KNIFE SKILLS HANDOUT
Basic knife skills are an important component of any culinarian's repertoire - whether you plan to earn a living in the kitchen, or simply please yourself, your friends, and your family. Learning to wield a knife correctly will speed up your prep time, and food products fashioned in uniform shapes and sizes will help guarantee even cooking throughout a dish. In addition, the mastery of certain classic knife cuts and methodology will vastly improve the look of your food, garnishes and plate presentations.
Overview of the Lesson:
What I'd like to accomplish here is to impart a basic knowledge of knife safety, knife construction, the most commonly used kitchen knives and a few classic knife cuts. I'm only going to address vegetable cuts; some butchery will be covered.
The safe use of knives is imperative for obvious reasons. There are only a few rules to remember, but they are crucial:
- A sharp knife is a safe knife. Using a dull knife is an invitation to disaster. If you try to force a dull knife through the surface of a food product, it's more likely to slip and cause an injury. Also: if you do happen to cut yourself, a sharp knife will result in an easier wound to attend to.
- Never, ever grab a falling knife. The best way to avoid having to think about this rule is to make sure your knife is always completely on your work surface, without the handle sticking out into traffic areas. Inevitably, however, it will happen from time to time that you or someone else will bump a knife handle, resulting in a falling knife. We all have a natural instinct to grab for anything that's falling. You must overcome this inclination. Remember: a falling knife has no handle. Just get your hands and feet out of the way.
- Use the right knife for the right job. Many knife injuries occur when laziness induces us to use the knife at hand rather than the correct knife for a job. Place your knife inventory where it is easily accessible so you won't be tempted to make this mistake.
- Always cut away from - never towards - yourself. Sometimes this is a hard rule to follow. Again, don't be lazy! If the angle is wrong, turn the product around. Or turn your cutting board around. By the way - if your cutting board doesn't have rubber feet, you should place it atop a damp kitchen towel to make sure it doesn't move while you're cutting.
- When you have a knife in hand, keep your eyes on the blade. I was taught this rule early on in culinary school. I have to admit that every single time I have cut myself, I was looking away from what I was doing. This rule stands whether you are cutting something or carrying a knife. The simple fact is: you're unlikely to cut yourself if you're watching the blade, especially the tip.
- Carry a knife properly. If you're carrying a knife through the kitchen, especially a busy commercial kitchen, there are often people hurrying everywhere. You must get used to the idea that the only way to walk with a knife in hand is to carry it pointed straight down, with the blade turned towards your thigh. Keep your arm rigid. You don't want some busboy or family member going to the emergency room with a puncture wound from your knife.
- Never, ever put a knife in a sink full of water. In addition to soaking probably being bad for your knife handle, putting a knife in a sink full of (likely soapy) water is just asking for trouble. Wash your sharp knives by hand (not in a dishwasher!) and put them away immediately.
- Always cut on a cutting board. Don't cut on metal, glass or marble. This will ultimately damage a knife's edge.
Knife Grips and Fulcrum Placement
The proper way to hold a chef's knife is to grasp the blade firmly between the pad of your thumb and the knuckle of your index finger just in front of the bolster, curling your remaining fingers around the bottom of the handle. If you hold your knife correctly, you will eventually develop a nice callous at the base of your index finger, near the palm. Resist the temptation to extend your index finger along the spine of your knife, because that method results in a lack of control of the angle you are working with.
Some Classic Knife Cuts
A large dice is a cube measuring ¾" on a side.
- First, cut one side of the potato off to provide a flat, stable surface for the next cut:
- It's important to be aware of the angle of your knife blade in relation to the cutting surface - this should be a completely perpendicular, 90-degree angle. The best way to ensure the proper angle is to cut with your head directly over the cutting surface and product. So it's best to use a high table or counter to cut on - otherwise you are in for an aching back after as little as a few minutes.
- Now, set the potato on the newly created flat side, and begin cutting "planks" ¾" wide
- Next, lay the planks over and cut them into "logs"
- Finally, trim one end of the log and cut as many ¾" large dice as you can. As you become more proficient, you will be able to cut several stacked planks into logs at a time, and several logs side-by-side at once into dice.
This same method (flatten a side, cut planks, cut logs) will work for most of the potato cuts in this section. For instance, a medium dice is a simply a perfect ½" cube. Same method, smaller cubes.
A small dice is simply a ¼" cube, made from the beginnings of batonnet
A classic batonnet is a stick-shaped cut (resembling a french-fry) that measures ¼" x ¼: x 2-to-2 1/2" inches. Cut ¼" square logs as outlined earlier and trim to the correct length.
The dimensions of a true julienne are 1/8" x 1/8" x 2-2 ½". I find that when the cuts get this small and smaller, for some reason it is easier to trim planks to the correct length before cutting logs.
A mince is a tiny, but less fussy cut of vegetable, with no specific dimensions except that it should be quite small, usually in order to promote quick infusion of flavor to a dish. To accomplish a quick mince, cut your product into manageably small slices or segments, then rock the edge of the knife back and forth over the cutting surface while pressing down on the spine of the knife with the palm of your guide hand. Arch your palm to keep fingertips out of the way of the blade.
Dicing an Onion
The first hurdle I had to overcome in learning to dice an onion was to learn an efficient method of peeling it. Attempting to peel a whole onion can be an exercise in frustration.
- First, make a flat surface to set the onion on by slicing off a small portion of the stem end.
- Now, balancing the onion on the flat surface just created, cut it in half through the root end. Do not trim the root end off either half of the onion.
- Next, peel the skin from each half of the onion, using a paring knife:
- Once your onion is peeled, place it cut-side down, and make vertical cuts of the desired thickness from root to stem end. Do not cut all the way through the root end.
- Now, make horizontal slices, once again being careful not to cut through the root end. You may need to hold the sides of the onion together with the fingers of your guide hand, so be cautious - it's easy to nick yourself during this step.
- Finally, slice down across the cut grid to produce your dice.
A chiffonade is a fine slice or shred of leafy vegetables or herbs. To chiffonade, simply stack a few leaves, roll them into a cigar shape, and slice. Remember to remove any tough, woody stems that you want to exclude from your preparation: