This coming weekend, we leap out of Daylight Whatever Time. Smart folks recommend that we use that marker to change the batteries on all the smoke alarms in our houses, which is brilliant. Annually, I piggy back on that stacked logic to remind y’all of another somewhat onerous but necessary task – So here we go again – it’s spring cleaning time.
Question – Got a freezer? Of course you do. And even if it’s part of a fridge/freezer combo, wanna bet it has a tendency to act kinda like a junk drawer? S’truth. Next question – How often do you clean and organize that fridge and freezer? Typical answer – ummmmmmmm…. Thought so. In that case, my friends, it’s time to seriously clean your freezers.
Just as we spring forward and fall back, it’s a great time to throw in a genuine cleaning of your primary cold food storage vessels.
Grab a cooler or two, pull everything out of said freezer and fridge, and get crackin’. If you’ve got ice build up in your freezer, unplug it. Don’t use any kind of sharp tool to break ice loose – That’s a busted appliance waiting to happen, or a hand injury. Very hot water, drizzled over the build up will loosen the ice and let you remove it by hand. Then move on to hot, soapy water, and give everything a good scrub. Use a clean kitchen towel to remove any detritus and toss that into the trash. In the fridge, remove the shelves, baskets, etc and clean everything thoroughly. Next comes more hot water with a capful of bleach – give every surface a good wipe down with that, then dry everything off with another clean towel. Let the appliances air dry for about 10 minutes. If you’ve unplugged to clean, plug it back in.
While your appliances are air drying, go through the stuff in the freezer. Take a look at this handy guide from the FDA – fresh meat and poultry, properly wrapped and sealed, can be safely stored for up to a year, while raw ground meat and sausage is more in the 3 to 4 months max range. Lean or cooked fish, properly packaged can last for 6 months, fatty fish more like 3 months. Cooked meat, soups and stews are 3 months or less. Frozen veggies and fruit will depend on how well their packaged and sealed, but 4 to 6 months is about the longest they’re still gonna taste good. Pretty much of anything that’s over a year old should probably be tossed – Remember that freezing radically slows bacterial growth, but does not stop it, so better to be safe than sorry. And yes, it does need to be said – If you can’t identify it, chuck it.
Once you’re ready to reload, it’s time to think about FIFO – That’s First In First Out, and it’s what we do every day in the cafe. It’s how you organize your stuff so that things don’t go to waste. Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘OK, but I’m not a restaurant, so why would I need this?’ Lemme answer it with a few questions of my own.
Do you throw out what could and should be good leftovers out ’cause they didn’t get used in time?
When you did that cleaning of your your fridge and freezer, did you have to chuck a bunch of stuff that didn’t get used in time?
Can you afford all that waste?
If you answered too yup, yeah, and no, then it’s FIFO time in your house. A little discipline will go a long way toward correcting those problems.
In restaurants, every time we prep, open, use or otherwise handle food, we slap a label on them that says what it is, when we opened or made it, and how long it’s good for. If you have a food waste problem, here’s a big part of the solution. This simple manifestation of FIFO at home is so often not done, it’s scary; how often have you looked at a leftover and asked ‘When did we make that; is it three days or seven?’ Sound familiar?
The easy fix is to label it every time and it’s problem solved. Use a non-permanent marker on storage containers in the fridge. Use a permanent marker in the freezer and in your shelves. Get some little stick on labels for anything else. Do it with spices, herbs, and stuff from your dry storage that tend so last a long time.
The next manifestation is to physically FIFO your fridge, freezer and cabinets; oldest stuff goes to the top or the front and gets used first, before it goes bad and before anything newer is opened or bought. You spend a bunch of money, time and effort on food and cooking; spend a little more an incorporate FIFO practices in to your menu planning. If you don’t menu plan, start. There’s simple, easy, smart food management. Get your family involved so the effort isn’t wasted.
Do you buy stuff in bulk like we do? Do you sometimes cook a bunch more of something than you need for than next meal, to save time and energy? Does it always get used in time when you do that? If not, think about it and start FIFOing your leftovers. If you did a bunch of chicken and it needs to be used in three days or so, stack that container front and center where it can’t be missed. If you don’t want to eat chicken for three days straight, portion and freeze what won’t get used right away. Food and money not wasted = good practice.
Again, we do this in the cafe every day without fail; it’s how we keep you well fed and safe. Do the same at home and you’ll save money and eat better.
I post this about once a year, and probably should more often than that. Several times a year, either a contracted private outfit, or the local health department, shows up unannounced in my cafe, and takes a very serious, in depth look at at what we do and how we do it – It’s all about food safety.
That might sound scary, and it sure would be, if you didn’t run a clean restaurant. Me, I welcome it, because frankly, this is Job #1, and I don’t ever want to be anything but stellar in our efforts to assure that folks who eat with us are absolutely safe in doing so.
That said, what about at the ol’ home front? While it’s a must in the business, it’s all too often lacking at home, so I thought we’d better revisit the ground rules and spell ‘em out in big letters. In this day and age when more and more foods are making folks sick and even killing some, you simply must take matters into your own hands.
You can and should print this one out and stick it to your fridge with one of those goofy magnets.
The Golden Rules
Understand and Respect the Food Temperature Danger Zone.
Bacteria love temperatures between 40º F and 140º F, so naturally, we want to strictly limit food from hanging out in that range. The mantra is ‘Keep cold food cold and hot food hot,’ and yes, it is that simple. Couple temperature with time, and you’re ahead of the curve. Don’t let anything hang in the zone for longer than 60 minutes, and that’s a total running time. Think about this: Between shopping, prep, and finally cooking, how much time has elapsed with food in the temperature danger zone? You buy a steak first thing at the store, and you’re doing a good sized shopping, comparing, saving, all that proper stuff. By the time you get that steak home and in the fridge, how long has it been in the danger zone? For most of us, I’ll bet you’re real close to an hour, and you haven’t even started prepping and cooking yet. Before we fix that issue, let’s look a bit closer at the spectrum itself.
Cooking, Prep, & Storage Temperature Ranges
165°F+ – Most bacteria die within seconds
141°F to 164°F – Safe range for holding hot foods. Bacteria aren’t killed, but don’t multiply.
40°F to 140°F – Food Temperature Danger Zone: Bacteria thrive and multiply. Perishable foods spend NO MORE than one hour here, period.
33°F to 39°F – Fridge range. Bacteria aren’t killed, but they multiply relatively slowly. Food is safe here for a limited time.
32°F – Freezer zone. Bacteria aren’t killed but don’t multiply. Note that, gang; freezing does not kill bacteria, it just puts them into suspended animation. If ever there was a reason to follow safe food handling practices at home, this is it, since this is the long-term food storage method the vast majority of us use.
Here are the specific methods you need to adopt.
1. Prep potentially hazardous food like the professionals do, which is ice to ice.
When you pull potentially hazardous foods out to prep, place them in a double pan or bowl, with a thin bed of ice beneath the one holding your food. Do the same with the plate, pot, or bowl you’re prepping into. This simple process will truly help keep you and yours much safer.
2. Cook smarter, not harder.
Use a thermometer when you cook, so you’re cooking to temperature, not to time. If you’re not using a thermometer and you’re not a seasoned cooking pro, how do you know what temperature you’re cooking something to? Fact is, you probably don’t, and that’s not good for food safety or quality. The top end of the Food Temperature Danger Zone, 140º F is not the temp at which bacteria die, it’s just the point at which they more or less stop multiplying. You need 165º F to kill most things that can hurt you, like salmonella and e. coli, and that’s 165º F internal temperature. No thermometer equals not sure, and not sure equals not good, so fix that. You’ll want a thermometer that allows recalibration, and you’ll need to read the directions on how to do so. Here’s a link to the model I use at home and at work; it’s the fastest, most accurate, reasonably priced model for home use I’ve found.
3. Get cooked food out of the danger zone ASAP.
Within the food safety danger zone, the temperature range between 125° and 70°F allows for the most rapid growth of microorganisms. As such, you’ve got to get leftovers that have been cooked out of that range as quickly as possible. The 2-stage cooling method is what we use in professional kitchens. That means you want to,
Cool from 140°F to 70°F with two hours, and then
Cool from 70°F to 41°F or below within four hours.
That initial two hour cool is the most critical time period, since that’s when the food is passing through the most dangerous temperature range. Here’s the hard and fast secondary rule you’ve got to strictly abide by: If food has not reached 70°F within two hours, it must be reheated to an internal temperature of 165°F for 15 seconds and then properly cooled again, or thrown away.
Keep in mind the unassailable fact that food needs help cooling down quickly; it can’t do it on its own. Critical factors that affect how quickly foods will cool down include,
Size of the food item being cooled, (thickness, or distance to its center, plays the biggest part in how fast a food cools).
Density of the food, (the denser the food, the slower it cools).
What the storage container you use is made of. Glass and stainless steel transfer heat from foods faster than plastic. If you’re using plastic wrap, leave it loose at first, to allow cold air to freely circulate around the food; once it’s cooled, tighten up the wrapping to keep air away and avoid drying out and cross-contamination.
Size of the container. Shallow pans, (depth less than two inches), allow heat from food to dissipate faster than deeper ones.
And here is a concept you absolutely must embrace wholeheartedly – Food will not move through the temperature danger zone fast enough if it is still hot when placed in the fridge or freezer. In fact, sticking hot food straight into the fridge can actually raise the temperature of everything in there, putting a whole lot of your food into the temperature danger zone. Sound crazy? Ever put a big pot of soup or stew into the fridge, including the steel pot? I rest my case… Here’s how to properly handle things.
* Reduce the size. Cut large hunks of food into smaller pieces for storage. Take that soup out of the pot and transfer it to smaller containers.
* Use an ice-water bath, (50% each, ice and water), and stir foods that are stirrable for fast, even cooling. NOTE: The only way to accurately know that time and temperature requirements are being met is by actively monitoring the process. That means that you need to use your thermometer for cooling as well, (Look closely at your favorite cooking show; I’ll bet you’ll see that the real chefs all have pocket thermometers). Get used to regularly check temperatures and monitoring the time.
4. Keep it all clean.
Wash your hands with hot, soapy water, actively, for at least 20 seconds. Do it before and after you work with food that has greater potential for bacteria, like meat, poultry and fish, and do it again before you move on to prepping something else. Wash and sanitize your cutting boards (Use a mild bleach solution on those; they’re semi-porous, so you really need to pay attention to cleaning them), knives, and anything else that touched potentially high risk foods before you prep something else with them. Does your sponge stink? If it’s not dirty and worn out, toss it into your microwave for 30 seconds; it’ll come out smelling much better, because you’ve offed some bacteria. If it is worn out and dirty, toss it and use a fresh one; same goes for kitchen towels.
5. Don’t defrost or marinate at room temperature.
Best practice is to defrost in the fridge. If you must defrost quickly, fill a bowl big enough to hold what you’re working with the coldest water you can get from your tap, immerse the food in the water and let it run as low as you can get it until it’s ready. NOTE: If you cannot get water colder than 70º F, do NOT use this method, period!
6. Use your senses and resources.
When food spoils, is it dangerous? The answer is, not always but quite possibly, so err to the side of caution, (Making cheese is basically controlled spoilage, as is fermentation). Bacteria like the same things we do, from food to comfy conditions, so always keep that in mind. When food spoils, rots, etc, it looks, smells, tastes and feels off; respect your senses and let it go if it ain’t right. I can guarantee you won’t get sick if you don’t eat it. Bacteria need pretty specific conditions to thrive, involving the temperature, moisture and PH level of the things they live on, AKA, our food. Know the attributes of the food you’re cooking and storing and act accordingly. Use the section of your fridge meant for butter, cheese, eggs, veggies and fruit; modern fridges really can help control moisture levels as well as temp, so allow them to do their thing.
7. Reheat properly.
When reheating hot food, get it back up above 165º F internal temperature before you serve it. Sad as it may seem, you only get one shot at it – No second reheats – So plan, portion and cook accordingly.
Follow these rules religiously. Take care when you buy; always look for quality and freshness, get to know your purveyors, buy locally whenever possible. Make it at home whenever possible.
My friend Kevin Rosinbum, a seriously talented photographer, cook, and renaissance guy, turned me on to this page at Traditional Oven – Initially, I was impressed with the versatility of the yeast conversions they had cookin’ there – Then I started poking around on the myriad of other stuff on that right hand column, and my impressed became a seriously wowed.
Winter is turning to spring in most places by now. Our world is in big transition – We have to be out of our place by Friday, and won’t have our new home (and AMAZING kitchen), for a few weeks yet. As such, I’m going to post some good stuff from others, and maybe a surprise house post or two.
For this week, here’s Real Farmacy making more sense than anything you see from our government. Check it out, and let’s get crackin’!
It happens in every professional kitchen, to some degree, every day – And folks, truth be told, it happens exactly the same way in our home kitchens, too. Classically, it’s known as being dans le merde – You might not know the term, but I guarantee you know the feeling. You’re in the shit.
Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen knows the term. My first professional kitchen training was French, then a Basque kitchen, then another French outfit. ‘On est dans la merde,’ was a thing I heard early on, and quickly came to understand – If you want the proper pronunciation, it’s onnay don la maird – It means, we are in the shit, and in it deep. It’s a colorful phrase, indeed. The Americanized version is ‘in the weeds’, but it means the same thing, and it’s rarely good – I’ll explain my choice of rarely over never down the line a spell.
What in the shit or the weeds means is simple – It’s the Murphy’s Law of cooking – What can go wrong, will go wrong, and usually at the most inopportune moment. It makes sense, frankly. While some advocate that the phenomenon is more prevalent and has greater negative repercussions in a fine dining outfit, I personally think that’s hooey. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to a fast food chain when they’re in the weeds, and frankly, I have zero doubt that staff and patrons there feel it every bit as acutely as they would at The French Laundry. It sucks, bad, and sometimes it can be damn near impossible to get out of quickly or cleanly. Yet most of the time, that’s not true, thank the gods.
Before we explore the what, a moment to discuss the term – Where does in the shit/weeds come from – The etymology isn’t crystal clear. Some posit that it stems from a sports analogy, hitting a golf ball into the rough, or getting tangled in seaweed during a swim. Mark Liberman, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale, suggests it refers to getting off the beaten path, and that strikes me as closer to the mark, (no pun intended). It’s hard to say how old this chunk of kitchen lexicon is. A search for the origins or first use of the term as kitchen slang yields almost nothing of value, it’s an arcane term that apparently hasn’t been explored well. My earliest finding for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. The inference therein is that the term was common among kitchen staff then, so it likely has its roots back a spell from Orwell’s time.
What being dans le merde means is, overwhelmed. In a restaurant, it means that something has swamped a station or stations, and they can’t keep up. When everything, literally everything, must be precisely timed and finely coordinated, that’s all it takes to bring about disaster. And if the orders keep piling up after it’s happened, it’ll take that much longer to get out of.
What I do nowadays in the cafe during peak periods is expedite – I’m standing on the front of house side of the pass, the high counter where completed plates are placed by the kitchen staff when they’re ready to go. I give everything one more check, confirm each element of the plate with my QC, and then hand the plate on to a server. But in reality, I’m watching the clock, and all the stations. My QC, (literally Quality Control – The most important person in that kitchen), the one who has final say on what comes out to me, has control of her line, but her back is to it most of the time, whereas I’m facing the various stations – She can feel what’s shaking, because she’s really good, but I can see it – The expressions on faces, the sudden slow down in assembly steps as somebody gets bogged down, the lack of plates at a given station, where there should be several. As such, a great deal of what I actually do is orchestrate things to keep us from being dans le merde. It’s a constant, demanding dance, and I love it.
Now we reach the point of asking, so what? Why would we be interested in exploring a term that describes catastrophic failure? The answer, my friends, is simple – Search your hearts and memories, and you’ll find plenty of examples of this happening to you, in your own kitchen. Sure, we’re not Le Bernardin, but the fact is that, on a Tuesday night, after a long, hard day at work, when you’ve got to have dinner on the table for your family in X minutes, and the shit hits the fan, it matters a great deal. It has happened, and as sure as hitting a deer while driving eastern Washington, it will happen again, and therein lies the crux of the matter – When it does, what will you do? The sitcom and cartoon answer is, order pizza, and sometimes that works, but the fact remains that most of the time that’s not an option, so, just as I do at work, we at home must act to save the day.
Craig Thornton is the wildly creative LA Chef and founder of Wolvesmouth, what he describes as, “a communal dinner party, kind of like the old-world salon.” A dinner party that just happens to be one of the most sought after dinner reservations in that town. In an interview a while back, he said something that speaks perfectly to why understanding and studying being dans le merde is important – “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.” Truer words were never spoken. No matter how accomplished you are, no matter how broad your repertoire, Murphy says that things will go wrong when you can least afford it. Made Yorkshire pudding a thousand times? You’ll fuck it up on Christmas Eve, with the whole fam damily in attendance. Think about it – Cooking is chemistry, math, history, memory, ambition, imagination, all done with a cornucopia of methods and processes almost guaranteed to make all that fail at some point. It’s a given, and as such, we need to recognize and acknowledge failure – Bow to the gods of chaos, and then smile back at ’em. Failure is, quite literally, a vital part of the cooking process. As with most things in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it when things don’t exactly go swimmingly that tests our mettle.
So, what’s the take away, S’il vous plaît? The answer depends on the disaster. Fortunately, this being the 21st century, answers are but a click away, if you don’t already know one. When a disaster hits your kitchen, it’s time to go into triage mode. Whatever the crisis, when it happens, you need to do what we do at work. Stop for a moment. When you’re in the shit, it feels like you’ve just got to forge on, a la the Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Fact is, that’s usually not a good idea when everything is going to shit.
Disaster requires a moment of observation first and foremost – What went wrong? We may or may not be able to answer that question, but you need to take the time to observe and assess. Thats literally what I do at work – “Gang, stop – Let’s figure this out – Do we need to move people around, do we need more hands, what’s the deal? Let’s figure it out and fix it.” That’s why up there in that second paragraph I said being dans le merde isn’t always bad – If you’re barreling down the wrong path and something critical brings you to a full stop, it can be a hidden blessing – You only ruin one dish, instead of a whole meal.
Take stock of what happened – If you’re not sure what it was, grab your smart phone and google that sucker, ‘why did my Sauce separate?’ With all the resources out there, you’ll likely not only find the cause, but a wealth of possible solutions as well. For the time being, screw the sauce – What’s done is done, and a minute or two more isn’t going to do a bunch more damage. Here’s another tip – Ask for help at home. If you’re a solo cook, (as most of us at are), you’re probably not big on helpers, (I’m not, as many well know). That tendency is, in fact, the cause of many disasters – you’ve taken on a big ass menu of stuff that’s new to you for a party, and wham, things go to shit – Ask for help – Chances are good there’s a spouse, kid, hell even a neighbor you can call on in a pinch. That extra set of hands, eyes, and heart may be exactly what’s called for.
Finally, accept the circumstances. Soufflé pan cracked mid bake? May be salvageable, may not – If not, what’s your alternative? Perfect scrambled eggs are a thing of beauty – No, they’re not a soufflé, but after that disaster, who would argue with great comfort food? Burned the butter in the sauté pan? Don’t wipe it out and charge forward. Stop, get a new pan, take a sip of wine while it heats up. Take a deep breath, get rid of whatever distraction that drew your attention from where it should have been, and calmly go forth to culinary success.
If nothing else, I’ll guarantee you this – Screw something up in an epic kitchen fail, and it’s a safe bet you’ll never, ever do that again. Count your hidden blessings.
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!