Knife Skills, Lesson 1: The Basics

One of the most fundamental kitchen skills you can learn is how to handle a knife. Almost anything you cook will require you to chop, slice, dice, or mince something. Assuming you've identified the pointy end of the knife, cutting things up is a theoretically easy endeavor. There are several subtleties to it, however.

To start with, let's review the two goals for using a knife in the kitchen, in order of priority:

  1. Don't cut off anything that won't grow back.
  2. Make the big bits into little bits

Your primary goal in any cooking adventure should be to not cut off any of your fingers or toes. An occasional grated knuckle is OK, but anything that requires stiches or a tetnis shot is best avoided. To that end, there are a couple of simple safety tips I can offer.

  • Keep your knives sharp! I know that sounds like it would make them more dangerous, but it doesn't. The way to hurt yourself with a knife is when you lose control of it. You lose control of your knife when you apply too much force to it and what you're cutting suddenly gives way. If your knife is nice and sharp, you won't need so much pressure and hence are less likely to lose control.
  • If you find yourself putting your weight behind the knife, stop. See the previous point. Find another way to do it.
  • Always curl the fingers of the hand holding the vegetable (or whatever). Pretend you're making fun of your grandmother's arthritis. If your fingertips are curled under, you can't cut them off. When using a knife, I regularly nick my fingernails. If I didn't have my fingers curled, I would be slicing the tops of my fingers.
  • Use the right knife for the job. Coring an apple with a chef's knife is bad. Dicing with a paring knife is bad. Slicing bread with cooking shears is bad. Using a Dremel in the kitchen, except in certain emergencies, is bad.

Another important part of knife work is having an appropriate cutting surface. The counter top is not it. You really will be less than happy when you have to replace the counter top. They're not cut-proof, and they're not cheap. (There are some that are cut-proof, and obviously what I just said doesn't apply to those countertops.)

Not every cutting board is created equal. I have three. One is a soft plastic, one is hard plastic, and one is wooden. I don't like the hard plastic one because it seems to dull my knives quicker. The wooden one is great for the knives, but is a real pain to clean, and it scars easily. The soft plastic one is my favorite. (By soft plastic, I don't mean that it's pliable. The best way I can come up with to describe it is this. If I hit the knife against the hard plastic board, it goes "clack!" If I hit the knife against the soft plastic board, it goes "thud." Got it?)

On to the actual cutting. You will encounter a variety of cuts requested in various recipes. Here's a list of the most popular with quick descriptions. For links to demo videos, see FoodNetwork's Cooking Basics: Knife Skills.

  • Chop -- this is the classic "making one big thing into lots of little things"
  • Slice -- not surprisingly used to make slices; think tomatoes on a hamburger
  • Dice -- a fine chop
  • Mince -- a very fine chop, usually reserved for onions, garlic, and shallots
  • Chiffonade -- making thin strips out of leafy herbs and veggies like basil

That's it for now. I'm off to the flea market. Next time we'll talk about how to tackle specific veggies.

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