When it comes to cooking, how you prep your food makes a big difference. And it’s not just about picking fresh, flavorful ingredients–it’s about your cutting techniques, or how how you chop, slice, dice and mince those ingredients that can really make or break your food. Which is exactly why you need to be more of a ninja with a knife when you’re in the kitchen, and less of an amateur mindlessly hacking at your food. Knife skills are important; so important, in fact that they are taught at the very beginning of almost any culinary training. According to Chef Jacob Burton, “culinary knife skill techniques are one of the first things you need to master to work in a professional kitchen or just take your cooking to the next level. A large part of a commercial kitchen’s operation revolves around their daily prep; there is no quality prep without efficient and accurate knife skills.”
Aside from the fact that poor form when cutting and carving could lead to the loss of a limb (eek), proper knife work allows you to be more efficient, more in control and more skilled with your cooking and prep work. Less time chopping and less effort to achieve perfectly cut ingredients means more time to actually enjoy your food—we like the sound of that. So how can you improve your knife skills? Or more accurately, what are you doing wrong? A lot probably.
When it comes to cutting techniques, start with the grip. How you hold your knife not only allows you to maintain better control over your cutting tool, but it also allows you to better cut your food with the sharpest and most powerful part of your knife. According to Serious Eats, there are 2 basic grips to master when it comes to knife work: the handle grip and the blade grip. With the handle grip your entire hand and all your finders are behind the bolster and on the handle itself (aka your fingers are not touching the blade). It feels better, but gives you limited control over the movement of the blade itself. With the blade grip your thumb and forefinger are in front of the bolster and on the blade, so you can better manipulate the blade as you work. Both grips work, but the blade grip is often preferred by professional chefs and experts in the kitchen, so you might want to give it a try.
You also need the right knife. One size does not fit all when it comes to your knife. You need to think about what you are going to be cutting, how you want to cut it, and how you prefer to work. Let’s start with the basic knives you should know and should own:
– Pairing – a short knife with a small blade that is great for smaller tasks like mincing garlic, and slicing fresh fruit
– Utility – an all-purpose knife with a slightly larger blade perfect for cutting and chopping vegetables, cheese and fish
– Chef – an even larger knife with a wider and longer blade that is good for finely cutting vegetables (everything from julienne to dicing) as well as slicing larger foods like heads of lettuce or cabbage and even cutting heartier meat or fish
– Bread – a long knife with a serrated edge great for slicing soft foods like bread and even tomatoes
– Boning – this long knife with a thin blade is perfect for carving cooked meat (like when you slice a turkey or even when you need to trim fat off your meat)
Of course there are more knives out there to choose from, but these are the basics that should be in any kitchen and should be used correctly. If you use a blunt knife to cut a tomato you’ll end up with a mushy pile of tomato juice and skin, or if you try to cut meat with a pairing knife you’ll be carving for a long, long time. Work with the right knife and you’ll instantly improve your knife skills.
You should always protect your fingers, which will allow you to work faster and more efficiently without worrying about a finger tip getting caught in the mix. To do this, use a claw grip on your foot or cutting subject. It’s pretty simple—all you do is tuck your fingertips down and curl them inward so that your knuckles can guide the knife without leaving your fingers vulnerable to nicks and injuries.
So now you know how to pick the right knife, hold the knife and protect your fingers; but what about the actual cutting? Turns out that’s the easy part to fix, as long as all the other parts of the knife equation are in order. Once you are ready, know that there are really 5 basic forms of cutting: julienne (thinly sliced pieces that look like matchsticks), batonnet (think carrot sticks), brunoise (tiny cubes) and dice (cubes that can be small, medium or large in size, but are larger than brunoise). Yes, there are more types of cuts, and the experiences chef has probably used those other techniques and cut shapes, but if you’re just looking to perfect your skills and get the work done in a safe, efficient and simple way, this is where you should start.
Last but not least, be patient. Start slow, expect to mess up a few times, and anticipate a learning curve. The more you work with knives the better you will do and the more comfortable you will feel with your tools. Your work will reflect your effort as you put in practice and gain confidence, and in the end your knife skills will impress your friends and positively impact your cooking more than you thought possible.