It’s a safe bet that one of the most important skills, (if not the most), a home cook can posses is also one of the most feared – knife skills. The reasons for this are obvious. Back in the my public service days, a friend who happened to be a local E.R. Doc told me that the leading cause of hand lacerations was folks cutting bagels – sad, but distinctly illustrative. The fact is that proper knife skills are rarely passed from home cook to home cook. Some folks naturally get it, but many don’t, and unless you’ve been formally trained in culinary school or in a restaurant setting, you’ve likely never gotten the instruction and training you need to use knifes safely and effectively. Fortunately, what any good home chef needs to know is pretty simple, and that’s what we’ll cover today.
Knife skills in some form or another go back through pre-history, of course, and the recorded part farther back than you might think. In the Zhou dynasty of China, (1045 to 256 B.C.), the art of fine cooking was called ‘k’o’peng,’ ‘to cut and cook.’ By the end of that lengthy reign, Chinese cookbooks contained a plethora of terms for different cuts, illustrating the importance of good knife skills. As the western world caught on and the golden age of haut cuisine in Europe arrived, knife skills were paramount for any and every chef, and they largely remain so to this day. In virtually every genuine professional kitchen, when you step in, you’re expected to know the mechanics and vocabulary of professional knife skills, (and there are no knives provided by the venue – You bring your own, and you’re expected to know how to use and care for them). And yes, for the record, it’s still considered extremely bad form, verging on culinary blasphemy, to even think about touching another chefs knives.
For home cooks, safe and effective knife use is arguably more important than knowing all the fancy cuts – And doing so safely and efficiently requires reps – hundreds, if not thousands of them, to get truly good. This is true not only in order to make the safe and proper steps of cutting food autonomic, but to understand that ingredients behave quite differently when being cut – Carrots react totally differently than tomatoes, and you really do need to know how those vagaries. Speaking of fancy cuts, forget all that razzle dazzle you see on food porn TV – Those folks are Pro’s with tens of thousands of cuts under their belts, and hell, they’re on TV – Naturally they’re going to show off – Trying to match that kind of speed is a recipe for disaster for the home chef, and frankly, it’s just not necessary. In a professional kitchen, we work under extreme time constraints that require intense speed and focus. At home, we need to get dinner on the table, in decent form, in reasonable time, and first and foremost, without cutting the shit out of ourselves. As the inimitable Anthony Bourdain so aptly put it, “When you cut yourself cooking, half the pain you feel is the realization that you’re a dumbass.”
Thankfully, the first step in reducing our dumbassedness factor is a relatively simple thing – don’t use dull knives. I can attest, from a myriad of personal experience, that the vast majority of home kitchens I’ve cooked in have dull knives, (and too often, dull, crappy knives). This is a recipe for disaster. You’re far more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife, because it simply doesn’t work as it should – That makes you try harder, and the next thing you know, it’s E.R. time. This being the 21st century, there is a wealth of information and equipment out there to help you keep your knives sharp – Find it and use it.
The next thing that must be learned is a proper knife grip. Chances are that a bunch of us are doing this very fundamental thing wrong, and correcting that is, no fooling, the most important step you can take toward better knife skills. To illustrate we first need to diagram out the components and features that make up a typical chefs knife, from butt to tip. The butt is the farthest end from the tip of the blade, the end of the handle/grip/scales of the knife, (the part we grasp). The handle ends at the bolster/finger guard – That feature, often metal, is what separates handle from blade. The blade consists of a point, tip section, cutting edge, and heel. The top side of the blade is the spine. And in any decent knife, the metal that forms the blade continues fully through the handle and ends at the butt – This is what is referred to as a full tang blade.
With that map in mind, chances are good that when you grip your go-to kitchen knife, you grab it by the handle, and only by the handle, such that all of your grip hand is solely on the handle, behind the bolster/finger guard. This is called, naturally enough, a handle grip, and it’s what the vast majority of inexperienced home cooks use. While a handle grip seems to make sense and is generally comfy, it has distinct problems, because the it offers quite limited control of the blade. If you’ve got itty, bitty hands, a handle grip makes sense, otherwise, not so much.
Here’s the solution – The blade grip. Although this might seem counter-intuitive, I promise you that it is not. With a blade grip, your thumb and forefinger are placed along the spine of the blade, on the blade side of the bolster/finger guard. Effectively, you pinch the blade between thumb and forefinger. What a blade grip does is shift the balance point of the knife to your advantage, and affords much greater control and sensitivity for your cutting hand. It may feel a bit weird, even scary to have fingers up there near a sharp blade, but trust me, you’ll have a much better feel for what your knife is doing with this grip. One caveat – A blade grip can feel really awkward on a cheaply made knife, especially one without a bolster/finger guard – And I can’t think of a better reason not to own or use such a thing, frankly.
Once you start to use a blade grip, you’ll quickly get a feel for it, and for the advantages it brings. This grip alone will markedly improve your knife skills, and the safety with which you wield your blades. Note that the blade grip works best with chefs knives, santokus, and the like – It’s harder to employ on something small like a parer, although there is a modified grip for that, as you can see in the image below. Pinching the parer right at the bolster, or placing a forefinger along the spine, works great for fine control. That said, a handle grip will work just fine with a parer for most of what you’ll want to do.
One more piece of the puzzle is needed to complete thisx lesson, and that’s what to do with your non-cutting hand, the hand you grip the stuff you’re cutting with. Mistakes and miscues in this regard are, in fact, the cause of much dumbassedness amongst cooks – Even Pro’s, (watch Chopped for a while, and you’ll see more working professional Chefs cut themselves badly than you might care to watch.) The solution is known as The Claw, and it’s every bit as important as a proper knife grip. Employing the claw requires some set up, and here again is a place where home cooks screw up and hurt themselves all too often. Naturally, the hand you’re going to cut when you do things wrong is the food gripping hand, right? Any time a finger tip, palm, etc is exposed unduly, Murphy’s Law will indeed kick in. The Claw is how you avoid that pain.
The first and foremost mistake made with a home cooks non-cutting hand is trying to cut something that’s not stable, and it’s usually veggies that are the culprit – Take your pick, onion, carrot, tomato – the first slice attempted on a thing that does not want to sit flat on a cutting board, combined with an improper grip, is a recipe for disaster. The solution is to make a first cut that stabilizes things. Using the claw grip to make that stabilizing cut is key – grip the onion, or whatnot, such that no finger tips protrude near the intended path of the blade. As you’ll see from the image above this paragraph, I use a thumb and pinky to do that. Then, use the knuckles of your reminding fingers, (you should have three…), as a guide for the side of the knife blade – your finger tips are curled back on the onion, your knuckles are above the cutting edge, and you make the cut – Doing this makes it very difficult to cut yourself. Cut the target food in half, or at least produce one nice, flat side – You can now rest that against the cutting board, and proceed with confidence that your stuff won’t go skittering across the kitchen when you get after it. The images below show the sequence of employing the claw grip to safely complete a large dice on that onion.
One other technique of note that provides safety as well as effective cutting for a very common task. When you need to mince something, home cooks tend to get a bit wild, attacking, for instance, the celery leaf I’m dealing with in the images below with a whole bunch of clattering whacks with a chefs knife – Two problems there, one is, you’re again inviting serious injury, and secondly, you often end up with more of a mess than you do a well cut ingredient. The solution is to set the tip of your knife on the cutting board, just beside the stuff to be minced. Next, place a finger tip or two on the top of the blade end to anchor that tip to the board. Now you can use a series of relatively gentle, rocking cuts to achieve the mince, chiffonade, etc, without cutting yourself or turning your ingredients into bruised goo.
So, there are the basics to provide you with a solid foundation toward better, safer knife skills. My advice is this – Practice, practice, practice – Take very chance to slow down, study things a bit, and get a feel for the skills. One more caveat – never, ever hold something in your palm and attack it with a sharp blade – You may think you’ve got the chops, but it only takes that one tired, distracted moment to invite disaster.
What about all those fancy cuts you read, see, and hear about? How important to a home Chef is that stuff? The answer lies in how serious you want to get about your cooking. Do you really need to know a large dice from a brunoise? Yes and no – The aim of all those cuts is providing exacting uniformity, in a language that any Chef in any kitchen can understand. If you’re working with recipes that call for a brunoise, then yes, you need to know how to do a consistent julienne, (a matchstick cut roughly 1/8″ square by 2 1/2″ long), that can then be cut into 1/8″ cubes – The brunoise.
If all of that gives you a migraine, then consider this – Strive for two things when you prep ingredients – First, make them uniform. That’s important for even cooking, and for aesthetics. Secondly, know how ingredients react to being cut – You’re gonna have a real hard time trying to brunoise a soft tomato – You end up with mangled tomato bits and juice. When you run into a specific cut you don’t know, stop, dry off your hands, grab a smart phone, and google that sucker – You’ll find plenty of specific, step by step instructions to guide you through the process.
Finally, a question that often comes up from the home Chef is, ‘what knives, exactly, do I need’? That is kind of a trick question, because the answer is somewhat dependent on how good your knife skills are, and how broad your cooking ambitions. Home chefs, just like the Pro’s, are quite enamored of good blades, (present company included), and said knives run the gamut from cheap crap to one off works of art. All in all, a home cook can get by just fine with a decent chefs knife and a parer – Those can be used for easily 90%of the work you need to do. As your skills improve and your cooking advances, you may well be back for more.
NOTE: The knives you see in this post were made by Andy Gladdish of Element Fe Forge, of Guemes Island, Washington – you won’t find anything finer, or a finer maker!