Basic Knife Skills for the Amateur Cook

My love for cooking was kindled by three lovely chefs (and dear friends) who I worked with back in the day, when waiting tables through university. The restaurant had an open kitchen and on quiet nights I remember being captivated as they chopped, prepared and created tantalizing and original dishes (which probably contributed to my post-grad-weight-gain year as well). They taught me not to be afraid to experiment with foods, embrace herbs and spices and to cook a steak so tender it cuts like freakin’ butter (oh for cryin’ out loud!). But with the fun part came the ever so essential advice of knowing how to properly choose and handle knives as well: for safety, speed and efficiency while cooking.

While professional chefs spend years mastering knife skills, us amateur cooks at home can make due with knowing the basics and work our way up from there… our main objective here is to learn which type of knife to use when cutting various foods and to not cut off any fingers in the process.

Good to know  

We all might have a favorite knife, but how many of us know the 20 + types of knives out there and when to correctly use them?

Rather than dive into a full blown knife class 101, I thought I’d narrow it down to the top 5 knives used by most aspiring cooks at home (aka the knives you’ll find when buying your standard ‘IKEA-style-looks-good-as-prop-in-kitchen’ knife block):

  1. The Chef’s Knife: One of the most popular knives, the chef’s knife has a strong blade and is heavy to hold. It can be used for all chopping and slicing tasks (and it makes us look pretty bad-ass like we know what we’re doing in the kitchen).
  2. Santoku knife: It’s the Japanese version of the chef’s knife and is great for meat, fish and vegetable preparation. It has a wide blade to scoop up chopped food and a curved end which helps with the rocking motion used for chopping.
  3. Filleting knife: A long, slim blade with flexibility to move easily, which is great for cutting meat and fish
  4. Utility knife: An all-round versatile and smaller knife suitable for chopping up fruits and vegetables
  5. Vegetable knife: Much like the name suggest, this is a good knife with a strong, straight edge and good grip for cutting smaller fruits and vegetables

to5(image source: millyskitchen.co.uk)

Perfecting your chopping skills 

As much as the end-result of having chopped up feed stays the same, the way you cut yield different results if you do it right and will make the rest of your work in the kitchen a lot easier.

  1. Chopping (precise cutting of meat/vegetables): Stay safe (and keep all your fingers) using the ‘claw grip’ when chopping. Bend your fingers at the first knuckle (just below your fingers nails) and allow the knife to kind of press against them as you slice. Prop your thumb and pinky finger on the board for stability. For optimum control when holding the knife, grip the blade with thumb and forefingers. Imagine the handle of your knife is attached to the rim of a wheel as you chop in a locomotive motion. (*side note: for a great vegetable chop (eg: onion) keep the root of the vegetable attached)
  2. Slicing (large vegetables): Using the same claw grip, push the knife down in small strokes, then forward in a smooth motion to get a clean slice. Make the sure the knife tip never leaves the surface of the board (this gives you more speed and stability).
  3. Mincing (rock-chopping herbs): When mincing things like garlic, fresh herbs and zests: pile up the ingredients and place a chef’s knife on top holding it steadily. Gently rock the knife back and forth keeping the tip on the board. Making sure you don’t lift the blade too high, drag it along the board at a shallow angle and regroup the ingredients as you go.
  4. Fillet/Bone: When filleting or boning, always move the product to suit yourself. Don’t twist yourself into an uncomfortable position as you might risk hurting yourself. For example, when boning a chicken turn the end you are working on towards you rather than leaning over and stretching to the other side.

Practice with the various types of cuts  

  1. Rough-chop: is pretty self explanatory. It’s where we roughly chop vegetables into the size of a large dice, without much precision. This is used often when making soups or stirfry.
  2. Dice: diced vegetables help food cook faster and looks more. A lot of recipes ask for diced onions, tomatoes, capsicums etc.
  3. Mince: is a very fine chop of herbs and zests like garlic, basil, coriander, …. . Perfect for cooking broths and sauces.
  4. Julienne : the vegetables looks like a matchstick and is used in spring rolls, coleslaw and wraps where vegetables need to be long and thin.
  5. Slice: slicing usually result in a flat result making layering vegetables a lot easier like on pizza or in lasagna.
  6. Chiffonade: this is most used when we need to cut leafy greens like spinach or large herbs. Stack the leaves and roll from stem to tip. Slice the roll lengthwise to create easy to manage ribbons.

IMG_3298

Keep it sharp 
Besides knowing the appropriate knife to use, it is also very important to always have your blade as sharp as possible, as blunt knives can slip and struggle (and take longer to properly cut and prep your food). It is also important to secure your chopping board for stability.

Sharpening knives can be done using a whetstone or diamond stone, but a common tool (often found in fancy knife blocks that makes us feel like pros) is the honing rod (or sharpening steel). The ‘steel’ is more often uses to keep knives sharp in between use as it realigns the metal in a blase, massaging small nicks, indentations and flat spot away.

steelrod  1. Hold the rod in your non-dominant hand (with the tip slightly elevated from the hand) and the knife in your dominant hand with a firm 4-finger grip. Place your thumb on the spine of the knife far away from the knife’s edge.

2. Maintaining a consistent angle, move the knife across the top half of the honing rod and sweep heel to tip across the
honing rod.

3. Maintaining the same angle, move the knife across the bottom half of the honing rod using the same sweep of your arm, hand and wrist as before. Use only as much pressure as the weight of the knife itself. After completing a top-and bottom sweep, you’ve done one revolution.

4. Do about 6-8 revolutions before each use of the knife.

So there you have it, a very basic intro to some of the more commonly used knives and how/when to best use them. Happy chopping and bon appetit!

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