Every delicious meal begins with a knife. Knife skills provide a foundation that can be built upon as culinary knowledge grows. Without knife skills, there would be no diced onions to sauté and no sliced tomatoes to broil. Learning how to use a knife effectively will save you preparation time and make cooking more enjoyable.
When serving dinner at the end of a busy day, perfectly cut carrots are likely the least of your concerns. But the benefit of mastering knife skills goes beyond a pretty plate of food. Pieces of fruits and vegetables that are uniform in size allow for even cooking. Unexpectedly biting into a large piece of raw pepper can make an otherwise delicious meal unappetizing. When you have the skill to cut around a bone or get close to a vegetable core, you get more food for your family and less waste for the trash bin or compost pile.
A drawer full of knives is not necessary to master cutting techniques. In fact, finding a style you prefer and keeping a few favorites for daily use will help eliminate kitchen clutter. Every kitchen should have three specific knives:
- an 8- to 10-inch chef’s knife for chopping and mincing
- a paring knife for working with smaller foods
- a serrated knife for cutting tough-skinned produce, breads and meat
If you often work with meat, you might also consider a boning knife, kitchen shears or a cleaver.
Begin by deciding how you’ll hold your knife. You can choose the handle grip (A) or the blade grip (B). When using the handle grip, wrap all four fingers around the handle and place your thumb on top where the blade meets the handle. When using the blade grip, grasp the back of the knife blade with your index finger and thumb. Wrap the other three fingers around the handle.
Use your free hand to stabilize the object you’re cutting. Secure the food with your hand, curling all five fingers under to protect the tips from the blade (c). To ensure even pieces, hold the food while placing your hand close enough to the knife so that the side of the blade brushes against your knuckles as you chop—when you cut, don’t lift the edge of the blade high enough off the cutting board that it can come down and make contact with your knuckles.
Whether you’re prepping a stew, a casserole or pasta sauce, few meals forgo onions. Use this chopping method to maximize your onion: First, use a chef’s knife to cut your onion in half from stem to root (A). Peel back the skin from the stem end, but leave the skin intact at the root end to help hold the onion together. Place the onion cut-side down on the cutting board. Cut off any stem that might be left on the onion.
Next, turn the knife blade parallel to countertop, and position it 1/4 inch above the cutting board. Cut from the stem end to the root, horizontally (B). Stop cutting just before you reach the root. Make a second cut 1/4 inch above the first cut, and continue until you reach the top of the onion.
Now, turn the blade perpendicular to the countertop, and make even slices from root to stem (C). Again, be sure not to cut all the way to the root. Next, cut the onion into slices across the width. Your onion will now fall into evenly diced pieces (D). Continue to cut back as close to the root as possible, discarding the small root section.
Mincing herbs requires a less-precise cut than chopping onions, but learning how to hold and rock the knife takes some practice. Gather a bunch of leafy herbs, such as cilantro or parsley, into the middle of the cutting board. Holding the herbs with all your fingers curled under, place the tip of your chef’s knife at the top of the bunch. Rock the knife from tip to heel to cut the leaves into small pieces. Use the handle to maneuver the heel of the blade. The tip of the blade should never leave the cutting board. After a few cuts, gather the herbs back to the center of the cutting board and repeat until all the leaves are evenly minced.
When working with root vegetables, it’s important that pieces be uniform in size for even cooking. For potatoes, first use your chef’s knife to cut a small piece from one end so that the potato will sit flat and sturdy on your cutting board. Repeat this cut on all four long sides and on the other end to make a rectangle (A). Next, slice the potato lengthwise into pieces of the same width (B). Turn slices and stack them so they lay flat on the cutting board. Using the same cut, slice the potatoes again (C). (This is called a batonnet, often used for French fries.) Slice the potato crosswise into even cubes (D).
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Hobby Farm Home.