife but about half the size, this knife can handle almost all but the most delicate jobs. Keep it handy for when your other knives are unavailable.