Cooking School Part 2 (Time to Pick Up the Knife)

If you think about it, one of the first tools that we probably developed over the course of our evolution was a knife or edged tool of some sort. It is such as basic tool, and yet it is amazingly useful. That is why I wanted to start with it for this series of posts. It is a very important tool for all of us when we cook something, but it is very easy to use in ways which are less effective, less efficient or less safe than it could be. The kitchen can be a dangerous place to work, and yet most professionals don’t end up cutting ourselves that often. Last year I cut myself twice. That might be more than you did, but I spend a lot more time in the kitchen than most people.

Today we are going to talk about using your chef’s knife. This is the real workhorse of your kitchen knives. The others are more specialized or really not all that useful. The small serrated utility knife is the worst! The chef’s knife comes in many different shapes and sizes. I have several, all different, and I like them all!

From top to bottom:
French Chef’s knife
Chinese Chef’s knife

First lets talk about the parts of a knife. First the obvious, there is a handle and a blade. There are a number of parts within each of these. The point, the tip, the edge, and the heal of the blade are the sharpened side of  the knife. The part of the blade opposite the edge is the spine. The handle will vary depending on the construction of the knife, but it should be comfortable to hold in your hand. The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the handle. The tang can be partial, or full. A full tang will be the full length of the handle, and the sides of the handle will be riveted to it. A partial will only be part of the length of the handle. You can also have a rat tail tang. It is a thin tang that extends into the handle. This is typically in cheaper knives, and you will not see it at all. This is not to say that a knife with a rat tail tang is a bad knife, just less expensive. The other part of a knife handle to know about is the bolster. The bolster is where the blade meets the handle. On some knives there is an actual bolster, and it is part of the blade that is part of the handle. On other knives it is more of a conceptual thing. The area is still there, but the blade just joins the handle.

Now what? Well lets talk about how to hold the knife.  I know what you’re thinking, “Well, there’s a handle. That is what handles are for.” Well, yes, and no. You probably hold the knife with all four fingers on the handle.

This is how I hold a knife.

As you can see I don’t hold a knife the same way you do. The bolster (remember that?) is sort of in the palm of my hand. My index finger is curled over the spine , and the blade is pinched between it and my thumb. The rest of my fingers are on the handle. My grip may shift a little when I’m holding the knife to actually cut something, but you get the idea. As you can see, my fingers are still all out of the way of any cutting parts. What does this grip do for you? By moving your hand closer to the working part of the knife you gain quite a bit more control. It doesn’t really seem like it would make that big of a difference, but once you try it, and stick with it for a bit, you will NEVER go back.

Why do you get more control? I’m not sure I can answer that, but you do. Today while I was at work I tried to slice some onions holding the knife the way I used to, and I just felt like I had no control over anything that was going on at the business end of things. Believe me, you want the control! At least in part this is because you don’t have to work as hard to actually hold the knife. Since you are not working as hard to hold the knife, you can be more accurate with your cuts, you can cut more without getting tired, cut things faster (with time and practice), and be safer overall. That last point is important, and relates to this… A sharp knife is ALWAYS safer. While that may seem counterintuitive, it is true.  A sharp knife requires less effort to make a cut. Then when you are not struggling to hold the knife, and feel more secure holding, cutting becomes effortless. This is important because you are going to cut yourself! The sharp knife in your hand will cut you, but you won’t have been struggling to get the edge to bite into the skin of a tomato, and slip full force into your pinky finger causing a ragged tear of a cut. When you cut yourself, it will have clean smooth edges, and won’t actually be as deep, because there was much less force behind the blade. The nice clean cut will be less painful, and heal much faster. (Yes, it will hurt either way.)

Now that we have your dominant hand sorted out, lets take a look at your other hand. We have a couple of goals for your left hand. The first is to hold the food that you want to cut, and the second is to leave it intact!

As you can see in the picture above my finger tips are curled back from the blade of the knife, and the knife is actually touching the index finger and middle finger. As you can see, my thumb is nowhere near the blade at all. This will allow you to hold the food, and guide the knife as it cuts the food.

Depending on the size and shape of the food you’re cutting there are various techniques you can use.  For items like carrots or celery that are going to be chopped and are not very tall the easiest thing to do is to keep the tip of the knife in contact with the cutting board, and make a circle with your right hand. Starting with the blade of the knife on the cutting board, lift the blade and draw it toward you. Then as you descend push the knife away from your body still leaving the tip on the board. When used in this way you will be able to chop all kinds of things. Similarly you can hold the knife above the food, and slice downward through it. In this case the tip of the knife won’t be on the cutting board, but you will still use a motion similar to the basic chopping above. You can also use the tip of the knife to slice items like tomatoes or pineapples that have been sliced. These two techniques will serve you very well for almost anything you will be doing.

These two videos show me dicing a tomato and chiffonading some basil. In the first, I used the tip of the knife to slice the tomato, and then I used the variation of the basic chopping motion to dice it. When chiffonading the basil I used the basic chopping motion.

VID00009 from Chris Lane on Vimeo.

VID00011 from Chris Lane on Vimeo.

Remember your knife is not something to be scared of. It is actually one of the most useful tools you have in your kitchen!


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