We’ve all turned the television on and watched professional chefs create beautiful culinary masterpieces, and some of us have dreamed of one day constructing elegant designs and cooking delicious meals that would make the palate sing and dance. Whether you’re a chef at home, or a chef in a restaurant; basic knife skills are important to ensure safety, precision, and efficiency.
The Tool of the Trade
There are numerous types, styles, and designs of knives out there, and purchasing the right knife is all about personal preference. Typically, chefs have their “go-to” that can be used in almost every situation that requires cutting, slicing, chopping, and dicing.
The French Knife or Chef’s Knife, is an excellent all-purpose knife that is used to cut almost any type of meat or vegetable. A standard quality blade is about 8” or 10” and is sufficient for the average cook. However, if you find the French knife a bit too un-wieldy or intimidating, some home chefs prefer the shorter, and less pointed end of the Santoku Knife which also can be used as an all-purpose knife for meat or vegetables, but is typically 6” to 7” in length with a wider profile at its heel and tip.
Whichever type of knife you choose, take into consideration the type of handle that the blade is held by. Riveted handles are a popular choice as they are easier to grip in the hand and the weight and balance is towards the handle which will help to avoid the knife landing on its point if the knife were to ever be dropped. Wooden handles are also popular because they offer stability and being a natural fiber can offer a better grip; however, over years of use wood handles can expand, crack or carry bacteria after prolonged use. Lastly, plastic handles are the least recommended handle as they can get too slippery, and break easily.
Surely this won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but knives are sharp, and in order to reduce the risk of injury it would be best to know the proper way to hold a knife when cutting, and proper maintenance when not in use.
As illustrated above, the proper way to hold your knife that offers the most control, stability and safety is to have the forefinger and the thumb clamped on the side of the blade, and the three remaining fingers on the handle.
An executive chef once said “Anything that comes in between the point of your knife and the cutting board will be cut” chefs cut with their fingertips tucked out of the way, and the flat side of the knife resting along the knuckle. The cutting motion is up-down and back-forward, allowing the blade of the knife to do most of the work. Always ensure that the motion of the cut is away from the body to avoid any risk of injury.
Lastly, make sure that the cutting board is stable, as an unstable cutting board is a safety risk when working in the kitchen. Stabilize the board by placing a wet cloth, towel, or piece of shelving liner underneath the cutting board to prevent sliding around during use.
If you were to look at the cross section of the cutting edge of a knife under a microscope you will notice that there are saw-like “teeth” along the blade that allows the knife to cut through food items. As the knife is used, the “teeth” start to misalign which causes the knife to dull. A common misconception is that a butcher’s steel sharpens the knife, when in fact; the butcher’s steel is just re-aligning the “teeth” and over time steeling a knife will no longer have any effect and the knife will have to be sharpened by either manually sharpening on a whetting stone, using a personal electrical sharpener, or taking it in to a professional knife sharpener to get a flat grind and micro-bevel.
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A sharp knife is actually safer than a dull knife, as a dull knife has to be pushed down with more pressure on the surface of a food item instead of slicing through it. This increases the risk of the knife slipping and cutting the user more easily. This is also the reason why some people find themselves in tears while cutting onions, because the fibers of the onion are being torn instead of sliced, and the juices of the onion are being projected into the air.
Once you’re done hacking and slashing with your trusty companion, wash it by hand with hot water and soap to kill any bacteria that may linger on the blade and handle. Especially on a riveted handle, do not wash in the dishwasher, as the heat will cause the rivets to expand and contract, eventually ruining the handle. Once dried, you can sheathe your knife back into its appropriate place on the butcher’s block to be used again another day.