Back to Basics: Kitchen Knives

One of the most overlooked techniques in cooking has to do with using a knife. A lot of people use the wrong knife for the wrong job. Not only that, but they cut inefficiently and don’t give technique its proper due, creating a much longer prep process than necessary. The fix? Use the right knife for the job and know how to use it! Here are some hints:

Know Your Knives

Sharp, high quality knives are an investment. This is one place you cannot afford to skimp. Buy a good brand (I’ve used Henckels for over 20 years now) and you’ll have them for your entire cooking career.

First up on the list is a basic cutting and chopping knife. A 6 to 8 inch chef knife (or the same sized santoku knife, which is a Japanese knife used for the same chopping abilities) is the ticket. Don’t be intimidated by this large a knife. Once you learn how to hold it and chop with it (don’t worry, I will teach you how!), you won’t believe you ever could cook without one!

Next is the paring knife. Again, we’re talking quality here quality, no cheapie, 99-cent plastic handled numbers you picked up at the dollar store. In a pinch on your way to a picnic, maybe, but you can’t use a knife like that everyday in the kitchen or I promise, you will end up hating to cook. Quality tools DO make a major difference.

Paring knives have smaller blades, about 2 ½” to 3″ long. This is the knife you will use to peel or pare an apple, trim the ends off radishes, Brussels sprouts, etc.

Serrated knives will help you slice a tomato like a pro, cut bread into slices, and cut up citrus with ease. The toothy blade makes all the difference. My preference is a larger and smaller serrated knife (one of each); the larger knife for bread; the smaller one for the citrus and tomato slicing.

You can’t have Thanksgiving (or any other holiday requiring a slicing up of the holiday fowl or beast) without a large carving knife and fork. The blade on these knives is typically long and flexible, enabling you to negotiate corners and carve neatly. If you can, purchase the carving knife and fork set together. I have the same lovely set I received as a gift over 20 years ago and they work just as wonderfully now as they did all those years ago when I struggled to carve my first Thanksgiving turkey.

Two other knives you probably won’t need are a boning knife and a filleting knife. And guess what you’ll do with these knives? Bone and fillet! Now, let me tell you how often I use my boning and filleting knives. About once a year, if that. Bottom line is if I need something boned or filleted, I will have my butcher take care of it for me. Why? Is it because I don’t know how to do it or because I’m lazy? The answer is both. I can painstakingly bone a chicken breast or another piece of meat and I can fillet, too. But not well. This is why we ask the butcher to do it. This is what he does for a living and you don’t. Besides, you have other things to do besides boning and filleting meat or poultry don’t you? I’m glad we discussed this. So for the sake a full set of knives, make sure you have your boning and filleting knives. We’ll all sleep better at night knowing you have a complete set.

Use Your Knives

So now you’re asking me how to use that santoku or French knife–the big one. Okay, believe it or not, this is easy. First off, you will need to use both hands, one for holding whatever it is that you’re cutting (that will be the opposite hand you will be cutting with) and the hand that you are going to cut with. The hand that holds the food we will be transforming temporarily into a claw. Yes, a claw. Why a claw? Glad you asked. Because when you are holding the food in a claw-like fashion, if your knife accidentally gets too close to your fingers, the worst that will happen is your fingers will get too close a shave, but you won’t be losing any digits to the santoku!

Now as far as making the chopping go smoothly and quickly like they do on Food TV; that just requires a rhythm, which will come as you get better at chopping. The idea is to “rock” the blade slightly as you chop. This will build a rhythm and eventually, your speed. Next time you’re watching the Food Network, pay attention as Emeril chops effortlessly. He’s got his claw going; he’s a-rockin’ and a-choppin”, the whole thing is an art form. Remember though, you’re not Emeril. Go easy and slow and be careful. These are sharp knives we’re working with here, not rubber spatulas.

Keep your knives sharp (use a steel, not a “knife sharpener”) and hold the knife at 25-degree angle, move the blade down one side of the steel, then on the other. Make sure you do both sides evenly. I always count when I do my knives. If this makes you nervous, go to a good quality-cooking store and have them show you how, they’re happy to oblige! Just remember, dull knives are what cause accidents. Stay safe and enjoy cooking!

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