Knives, cutting boards, and how to use them…
So today I was thinking about knives. I know there are lots of people that will buy a knife at the grocery store to use because its cheap. Ok, sure you got a knife for $2, what can you do with it? Well, you can cut yourself with it. Honestly those knives are not good for doing much of anything. They are dull, impossible to sharpen, often serrated, with a handle that is too small to be held for long, and a blade that is too thin to do any real serious work with.
A Special place in hell for people that abuse their knives…
So, what should you buy? How about $30 for a decent knife that you can actually use, and do some nice work with? You would be surprised to see the knives that are used in a professional kitchen. They are good quality, but inexpensive. Sure some people bring in their own knife, and that will depend on the kitchen as well. The one knife you actually NEED to have is a chef’s knife. This should be probably 8-10 inches depending on what you are comfortable with. I use mine for probably 80 to 90% of the work I do, at home or at work. The knife that you are probably most familiar with is the french chef’s knife. Of course there are other places that have chef’s knives outside of France, and the rest of Europe, the Americas. There are a variety of Japanese knives that are used for various things. The Santuko is the most familiar one to most people. This is very similar to the french knife in design as well as function. Sushi chefs use a variety of very specialized knives and some of them can be extremely expensive. One of my favorite knives to use is a Chinese vegetable cleaver. This knife use a large rectangular blade similar to the meat cleaver that we are all familiar with. However it is used for many of the things that we use our chef’s knives for, and not for chopping through bones and meat.
On to cutting boards… I prefer a plastic cutting board. They are inexpensive, if you get the right size it will fit into your dishwasher, and it will not damage your blade. Wood or wood composite boards are also good, but the dishwasher is a big advantage to me. I know lots of people like glass cutting boards, but to me that is just asking for trouble. First of all the glass will actually dull and damage the blade of your knife. Then there is the fact that the knife is going to scratch the surface. Then you will be surprised when you subject it to a sudden change in temperature and it shatters, or you drop it and it shatters. I don’t want glass shards in anything I’m eating. A plate is basically the same as a glass cutting board. Other people like to use granite or marble. Although it is easy to wipe clean you will eventually scratch the surface to the point where it looks bad, and once again you will be dulling and damaging your knife. Plastic and wood are soft enough that the blade will not be dulled by them as much as glass, etc. Also, they make the knife easier to control as you cut through your food. This is because the knife is actually cutting into the board ever so slightly, and is not as likely to go skittering off into one of your fingers.
So, now you have a knife and a cutting board, right? Good. Now there is one more thing that you need before you should really start cutting up your food. A steel. What this does is make sure the edge of your knife is as straight as possible before you start cutting. At the minimum you should use it before you use a knife. If you are working in a kitchen you may find that you use it a lot more than that.
So now, take your knife in your hand, and hold it. There are a couple of broadly accepted ways to hold a chef’s knife. One is just to grab the handle, and hold it like you would expect to. The second way which takes a bit of adjusting to is called the pinch grip. I find that I have a lot more control over my knife this way. What you do is take your index finger and thumb and place them on the blade. You will actually be pinching the blade between your index finger and thumb and the base of your index finger will be resting on the top of the blade. Your other three fingers will be holding the handle of the knife.
On your knife you will see that different sections allow you to do different things. The tip you will find is very good for slicing through small items. The heal of the blade allows you to chop through larger tougher items. The curve of the blade allows you to rock the blade. What you want to do is keep the tip of the knife on the board the whole time, and slide the knife to you as you raise the heal of the knife off the board. Then as you bring the heal back down to the board the tip slides away from you. This can be used for many things. Chopping a stalk of celery. Try it on a carrot, and watch as the little rounds of carrot don’t fly all over the kitchen. This same motion can also be used to chop fresh herbs, or making a chopped salad. In the case of chopping herbs I find it easier to place my left hand on top of the tip of the blade. This makes it work like a pivot. Now of course there is the matter of what to do with your left hand while you are using your knife? Logically you want to hold onto the food that you are cutting. This will allow you to have a more consistent size and shape. This is important because it will cook more consistently if it is the same size and shape. Your left had is now in dangerous proximity to a very sharp blade you think as you hold onto a carrot in your left hand and start chopping. Here’s how you minimize the danger and chances of a trip to the ER. You want to curl your fingers under. This means that the tips of your fingers are actually away from the blade. Then you want to actually use the part of your finger between the first and second joints to guide the blade to where it is going. This is going to feel strange for a while, but take it slow, and pay attention and you will see how well this works.
One last thing. A sharp knife is ALWAYS better. It makes no difference what you are cutting. A dul knife will make you work harder to get through. This means that you are more likely to loose control of the knife, and cut yourself. The second thing about a dull knife is this, it is going to be a ragged cut though you. A nice sharp knife will leave a very clean cut, a clean cut heals faster and leaves less of a scar. So while there is always a chance that you will cut yourself while cooking a sharp knife is better to be cut with.
Hope that this gives you the inspiration to pick up a knife and do a little cooking of your own.