Basic Knife Skills

Hello and welcome to the third installment of “The Skills”. Last week we introduced you to your most commonly used tool in the kitchen … your knife. We went over what you want to look for in a knife, the different styles of knives, and why you want a good knife that feels right in your hands. Now what? Sure “Pointy end goes that way.” (that way meaning AWAY FROM YOURSELF) is not a bad place to start but what about after that? If you decide that you want to try a challenging recipe with your new knife, do you know the difference between a Julienne and a Chiffonade or a Rondelle and a Lozenge? (A what and a what and a what?) Fear not chefs not only will we be explaining what everything is, we will also be showing you how to do it and giving you a neat little info-graphic that you can print out and keep handy in the kitchen for quick reference (infographic is coming at the end of the knife section in two weeks). So let’s dive in to learning about each of these cuts and what they are good for.

 

Hold on there sport! Now sticking with the theme here, before you can just dive in you are in need of some basic skills. Why not step off the diving board there and put these floaties (other wise known as water wings) on and we’ll start with the basics. How do you hold your knife? Well if you are grabbing it by the handle you are half way there! For those of you that might be bleeding because you grabbed the shiny end this is for you!

The Pinch and the Claw

In your right hand if you are right handed or your left hand if you are left handed grab the knife right in front of the bolster on the blade itself with your pointer finger and thumb. Now wrap your remaining three fingers around the handle like holding anything else and you have the pinch down. This gives you precise control of you where you are cutting on the board, on the knife, and on the ingredients. Additionally, with a decent pinch grip there is practically no way this knife will slip, twist or otherwise live its own life.


The Claw

Second form your other hand into a claw with the second knuckles of all four fingers bent at a 90 degree angle and your finger tips curled back under the palm. Now your thumb is going to be pressing the ingredients forward into the knife with your knife sliding up and down against your knuckles to keep everything away from the blade. That is all there is to it. Using this technique will keep your fingers intact and your ingredients uniformly cut.

One more note regarding the proper holding of sharp pointy things: In most other areas in the kitchen we are very relaxed about what is ‘proper’ and what isn’t. If you like the results and they taste good then more power to you. With regard to knives though, these techniques have been perfected across thousands of years of practice with millions of chefs. This is one of the very few times we will come right out and say ‘Do it this way’ but trust us on this one, ‘Do it this way!’

Using The Knife

Chopping
This is your first and most basic way of breaking down ingredients into a proportionate size. There is not really a standard size for chopping but when we have a recipe that calls for something chopped we like to cut it into square 1/2 inch or 1.5cm pieces. You can also have something call for coarse chopped, medium chopped, or fine chopped. Coarse would be a little bit larger than normal, medium would be about the same, and fine would be a little bit smaller than normal. Chopping is great for ingredients where you wish to keep most of the flavor intact. Salads are a great example as you can taste the individual ingredients in bursts but also get a subtle flavor left behind on the lettuce. You can choose to eat the cucumber by itself or grab a bit of egg, or cheese, or chicken and combine the flavors. That is unless you prefer to drown out the flavor of the salad with a gallon of dressing and then everything just tastes like ranch, thousand island, or Bleu Cheese.

Dicing
This is the next size down from chopping. Dicing usually refers to “cubing” ingredients at about 1/4 inch or 6-7mm. Where chopping is “roughly” 1/2 inch, dicing is getting more exact in your cuts. You want everything to be as close to the same size as possible when dicing. This gets even better when you find the same words in front of dicing that are in front of chopping. Coarse diced, medium diced, and fine diced. Coarse would be a little bigger than normal, medium would be about average, and fine would be a little smaller than normal. Dicing is a great way to keep the flavor of individual ingredients but tone them down a little bit. Onions and peppers are probably the most commonly diced ingredients. You want to still taste them but not as much.

Mincing
Lastly we can get into mincing ingredients. Mincing is just about as small as you can cut with a knife, very fine cubes no bigger than 1/8 inch or 2-3mm. Mincing is usually the scene you see on food network where the chefs are rocking their knives across the cutting board faster than your eyes can easily follow. Mincing is primarily used for ingredients that have a very strong flavor like herbs. We love basil, however we probably would not like a whole mouth full of that stuff. So we would probably mince it up and let it spread that wonderful flavor it gives through the whole sauce or soup rather than eat it in big mouthfuls.

Why Knife?

So why is it important to know the difference between these three basic cuts? They are pretty much the same size when you look at it. There is not much difference between 1/8 to 1/4 and 1/4 to 1/2. We are glad you asked that question, it means we get to type some more!

To explore this question how about we take a simple recipe and show what can happen if we just cut willy nilly whatever size we feel like. What if you did them all the same size? Alright so our tomatoes, onions, and peppers are now all the same size. Let us say that we chopped them all. We now have a Pico that has 1/2 inch chunks of onions and peppers. A couple things are going to happen to your Pico. First because the recipe is going to call for different amounts of each ingredient you are now looking at lopsided proportions. There will not be nearly enough pieces of peppers in the pico to get the flavor and heat in each bite. Secondly when you do get a pepper it is a big hunk of tonsil scorching goodness that will require some people to drink copious amounts of milk to avoid passing out. Lastly … who wants to bite into a big 1/2” hunk of raw onion? Most people do not (pay attention here, we said most people).

Alright so let us move on to dicing everything. Well this is not bad our peppers are smaller and more evenly distributed, our onions are in a more manageable size, and our tomatoes are still looking good even if there is rather a lot of them. Ah Ha, our first problem! By dicing our tomatoes we have “thinned” out the pico. Even though our onions are the right size we have far too many tomato pieces in the bowl a chip can only hold so much and it’s now keeping onions and peppers from being on the same boat load into your mouth. So now instead of eating pico you are now eating tomatoes with a hint of onion and maybe a pepper here and there. It is still not evenly distributed.

How does it work out if we mince everything? Have you ever tried mincing a tomato? No? no go ahead we’ll wait, give it a shot. Yeah that was tough and it is not looking good is it. Say we actually managed to mince a tomato (someone has a very sharp knife! we’ll get into that in a newsletter very soon.) and we have added minced onions and minced peppers to it … yup very salsa looking which is awesome if we are making salsa but alas we are not and we are doomed to make a very soupy pico di gallo. While we might have a good distribution of peppers now it just doesn’t look like a pico.

Now cut everything up the way that the recipe calls for. If we do that correctly we have nice bite sized chunks of tomatoes, the raw onions are small enough to give us a good flavor without over powering it, and our peppers are evenly distributed and give each bite just the right amount of heat. We haven’t even started cooking anything yet and we now know that we can change the flavor and visual appeal of a dish just by the way we are cutting things.

Remember when we said most people? Yeah see there can be some variations once you get the hang of things and know your audience. If you know you are going to have people around that like hot and spicy then make your peppers a little bigger, if you know you have some people that do not like raw onions, make them a little bigger so it’s easier to pick them out and the flavor isn’t over powering, etc.

So we have gotten the basics out of the way. Do you think you’re ready to take off the floaties? We are pretty sure you are after our wonderfully in depth yet easy to follow along instructions. Here are a few things to remember when cutting. First, follow the pinch and the claw technique to keep your fingers in one piece. Second, go slow at first. Yes some chefs and even us can really get going with a knife however there is always a warm up period and we do not go any faster than we need to. Lastly, to tie in with the second point we need cuts to be uniform. So when cutting only move at the speed that is going to give you the cuts you want with no chance of putting the pointy end of the knife into extremities. Next week we will get into part two of cutting with a knife and explain the harder to pronounce cuts that will impress your family with just how little French you actually know.

Roasted Pico de Gallo

  • 1lb Roma tomatoes
  • 1 small white onion, peeled
  • 1 jalapeno (can use Serrano, Habanero, etc.)
  • 1/2c cilantro, diced
  • Juice from 1 lime
  • Salt to taste

Here is a recipe to practice your skills with. First cut your tomato, onion, and pepper in half. Turn the broiler in your oven on and on small cookie sheet place the halved ingredients each on their own sheet. Roast the tomatoes first, then the onions, and finally the peppers. You are looking for the skins or the top layer to start to blacken. When you see them black (after a few minutes) leave them on for a few seconds more then pull them out to cool. Put the onions in and do the same thing, then the peppers. Remove the skin from the tomatoes (easy huh!) and the peppers. Now chop your tomatoes, dice your onions, and mince your peppers. Mix together in a bowl with the lime juice and cilantro and then salt to taste. Put in the fridge to chill and you have a Pico de Gallo that is a little different then everything out there with it’s great roasted flavor AND you have practiced your knife skills to get ready for next week!

The Finale

Well, that was a mouthful for certain. But remember, these are only the basics. Next week we'll be diving into the fancier cuts so you have one week to get used to the Pinch and Claw and get comfortable with what we've been teaching here. Keep in mind that in writing these articles we are leaning on work done by Chad Ward in his book An Edge in the Kitchen. If you are looking for a great go-to text book on knife skills there are none better on the market. See you all next week.

- Lee & Eric
The Text Book:

An Edge in the Kitchen by Chad Ward is the book that both authors rely on for all things knife-related and is a most excellent introduction into this wonderful world of high-end cutlery. We literally cannot say enough good things about this book.
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