Unless your idea of “cooking” is adding milk to cereal, you probably pull out a chef’s knife every time you prepare a meal. (That would be the big one the masked killer runs around with in the movie Scream.)

Despite its utility, a lot of amateur cooks don’t even know how to hold a chef’s knife, let alone handle one. Like grabbing a golf club with a baseball bat grip, you’re setting yourself up for failure with the wrong hand and finger placement, says James Briscione, two-time champion of the Food Network’s Chopped and director of culinary development at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education.

“First of all, chefs don’t hold the knife strictly by the handle because this doesn’t provide much control,” Briscione says. Instead, your thumb and index finger—what Briscione calls your “gun fingers”—should grip either side of the knife’s blade. Your middle, ring, and pinky fingers are the ones to keep wrapped around the upper part of the handle, he says.

Think of it like holding a football; you wouldn’t be able to fire that pigskin with much force if all four of your fingers were on the laces, instead of up toward the nose of the ball.

“A good knife will have equal weight between the blade and handle, and you want your hand around that middle point where the knife is balanced,” Briscione says.

The second mistake he sees often among kitchen tenderfoots is how they apply the blade of the knife to food. “When you’re slicing, you should be sliding the blade’s edge through whatever you’re cutting, not just pushing the edge down,” he says. “Pushing down, you’re just squishing the food.”

He adds, “Imagine just pressing the knife’s edge into your arm, versus drawing it across. Knives are made to cut by moving.”

To facilitate this slicing motion, he recommends starting each cut with the topmost portion of the blade—the section up near the tip—resting on your cutting board. As you’re lowering the knife blade through whatever it is you’re cutting, slide your knife forward. You’ll find the knife moves in a rocking motion that makes slicing and dicing a snap.

Finally, it’s important to take proper hold of the item you’re cutting. Briscione recommends forming a claw grip with the back of your hand facing the ceiling and your knuckles—not your fingertips—pointed at the side of your knife blade. This grip prevents the unfortunate lopping off of digits. It also allows you to work more quickly without fear of injury, Briscione says.

Now that you have the technique basics down, you’ll need a proper tool. Here are three good recommendations for chefs of all experience and skill levels.

Photo courtesy of Shun

$175, shun.kaiusaltd.com
“Shun makes a great knife,” Briscione says. He calls them an ideal mix of light “Western”-style blades and heavier European cutting tools.

Photo courtesy of Amazon

$54, amazon.com
A heavier, blunter tool, the Henckels is still a great performer. For this price, it’s an unbeatable option for guys just getting going in the kitchen who want a quality knife that won’t cost an arm and a leg (and a finger).

Photo courtesy of Amazon

$110, amazon.com
Forged from the same high-carbon stainless steel as the Henckels, the Wüsthof has better balance and a more comfortable grip than its cheaper doppelganger. Is it worth twice the price? Not if you’re a greenhorn. But you really can’t go wrong with this knife.