Basic Knife Skills
by Marsha Lynch (zilla369)
Basic knife skills are an important component of any culinarian’s repertoire - whether you plan to earn a living in the kitchen, or simply please yourself, your friends, and your family. Learning to wield a knife correctly will speed up your prep time, and food products fashioned in uniform shapes and sizes will help guarantee even cooking throughout a dish. In addition, the mastery of certain classic knife cuts and methodology will vastly improve the look of your food, garnishes and plate presentations.
Overview of the lesson
What I’d like to accomplish here is to impart a basic knowledge of knife safety, knife construction, the most commonly used kitchen knives, a few classic knife cuts, and a couple of specialty cuts. I’m only going to address vegetable cuts; some butchery will be covered in upcoming lessons. The next eGCI segment (led by Chad) will feature a discussion of the metals used in knife composition, knife maintenance, and sharpening techniques.
You won’t need any truly special equipment for this lesson. The bare minimum requirements are:
A sturdy cutting board
A (sharp!) chef’s knife
A (sharp!) paring knife
A vegetable peeler
Hopefully, you also own a steel (a tool to hone your knife edge between sharpenings and intermittently during use). If you have a tourne or bird’s beak knife, that’s great – but not absolutely necessary.
Here’s a list of what you might like to have on hand if you want to try all the techniques I’m going to present:
A bag of baking potatoes
A bunch of carrots
A few large, firm onions
A few handfuls of leafy herbs or vegetables (large-leaf basil or spinach would be ideal, but cabbage will suffice)
A couple of bell peppers
A mango or two
A couple of large citrus fruits – grapefruits or oranges
Several large, firm white button or crimini mushrooms.
I bought all the produce I needed for this lesson for about $10 US at my local grocery store.
The safe use of knives is imperative for obvious reasons. There are only a few rules to remember, but they are crucial:
1. A sharp knife is a safe knife. Using a dull knife is an invitation to disaster. If you try to force a dull knife through the surface of a food product, it’s more likely to slip and cause an injury. Also: if you do happen to cut yourself, a sharp knife will result in an easier wound to attend to.
2. Never, ever grab a falling knife. The best way to avoid having to think about this rule is to make sure your knife is always completely on your work surface, without the handle sticking out into traffic areas. Inevitably, however, it will happen from time to time that you or someone else will bump a knife handle, resulting in a falling knife. We all have a natural instinct to grab for anything that’s falling. You must overcome this inclination. Remember: a falling knife has no handle. Just get your hands and feet out of the way.
3. Use the right knife for the right job. Many knife injuries occur when laziness induces us to use the knife at hand rather than the correct knife for a job. Place your knife inventory where it is easily accessible so you won’t be tempted to make this mistake.
4. Always cut away from - never towards – yourself. Sometimes this is a hard rule to follow. Again, don’t be lazy! If the angle is wrong, turn the product around. Or turn your cutting board around. By the way - if your cutting board doesn’t have rubber feet, you should place it atop a damp kitchen towel to make sure it doesn’t move while you’re cutting.
5. When you have a knife in hand, keep your eyes on the blade. I was taught this rule early on in culinary school. I have to admit that every single time I have cut myself, I was looking away from what I was doing. This rule stands whether you are cutting something or carrying a knife. The simple fact is: you’re unlikely to cut yourself if you’re watching the blade, especially the tip.
6. Carry a knife properly. If you’re carrying a knife through the kitchen, especially a busy commercial kitchen, there are often people hurrying everywhere. You must get used to the idea that the only way to walk with a knife in hand is to carry it pointed straight down, with the blade turned towards your thigh. Keep your arm rigid. You don’t want some busboy or family member going to the emergency room with a puncture wound from your knife.
7. Never, ever put a knife in a sink full of water. In addition to soaking probably being bad for your knife handle, putting a knife in a sink full of (likely soapy) water is just asking for trouble. Wash your sharp knives by hand (not in a dishwasher!) and put them away immediately.
8. Always cut on a cutting board. Don’t cut on metal, glass or marble. This will ultimately damage a knife’s edge.
The Parts of a Knife
Knives are constructed in many different ways. The features of a classic chef’s knife are identified in the two diagrams below.
In the very best knives, the tang will run the full length of the handle as pictured above. This lends balance and durability to the knife’s construction. Another sign of quality is a bolster that is an integrated part of the blade, rather than a separate “collar”.
For personal use, I tend to favor the heavy, exquisitely balanced, German knives. The weight of these knives does a lot of your work for you. In addition, the tang and rivets of a classic chef’s knife can serve as a handy reference for classic knife cuts.
Types of Knives
There are literally hundreds of knife designs. I’m going to identify just a few of the ones I use the most to perform classic knife cuts and common kitchen tasks.
Left: steel. Top to bottom: A) 10” chef’s knife, B) 9” chef’s knife, C) 8” chef’s knife, D) Santoku Oriental chef’s knife
All the knives in the photo above are chef’s knives, and the top three are sometimes also referred to as French or cook’s knives. If you’re planning on spending a substantial amount money on one good knife, spend it on your chef’s knife. This is the implement you will use 90% of the time to shape product in the kitchen. I use my 8” chef’s knife the most often, but you should take your time deciding what length of blade to purchase according to the size of your hands and your particular needs.
A, C and D in the photo above are from Wusthof’s “Culinar” series. I really love the look and feel of these knives, but their one drawback is that they don’t have the visible tang and rivets that are useful for knife cut reference. Note that the Santoku knife has a “dimpled” blade, which allows food product to separate from the blade with ease, rather than sticking to it, as damp product is sometimes inclined to do.
Top to bottom: E) Serrated slicer or “bread” knife, F) boning knife, G) paring knife, H) and I) bird’s beak or “tourner” knife
E is a serrated slicing knife, very useful for cutting crusty breads without smashing the slices. F is a flexible boning knife designed to flex as it follows the contours of bones during meat fabrication (boning knives are also available with a rigid blade for heavy-duty jobs). G is a general use paring knife, and H and I are bird’s beak (or tourner) knives, useful for cutting curved surfaces or tourneeing vegetables.
Knife Grips and Fulcrum Placement
The proper way to hold a chef’s knife is to grasp the blade firmly between the pad of your thumb and the knuckle of your index finger just in front of the bolster, curling your remaining fingers around the bottom of the handle. If you hold your knife correctly, you will eventually develop a nice callous at the base of your index finger, near the palm. Resist the temptation to extend your index finger along the spine of your knife, because that method results in a lack of control of the angle you are working with.
Front view of the correct grip for a chef’s knife
There are two different methods to choose from when cutting product with your chef’s knife. One is to use your wrist as the fulcrum of the stroke, moving the tip up and down in an arc:
The other method is to keep the tip of your knife on the cutting surface, moving the rear of your knife up and down. This is the method I prefer, since it allows for a smoother range of movement and more control:
No matter which method you adopt, it’s crucial to be aware of the position of your “guide” hand. Always keep your thumb tucked behind the gently curled fingers of your guide hand. This will prevent countless injuries, and also facilitate the use of your knuckles to guide the edge of your knife to its proper position for the next cut:
Proper position for guide hand
Some Classic Knife Cuts
I’m using potatoes to demonstrate the majority of the knife cuts in this section, since they’re relatively inexpensive and easy to practice with. However, you’ll probably figure out that some of the daintier cuts would actually be impractical to fashion a potato into, since only a few minutes of cooking would reduce them to mush. As you grow more proficient, you’ll probably find yourself using denser vegetables, such as carrots or turnips, for tiny cuts such as fine julienne and brunoise. If you practice a lot, be prepared ahead of time with your favorite mashed potato or potato soup recipe to utilize the results of your labor (and your trimmings).
Before you begin this section, peel several potatoes and submerge them in cold water to keep them crisp and white. Straighten the edge of your knife by using your steel. By the way, a steel does not sharpen your knife edge, it simply brings it back into alignment in between sharpenings and uses. The next eGCI lesson will address knife sharpening and maintenance.
Using the steel
A large dice is a cube measuring ¾” on a side. First, cut one side of the potato off to provide a flat, stable surface for the next cut:
Cutting a flat surface for stability
It’s important to be aware of the angle of your knife blade in relation to the cutting surface – this should be a completely perpendicular, 90-degree angle. The best way to ensure the proper angle is to cut with your head directly over the cutting surface and product. So it’s best to use a high table or counter to cut on – otherwise you are in for an aching back after as little as a few minutes.
Now, set the potato on the newly created flat side, and begin cutting “planks” ¾” wide:
Cutting the “planks”
Next, lay the planks over and cut them into “logs”:
Cutting “logs” for large dice
Finally, trim one end of the log and cut as many ¾” large dice as you can. As you become more proficient, you will be able to cut several stacked planks into logs at a time, and several logs side-by-side at once into dice.
This same method (flatten a side, cut planks, cut logs) will work for most of the potato cuts in this section. For instance, a medium dice is a simply a perfect ½” cube. Same method, smaller cubes.
A paysanne is a decorative cut that’s related to the medium dice, but sliced into 1/8” thick squares (1/2” x ½” x 1/8”). Paysanne are most often used as a garnish:
A classic batonnet is a stick-shaped cut (resembling a french-fry) that measures ¼” x ¼: x 2-to-2 1/2” inches. Cut ¼” square logs as outlined earlier and trim to the correct length. One easy way to tell if your batonnet are of classic dimensions is to compare them to the rivets on a standard chef’s knife:
Standard chef’s knives often have ¼” rivets – a perfect reference forbatonnet cuts
The opposite edge of successive rivets on a standard chef’s knife makes a good reference for batonnet length
A small dice is simply a ¼” cube, made from the beginnings of batonnet:
Cutting small dice from ¼” square logs
The dimensions of a true julienne are 1/8” x 1/8” x 2-2 ½”. A julienne of potato is sometimes referred to as an alumette. I find that when the cuts get this small and smaller, for some reason it is easier to trim planks to the correct length before cutting logs:
1/8” planks, ready to be cut into julienne
Once again, your knife handle provides a handy reference for the length of a classic julienne – and the tang of your knife provides a reference for the correct width:
Julienne can be fashioned into classic brunoise by simply dicing julienne logs into 1/8” cubes. You won’t be using brunoise of potato very often, though; brunoise is more likely to be made of carrot or pepper, and used as a garnish:
Dicing julienne logs into brunoise
Fine julienne is the same length as julienne, but the width and depth are 1/16” x 1/16”:
1/16” cubes are known as fine brunoise:
Cutting fine julienne into Fine Brunoise
A mince is a tiny, but less fussy cut of vegetable, with no specific dimensions except that it should be quite small, usually in order to promote quick infusion of flavor to a dish. To accomplish a quick mince, cut your product into manageably small slices or segments, then rock the edge of the knife back and forth over the cutting surface while pressing down on the spine of the knife with the palm of your guide hand. Arch your palm to keep fingertips out of the way of the blade:
Mincing a shallot
Tips for Cutting Certain Fruits and Vegetables
Now we’ll move on to less strictly classic techniques and address the easy ways to break down certain fruits and vegetables.
Dicing an Onion
The first hurdle I had to overcome in learning to dice an onion was to learn an efficient method of peeling it. Attempting to peel a whole onion can be an exercise in frustration. First, make a flat surface to set the onion on by slicing off a small portion of the stem end:
Now, balancing the onion on the flat surface just created, cut it in half through the root end. Do not trim the root end off either half of the onion.
Next, peel the skin from each half of the onion, using a paring knife:
Peeling the skin from half an onion
Once your onion is peeled, place it cut-side down, and make vertical cuts of the desired thickness from root to stem end. Do not cut all the way through the root end.
Making the vertical slices
Now, make horizontal slices, once again being careful not to cut through the root end. You may need to hold the sides of the onion together with the fingers of your guide hand, so be cautious – it’s easy to nick yourself during this step:
Making the horizontal cuts
Finally, slice down across the cut grid to produce your dice:
Completing the dice
The diced onion
A chiffonade is a fine slice or shred of leafy vegetables or herbs. To chiffonade, simply stack a few leaves, roll them into a cigar shape, and slice. Remember to remove any tough, woody stems that you want to exclude from your preparation:
Rolling the leaves
Slicing the rolled leaves
The completed chiffonade
Filleting a Pepper
To remove the ribs from a bell pepper without creating unnecessary waste, simply cut the top and bottom from the pepper (reserving them for dice or garnish) and remove the seeds. Slice the body of the pepper open and lay it flat. Then, just run your knife along the inside of the pepper, removing the pale ribs, and slice as desired. Remember – always cut away from yourself:
Removing the ribs from a bell pepper
Dicing a Mango
A mango is problematic to break down because the peeled flesh is very moist and slippery, and it is bisected by a large, flat pit. Slice the (unpeeled) fruit from each side of the pit:
Removing the side of the mango
Using a paring knife, carefully make a crosshatch of the desired size, without cutting through the peel:
Cutting the crosshatch
Finally, invert the peel by pressing on it with your fingers. You can then run the blade of your knife under the cubes next to the inside of the peel:
Dice of mango, ready to be cut off the peel
Rondelle and Diagonals of Carrot
A rondelle is a coin-shaped slice of a cylindrical vegetable. A diagonal can be formed by simply turning your knife at an angle to the axis of the carrot. Keep in mind that many cylindrical fruits, vegetables and breads can be cut into diagonal slices (squash, cucumber, baguettes) to produce this attractive shape. I peeled these carrots before slicing. Sometimes, with a particularly tender carrot (or due to enthusiastic peeling), a vegetable peeler creates flat planes which yield rondelles or diagonals that have many flat sides, creating a geometrical or octagonal shape. If you feel this is unattractive, you can remove the ridges by “sanding” the peeled carrot with a clean, dry green plastic dish scrubby prior to slicing.
Rondelles and diagonals of carrot. Note the flat sides created by the vegetable peeler.
Portioning Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruits are used in countless recipes, but the traditional “score the rind and peel” method produces sections that are still covered by the thin but bitter skin and may contain seeds. To produce attractive, skinless citrus sections, remove the rind and pith from the outside of the entire fruit with your knife with a curving stroke:
Removing the rind and very thick pith from a pink grapefruit
Slice off the ends, freeing the sections from all but the side panels of skin in between them. Then make a “v” cut on either side of the section, between the flesh and the skin:
Cutting between the section and the skin
Finally, slide the loosened section out. These skinless sections look great in salads:
Removing the skinless section
A classic tourne is a football-shaped, blunt-ended cut with seven equal sides. Creating perfect tourne (especially ones with an odd number of equilateral sides!) takes a lot of practice, but they make an attractive plate presentation, especially for dense root vegetables such as turnips and carrots. Practicing with a potato is a good idea, however, because the softer texture of a potato is more forgiving when you first start out.
I usually peel and quarter a medium-sized potato, and cut off the tapered end of the quarter to create another flat end for stability of grip:
Preparing to carve a tourne
In these photos, I’m using a “bird’s beak” or tourner knife. I prefer the curved blade for this cut, but you can also use a standard paring knife.
There are two schools of thought on how to proceed from this point. I find it easier to carve the product into a basic football shape first, then set about creating the seven sides. Others insist it is easier to create the seven sides and then even them up. You’ll soon find out which method is easier for you through trial and error. Another tip: hold the product with the surface you are carving in profile, rather than pointed up towards your face. That way you have the background of your cutting surface to serve as contrast to the vegetable – this will make it easier to see what you’re doing. Be cautious – this is one of the only knife cuts where it is necessary to cut with the blade of your knife towards you, rather than away.
Carving the tourne
When the sides are even, finish by cutting off the tapered end of your “football”. A classic tourne should be able to balance on end. Why? Who knows?
Tourne of potato
A fluted mushroom is one of the hardest cuts to master, and will take a lot of practice. You’ll want to use relatively large, firm white button or crimini mushrooms. The first step is to gently peel the outer skin from the mushroom cap to create a soft surface for carving:
Peeling the mushroom
The knife grip for fluting is unusual and feels awkward at first. Support the handle of your knife with your ring and pinky fingers. Place the pads of your index and middle fingers on the top of the blade near the handle for control. Place the pad of your thumb (carefully!) over the tip to prevent it from scoring the mushroom – you’ll be using the center of the knife-edge to cut, not the tip:
Knife grip for fluting
Grasp the mushroom by the stem with your guide hand. Starting in the middle of the top of the cap, gently carve a trench. The part of your blade closer to the handle will make one side of the cut, and the part of your blade closer to the tip will form the other side. Drop the handle of your knife and your wrist to follow the curve of the mushroom down the side:
Fluting the mushroom
Now, lay the next cut right alongside the first one. I flute by turning the mushroom in a counter-clockwise direction, but many other people do it the opposite way. You’ll probably find that one direction is easier than the other for you.
A really well done fluted mushroom should have the cuts meet at the apex of the cap in an attractive swirl. If (like me) you find that this doesn’t happen as often as you like, you can “cheat” by pressing the tip of your knife gently into the center to form a star:
Pressing a star shape into the fluted mushroom
Finally, cut the stem off to creative an attractive garnish. You can wipe the cap with a little lemon juice to keep it from turning brown too quickly:
As you practice and gain confidence in basic knife skills, I think you’ll discover that a dimension of pleasure will be added to your cooking experience, whether it’s for a fancy dinner party or just preparing meals for yourself and your family. Be sure to check out the next segment of eGCI to learn how to sharpen and maintain your knives!
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Basic Knife Skills
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