How you cut up food seems like it should be so obvious as not to warrant mentioning. But in fact, in this era of not only celebrity meat butchers but even “vegetable butchers” (who thrive at New York’s Eataly), maybe there is something to be said for lessons in slicing and dicing? Even before the actual cooking begins, chefs can usually tell the amateurs from the pros, simply by glancing at their knife-work.
The ease and skill with which a chef or home cook wields their knife, that most basic implement of food preparation, is a tell-tale that separates the wheat from the chaff. In order to better learn this art, I turned to two kitchen gurus: Jacques Pepin himself (who has a fine book and DVD series on the basic skills of cooking) and Mark Bittman, the cooking columnist for The New York Times and author of the go-to bible of cookbooks, How To Cook Everything.
Step one is that you really need a sharp knife. Though it may sound counterintuitive, you will cut yourself less if your knife is sharper. Dull knives glance off of the things they cut—and into your fingers. Sharp knives cleave gracefully. You should grip the knife gently and let your weight and gravity assist you. Sufficiently sharp knives mean that you do not have to saw through your ingredients.
Onions, those renowned producers of tears from their mace-like spray, will not spray you at all if your knife is sharp enough. The spray comes from a dull blade pushing through the flesh of the onion, not slicing it cleanly. Hold the knife by the part of the handle nearest the blade, for maximum control. Use a rocking motion when cutting, pressing down with your body if needed on the lower part of the blade (near to your hand) and then rocking the knife so the length of the blade, out to the tip, slices into your ingredient. If chopping a small ingredient into small pieces, don’t waste time lifting and placing your knife. Place of tip on the cutting surface, and chop down with the lower portion of the blade, near your hand, raising and lowering only that section quickly, like a paper cutter, the tip of the blade never leaving the cutting surface. Always cut down, toward the cutting board, never flipping the blade and sawing upwards through sinewy flesh. Curl your fingers under your knuckles and rest your knuckles against your blade, while your curled-under fingertips hold the ingredient in place—this is the safest way to ensure that you don’t slice your fingertips along with the asparagus. You should not grip the knife so tightly that your hand hurts or cramps. Loose and easy.
Think of the Italian term sprezzatura: conveying the appearance of ease in all you do, even things of great difficulty. All good chefs demonstrate sprezzatura when it comes to knife skills. With enough practice, so can you.
How to Buy a Knife Infomercials and fancy German blade companies want you to think that you need a killer, expensive chef’s knife, a blade worthy of a gunslinger’s sidearm. And maybe you like the idea of one centerpiece purchase for your kitchen, since the chef’s knife is the single most-used and most-useful tool for cooks and chefs alike? You can absolutely buy a beautifully-crafted blade that sells for three figures. For chef’s knives, the classic 8 inch blade, the German companies take the lead: Wusthof, Messermeister, Henckels (see their gorgeous Miyabi artisan series), or Global—which is what I use at home.
You might instead prefer a Japanese-style equivalent, called a Santoku, which serves the same function. But I’m here to tell you, as so many fellow food writers will, that you do not need a $100 chef’s knife. Many professional cooks prefer to buy disposable $10-20 knife with a plastic handle, such as the Dexter-Russell. The handle may not be ergonomic, but you don’t really need it to be. Rather than sharpen the knife constantly, pros often just buy a new $10 blade every few months and are quite content. But if you’re keen to treat yourself, a centerpiece chef’s knife is the way to do it. Just be sure to keep it really, really sharp.
Do you need a second knife? Well, hardcore chefs will tell you that unless you’re butchering regularly, or skinning and filleting fish more than once every week or two, you don’t need other knives, aside from maybe a bread knife or something serrated to take care of loaves and tomatoes. The chef’s knife can do it all. But in practice, a single, very sharp paring knife is useful for smaller projects. You can grab a cheap one with a plastic handle that will be just fine for a few years for just a few dollars, or find a fancy one to suit your tastes. My secret weapon in the kitchen is a Cutco Spatula Knife. With a serrated edge, it’s perfect for tomatoes and small veggies, and can even double as your bread knife. Plus it has no tip, so it’s just about impossible to stab yourself, and its width means you can use it to spread things or even flip burgers.
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