Monday, September 8, 2008
knife skills 101
So last week I finally learned how to use a knife. Shocking, right? How have I managed to make all these recipes without a knife?
Of course we've got tons of knives at home, but I've discovered that I've just been just dicing and chopping away with them willy-nilly, without any clue as to what I'm doing. I've never claimed to be any sort of culinary professional—that's why it says "home cook" on my bio, people—but I really had no idea how bad off I was. It's like realizing you've been wearing your pants backwards for your entire life. Or driving a car for years without knowing how to signal.
So who opened my eyes to my scary lack of skills? I'd like to call her the knife fairy, but her real name is Ro. My day job allows me to work with many wonderfully talented caterers and one of my favorites, Ro Howe of Barraud Caterers, generously offered to teach me and my editor Mark some basic knife skills. We finally took her up on it a few weeks ago and spent the evening in her roomy kitchen chopping potatoes and parsley. Our efforts were pretty bad at first (I even nicked a fingernail), but eventually we learned how to handle a chef's knife with precision and confidence. Well, slightly more than we had to begin with, anyway.
Although this is a bit off-topic for this site, I wanted to share a few tips she taught us. They might save you a finger someday!
How to hold a knife
Above, Ro demonstrates how to properly hold a chef's knife. Place your thumb and index finger around the front bolster (the part of the knife between the handle and the blade), then grip the handle with the rest of your hand. Your thumb should rest on the bolster on one side, while your index finger holds it firm on the other side. It feels weird (I'm still getting used to it) but allows for greater control when you're cutting or chopping.
How to use a chef's knife
Before we touched a single potato, we simply practiced moving our knives up and down in a circular motion. Ro emphasized how important the correct stance is when using a knife. As a chef, she understands the fatigue that comes with repetitive activities like chopping and dicing. But even if you're just a casual cook, it's important to angle your body toward the cutting board and plant your feet firmly on the ground when using a knife.
Bring the knife down (exhibit A) and up (exhibit B) in a circular motion, keeping your wrist loose and your shoulder moving in a loose circle. Each knife stroke should be a single, fluid movement from beginning to end. Lead with the tip of your knife and slice in a circular motion down, then up. It almost felt like the motion was too big and exaggerated at first, but that's because like many inexperienced knife-users, I wasn't used to using the entire knife blade.
Basic chopping skills
Here, you can see Ro's hand forming a "crab" over the potato. This is to grip the vegetable and hold it in place while still protecting her fingers from the knife blade. To do this, keep your fingers curled inward and grip the food with your fingernails, letting the blade rest against the knuckle of your middle finger (but not too close), which helps keep the blade perpendicular to the cutting board.
Then, as you slice, slowly "walk" your fingers backwards, still gripping the vegetable as you chop, but keeping your fingers away from the blade.
How to chop herbs:
When chopping fresh herbs, Ro recommends first patting your leaves dry with a paper towel. It keep your finished product dry and finely chopped and prevents the herb juices from leaking out and making a mess on your cutting board.
The next step is gathering your herbs (here, parsley) into a little ball. Keep your hands in the "crab" position to hold the ball in place and protect your fingers.
Then, use your knife to mince the pile. Once you've minced it, regather the pile and rotate it to about 3:00, and re-chop. Rotate again, to 6:00, and chop. Rotate again to 9:00, and chop. Then rotate to 12:00 and chop once more. Your herbs should be very finely minced. If you want a rougher chop, just don't rotate your pile of herbs as many times.
Always hand-wash knives, storing them on your counter top (not lurking at the bottom of a sink of soapy water—danger! danger!) until they are ready to be washed. Never wash knives in the dishwasher.
Anchor your cutting board to your counter with a dish towel or piece of removable closet liner. It keeps the board from rocking or sliding, which is very dangerous.
Ro says she prefers Wusthof knives, but whatever knives you have, it's very important to keep them properly sharpened because dull knives tend to slip. She recommends taking your knives to a professional instead of sharpening them at home, which can dull the blade if done improperly.