Learning how to use a knife correctly is imperative when it comes to keeping you safe in the kitchen. Not only is it important to keep knives clean and sharp, but learning how to properly cut foods can prevent accidents. You may know how to chop and mince fruits and vegetables, but do you know how to properly protect your fingers as you slice and dice? Equipping yourself with the right knowledge will go a long way in the kitchen.
There are several different ways to use a knife to prepare foods, and each technique can help make cooking a much easier -- and safer -- task. Plus, knowing the difference between dicing and julienning can be a real lifesaver at your next dinner party! Whether you're an experienced cook or just bought your first cutlery set, here are 10 knife skills that you'll find instrumental in helping you prepare meals like a world-renowned chef.
Cleaning Your Knife
Although this might seem like a no-brainer, keeping your knives clean is an essential part of proper knife use, as it kills harmful bacteria that might contaminate food.
To clean your knives, use hot water and dishwashing soap, making sure the sharp end is pointing away from your body and that you keep your fingers away from the blade. After you're done washing them, dry your knives off with paper towels or with a dish cloth. If you use a dish cloth, avoid running it down the length of the blade, which may cut the fabric (and possibly your hand).
You should also avoid leaving knives to soak in the sink for several reasons. First, prolonged exposure to water can damage the handles of knives -- especially wooden ones -- and can cause even the most expensive blades to rust. But most importantly, knives left in a sink of water can remain hidden from view, creating the risk that you might reach for something and accidentally cut yourself.
Sharpening Your Knife
It's important to keep knives sharp to stay safe when cooking. It's not something you'll have to do often -- professional chefs sharpen their knives maybe once or twice a year -- but dull knives are a safety hazard and can be very dangerous.
The more blunt a knife's edge is, the more pressure it takes to cut something. The more pressure your hand and the knife apply to a piece of food, the more likely you are to slip and cut your finger instead. Sharpened knives also reduce the time it takes to prepare your meals, since your cuts will be faster and more accurate.
To sharpen a knife, use a sharpening stone, also known as a whetstone. If you don't feel comfortable performing what could be a dangerous task, most knife manufacturing companies let you send your knifes in for professional sharpening, and many cooking supply stores also offer sharpening services.
Chopping is probably the most basic of knife skills and the easiest to perform, and you can use it for a wide variety of food preparations. To hold the knife properly, put your middle, ring and pinky fingers around the handle, and grip the blade with your index finger and thumb. There are essentially two basic methods you can use for chopping: the wrist-fulcrum method or the tip-fulcrum method.
The wrist-fulcrum method involves keeping the heel of the knife -- the part of the blade closest to the handle -- near the cutting board and pointing the tip of the knife upward. This requires you to use your wrist as a fulcrum, swiveling it up and down to move the blade in a chopping motion. The tip-fulcrum method, on the other hand, keeps the tip on the far side of the piece of food you're cutting -- you chop by moving your hand and wrist up and down.
Whereas chopping is mainly used for foods that don't need to be cut in uniform shapes and sizes, dicing is the opposite. Dicing is good for cutting fruits and veggies into even-sided cubes. You can dice your provisions into any size you'd like, of course, but there are three main types of dices: large (3/4 inch), medium (1/2 inch) and small (1/4 inch). To begin, first cut your food into several square-sided pieces of equal length. After placing these pieces in a row, cut the whole group into as many cubes as possible.
Chiffonade is a knife technique usually reserved for cutting herbs and greens. Leafy greens and herb leaves are cut into long, thin strips and then used as ingredients in dishes or as garnishes. Before you chiffonade, pull off the stems and place the leaves on top of each other. Then stack them according to size -- from small to large -- to ensure that your cuts are even and approximately the same size. Use the knife in a rocking motion to shave the greens. Avoid chopping up and down, as this will bruise and possibly discolor the leaves, and if you're storing your chiffonaded leaves (in the case of herbs, for example), it may cause the food to lose its flavor over time.
To peel fruits and vegetables like apples, potatoes and squash with ease, use a paring knife or a serrated peeler -- both are sturdy and easy to control. To begin, cradle the food in one hand and insert the tip of the knife directly under the skin with the other. Then, starting at the top, use the knife to peel away the skin in a circular direction. Work the blade away from your hands to keep them safe. As you turn the food in your hand, use your thumb to give the knife some leverage.
Batonnet -- a French word that means stick or baton -- is a technique that is the basis for the julienne and dice cuts. Regardless of the food you batonnet, always begin by chopping off each end, which is known as topping and tailing. Next, make a rectangle with the knife by squaring off all four sides. Slice the rectangle into quarter-inch pieces, stack them and cut again, this time in quarter-inch strips. It's optional, but if you want to cut a true batonnet, the final size should measure approximately 2.5 to 3 inches long.
Mincing is very similar to chopping -- the difference being that minced foods are chopped very finely so they can literally dissolve when cooking. To mince, cut the food lengthwise into strips, then again after turning the provisions 90 degrees. Place one hand on the top of the knife to hold it steady, and be sure to keep the tip of the blade anchored against the cutting board as you chop. Continue this motion as you mince by moving the knife back and forth swiftly through the pile. Garlic and onions are two commonly minced foods.
Tournée is an oblong-shaped cutting technique usually used to cut vegetables like potatoes, carrots and squash. To tournée, first prepare the vegetables by cutting off the edges and trimming the length to approximately 2 inches. You can use any knife that's comfortable to handle, but a bird's beak knife or tourne knife are often preferred by cooks because a curved blade allows foods to be carved and shaped quickly and efficiently. Use such a knife to sculpt food into several small oval-shaped pieces, and add them to a dish to lend a distinct, formal touch to a meal.
Like a dice cut, a julienne is a smaller, much finer cut and takes a little bit of practice -- but once you've mastered it, it can add a decorative flash to recipes. To julienne, cut food into rectangular 1/8-inch planks. Then stack the planks on top of each other and slice lengthwise into 1/8-inch strips. If you don't have a ruler handy (and you probably won't) the best way to judge the size of your julienne is to hold up your slices against the handle of your knife. Using the rivets on the handle -- the small, round metal attachment points that keep the blade and the handle together -- each julienne should measure from one rivet to the next.
For lots more information on knives and cooking skills, see the next page.
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- Stella Culinary. "How To Chiffonade." (Dec. 30, 2011) http://www.stellaculinary.com/podcasts/video/how-chiffonade-basil
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- Ward, Chad. "Knife Maintenance and Sharpening." eGullet Culinary Institute. Aug. 13, 2003. (Feb. 20, 2009) http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=26036