Basic Culinary Knife Skills Explained
Much like a favorite rifle for a hunter, the knife is the weapon of choice for those who spend their hobby time in the kitchen. But no matter how exotic or perfectly tuned your weapon is, without any skill it is no different than a rock at the bottom of a river: absolutely useless to you in your culinary endeavors.
However, just like with any tool out there, you can become a master of any culinary knife as long as you practice and keep in mind a few basic tips when working with a knife in the kitchen.
First and foremost, we must discuss the way you should hold your knife. The majority of your work with a knife will be done by the hand holding it, but the other hand is also very important. You will be using it to stabilize and bunch up anything you are cutting. This is important for both safety and efficiency. Your knife wielding hand should grip the knife firmly, with your full palm all the way up to the blade, while your index finger and thumb should be on the blade.
This grip has been developed over many years and is by far the most practical method for cutting. It utilizes the full strength of your arm, the balance of the knife and its sharpness, and keeps safety in mind. Your helping hand’s primary purpose is to feed the ingredients towards the knife in short increments as you cut them. The idea is to bunch up all your fingers together and curl them in while your knuckles keep the ingredients pressed firmly to the board to avoid any movement.
This “bear claw” position is best when it comes to safety and efficiency in almost any cut. Don’t over strain your grip on the knife. You should keep your hand relaxed and in control of the knife, while letting the sharpness of the blade do all the work for you. Rock the blade back and forth while going up and down in a single motion to cut most of your ingredients.
There are few different cutting methods out there, and each method is best suited for a different use. Most of these are not too difficult to master, but you always have to keep the basics in mind and be aware of the skills required for each cutting method. Keep safety in mind as well, and don’t worry about speed. Repetition will slowly build up your speed over time, so there is no need to rush. For now, just focus on safety and technique. Here are some of the more basic cutting techniques:
This method varies a little bit depending on the ingredient that you use. The first step is almost always to reduce the size of your ingredients.
For example, when working with garlic, you first want to slice each garlic tooth lengthwise into smaller shapes, and only after you have the desired amount will you start chopping. Pile all of the garlic up together, place the palm of your helping hand on the dull side of the knife towards the end of the blade, and with your holding hand rock the knife up and down while turning it back and forth a few degrees at a time. Do this repeatedly while bunching the garlic up in between until you have the desired consistency.
For carrots, the style is very similar. Instead of placing your hand on top of the knife, you will have to use the claw method for your helping hand. First, cut your carrots in half, and then cut each half lengthwise. For a rough cut, cut the half-moon shaped carrots pieces across the width. If you need a medium cut, add another step in which you will chop similarly to the garlic. Repeat the process a few times if you need a small chop.
Dicing is a more precise method of cutting vegetables and fruit. The purpose of dicing is to create more uniform pieces which will cook equally. For proper dicing, you will turn everything you cut into a more cubical shape, and then cut everything horizontally and vertically into smaller cubical shapes. One of the most commonly diced vegetables is the onion. To dice an onion, first cut off the root end and then cut the whole onion in half. Place each half onto an even cutting surface and make a few horizontal cuts into the onion, but do not cut all the way through. Stop a quarter of an inch away from the tip. Do the exact same vertically, remembering not to cut all the way through, and then dice with the desired spacing. Depending on whether you need a small or large dice, you will make more or less horizontal and vertical cuts in your onion.
The tomato is a bit different. First, you will need to quarter each tomato, then pick up each quarter and flatten them out a bit by pressing with your thumbs on the curved side of the slice and pulling back the edges a bit. Place each quarter of the tomato onto the board skin side down and remove the seeds and pulp. Cut strips lengthwise with the desired spacing then turn the knife 90O and do the same again.
Working with a potato is perhaps the simplest of all. Trim the edges of the potato off on all sides to form it into a rectangular shape, and then make a horizontal cut to divide it in half. Place the two pieces side by side and make your cuts long ways depending upon the desired size of each cube. Then simply turn 90O and repeat.
Slicing and Cutting
This is the method we use to cut larger pieces of fruits and vegetables. There is really no trick to it, but your choice of knife is very important. If you want to make big round slices of a tomato, then a chopping knife might not be the best choice. Most chefs prefer to use a serrated knife when it comes to softer items.
Cut with a long slicing motion to create even pieces. However, if you are working with something a bit more solid and crisp, such as an apple, then the chopping knife is definitely a better choice. Simply slice the apple in half and make long slicing cuts towards the center at different degrees while using the claw technique for your holding hand. Cut off the inner the core of the apple with a long slice on the thinner side of each wedge, just deep enough to get the seeds and the core off.
Remember when you are first learning and practicing each cut not to worry about speed. It will come naturally over time. Use these short tips to your advantage and in no time you will be the master of the blade in your kitchen.
And don’t forget, stay safe.