Katie Learns to Cook: Chapter 6, Knife Skillz

August 12, 2012

In this week’s installment of Katie learns to Cook, I read up a bit more on knives and knife skills that are important to know when in the kitchen.  Lets get to it!

As a professional in the cooking world, there are more than a few knives to have in your arsenal, a Chef’s Knife, which your go-to for basic chopping and every day kitchen skills.  I’ve read multiple cookbooks that say, if you’re going to have one knife in your kitchen, this all-purpose knife is the one to have.

Another all-purpose knife is the utility knife, shaped like a chef’s knife, but smaller.

After these two knives, there are task specific knives (does that make sense?).  Boning knives are used to get the meat off of a bone and a paring knife is helpful for doing “detail work” on fruits and veggies.  Personally, I couldn’t live without my paring knife and love it for coring pieces of fruit and cutting celery (I can thank my mama for that one).

You also have knives like the cleaver (commonly seen at the butcher to cut through bones), a slicer, which can be smooth blades for slicing through meats or serrated for slicing through breads and pastries.  We have a few serrated ones and also belong on my list of “can’t live without” knives.

Other little knives like oyster or clam knives are pretty specific to prying open the shells of each.   And of course, its hard to buy a set of knives that don’t include some smaller serrated steak knives.

Its pretty unanimous that if you’re going to spend some money on knives, aim for the best set of knives you can afford.  Maybe that means buying one or two really good all-purpose  knives like a chef’s knife and a utility or paring knife, depending on what you do in the kitchen.   I can’t speak very much to all the different brands of knives, but the chapter is pretty adamant that a good knife starts with a solid and good piece of metal, which has been stamped, cut or forged into the shape of the blade.   Blades are usually made of carbon steel, stainless steel, high-carbon stainless steel or ceramic.  My brother has some ceramic knives and while they’re very much on the expensive side, he swears by them.  I used them once, and was pretty impressed with them, although it was strange to use a knife who’s handle was simply an extension of the blade.  Has anyone else out there ever used a ceramic knife??.

Gripping the Knife

When I first read this chapter, the thought had never occurred to me, to actually sit down and think about how I was holding my knife.  While its best to hold the knife that is safest and most comfortable for you, there are two general suggested ways to hold a chef’s knife, according to this chapter.  While each way involves a nice grip on the handle, one method is to hold the handle with three fingers and grip the base of the blade with your thumb and index finger.  The second method, is to use a four fingered grip on the handle and have your thumb on the front of the handle.   I had always just grabbed the handle whole hog and (shockingly!) never had as good control of the knife’s movement as I would’ve liked.  I’ve found that the first variation of the grip is what really works well for me and has a much better feel for balance.

Controlling the Knife

Here is one thing that I need to work on (cue scary confessions and reader gasps?).  Its not that uncommon if you were to hear me swearing in the kitchen on a nightly basis because my blade some how jumped from whatever it was cutting to a part of my body.  My friends have joked about getting me some chain link gloves for when I’m chopping vegetables and I’ve been known to scare a few people out of the kitchen with my skillz.  Just kidding on the skillz part.    Apparently, the control that I’m lacking is what is key to making beautiful even cuts of vegetables, fruit or meats (and not your finger!).  For this reason, it is especially important to not prep food with old or dull blades.    Its also important to grip whatever it is you’re cutting in a way to guide the knife along its length.  This is the part that scares me, because even though its common practice to keep your fingers out of the way when you’re cutting something, it takes a lot of skill to move quickly on a cutting board in a fluid, accurate and safe way.   Two ways to help with this are how you move your knife through what you’re cooking.  Two common methods:

1.  Place the tip of the knife on your cutting board and holding your (for argument’s sake, we’ll say carrot) carrot, between your first three fingertips and thumb, curled under.   Lifting the back of the knife and using the knuckle of your first finger as a guide, work your way down the vegetable.

2.  Gripping the vegetable the same way as above, instead of a stationary tip/fulcrum motion, slice down and towards yourself, through the vegetable.   For this technique, its important that the wrist does most of the work, not the elbow.

Both techniques use your first knuckle as your guide.  I plan on spending the next week practicing both techniques to see if I can get more comfortable and learn to trust my abilities.

The last part of the chapter was super interesting to me (ok, lets be real, the whole chapter was interesting to me), was the different kind of cuts.  What I thought would be really fun, would be to work on these different kinds of cuts throughout the next week or two also (there are a few) and see how I do.  Here’s a brief list and explanation of each:

Slicing: To cut in relatively thin, broad pieces.  You can do a chiffonade which to shred or slice leafy vegetables/herbs into extremely thin sections.  Rondelles are commonly used as a way to present cylindrical veggies, like carrots, as small rounds (think carrot chips?).  Similar to the rondelles, there are also diagonals where the item is sliced on a bias into ovals instead of rounds.  Some of the more advanced preps may include oblique cuts (two angle-cuts) or lozenges  (small diamond shaped pieces).

Horizontal Slicing: If you’ve ever butterflied a chicken breast, you’ve done a horizontal slice.  This technique can also be used for soft veggies.

Chopping:  This is where you cut your item into smaller pieces.  For chopping it isn’t as important that the pieces are uniform in size.  For that you want…

Dicing:  If you would’ve asked me how many ways there are to dice something, I don’t think I would’ve been able to tell you more than one.  Lucky for us, what appears to be the only difference in these uniformly cut items, is the size of the cut.  Importantly, in order to accurately dice something, it should be first cut into the appropriate sized stick, such as a Juilienne or the slightly larger Batonnet.  From there, you can set to dicing your sized pieces.  From smallest to largest these are:

Brunoise: 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch x 1/8 inch

Small Dice: 1/4 inch x 1/4 inch x 1/4 inch

Medium Dice:  1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch

Large Dice: 3/4 inch x 3/4 inch x 3/4 inch

Paysanne:  1/2 inch x 1/2 inch x 1/8 inch (these, obviously are more like flat shapes, rather than cubes).

Honestly, I’m not sure how many of us “every day” chefs would sit there and measure out the sizes of the dices as we go.  I’m content to eyeball, but I can imagine culinary school includes a lot of practice at whipping up a pot of largely diced potatoes at the drop of the hat.  Even if I don’t have the exact measurements down, I understand the importance of uniformly cut pieces, in order to ensure even cooking as WELL as control the textures you experience when you eat something.   Do you want one thing to stand out or is your dish more about highlighting a few different ingredients at one time.  If the first, you may want to have that item be the larger of the ingredients, whereas if its the second, cut them all uniform, so you get a nice heaping spoonful of each ingredient in one bite!

Mincing: If you mince something, you’re cutting it into extremely small pieces, and uniform sizing isn’t important. Think, minced garlic or shallots.  MMMMmmm

If yo uwant to get super fancy and fun, especially with presentation, you could try your hand at a toorner which is a football shaped  cut, with seven equal sides and two blunt ends.  I can forsee a lot of destroyed potatoes if I try to practice this one too much…

There are also little parsiennes.  My husband, Brandon, somehow got on the kick of getting each of our good friends melon ballers as wedding gifts.  I don’t know why, nor do I care to understand.  However, These little melon ballers are perfect for creating these parsiennes cuts of uniform spheres.  Little balls of melons for fruit salad?  Tres chic! Veggie garnish or a fun way to make a soup more interesting?  Absolutely!


And that, my friends is a very long explanation of my absolute favorite chapter to date.  Although next week it may be ousted by Chapter 7, the Kitchen Staples!   The important thing for me, is not only knowing this kind of information, but being able to put it to use, so I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks practicing practicing practicing!

Hope everyone enjoys the rest of their Sunday!


One Response to “Katie Learns to Cook: Chapter 6, Knife Skillz”

  1. Nik Says:

    The guide-with-your-knuckles technique is one that I’ve never been able to get the knack of … but ceramic knives make it all better 😉

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