Whether you’re a professional, an experienced home cook, or someone who’s just starting out, learning basic knife skills is an important foundation for any cook. Cutting and chopping in different ways can alter the taste of a particular dish. This is also important if you want what you serve to look presentable. Here are ten essential knife skills you should learn if you want to become well versed in the culinary arts. We have also included examples of you can apply these skills to certain ingredients. You can branch out and learn more cutting skills, once you mastered these, but these skills will serve as the backbone for the rest.
How to Properly Hold a Knife
Before you get started learning the knife skills themselves, you should learn how to properly hold a knife. A lot of cooks, especially those who don’t necessarily cook for a living, hold their tools in the wrong way, which is why they have difficulty mastering the different skills. You may cut your hand if you don’t hold your knife properly. It is easier to learn how to hold a knife properly than having to unlearn how you’re doing it incorrectly. You should also remember to keep your hand relaxed as you’re using a knife.
When you cut or chop, your knife should only be around the same height as your elbow. This allows you to maximize the pressure you put on the knife. A lot of cooks only consider the posture of their cutting hand – the one that’s holding the knife – thinking that what their other hand does isn’t very important. However, the non-dominant hand also plays a crucial role. This hand stabilizes, and moves if need be, different ingredients. Doing so helps you get a cleaner cut on ingredients and you also avoid untimely accidents while you’re at it.
Most chefs grip the blade with the palm near the top of the knife’s handle. Their thumb and index finger, meanwhile, hold opposite ends of the top of the blade – the part of the blade near the handle. You shouldn’t, under any circumstance, grip the blade using all of your fingers. Not only is this unsafe, but it also results in uneven cuts. This is because your knuckles will make contact with the cutting surface before the knife makes it clean through whatever it is you’re cutting. Chefs hold knives this way because it maximizes the weight of the blade. You won’t have to put in much effort to cut or chop, especially if you are using a well-maintained knife.
On the other hand, your helping hand should be in a position called the “bear claw.” In this position, the fingertips are curled under the knuckles and having them press down on your chosen ingredient. This will prevent unnecessary rolling or sliding of what you’re cutting. If you keep your fingers in this position throughout this process, it will be almost impossible for the blade to cut your fingers. It takes a bit of time to perfect this, but once you do you’ll find yourself getting perfect cuts, as you move ingredients in even increments and rock your knife back and forth, and up and down.
The first, and arguably, most basic knife skill you have to learn is chopping. This is the most useful for home cooks, because you don’t really need to cut your ingredients into measured cubes if you belong to this group. All you have to do as a non-professional is to keep your chopped ingredient at around the same size. The things you can chop include fresh herbs, garlic, and carrots, among others.
Next up, we have dicing. When you dice an ingredient, you turn it from an irregular shape into even cubes that resemble dice. This is usually done for vegetables such as onions and potatoes. These firmer vegetables are easier to dice compared to say, a tomato. However, you could also cube other ingredients such as meat and fish. The most important thing to remember is to keep your ingredients as even as possible.
To dice an onion, cut it in half lengthwise. Place it cut side down on the cutting surface. Make horizontal slices around a quarter-inch thick towards the root end, but make sure you don’t cut all the way through. This helps keep the onion together in the next steps. Rotate the onion 90 degrees, then try your best to cut it in this direction the same way you cut it in the other one.
Slicing and Cutting
Third on the list is slicing and cutting. Many people use these terms interchangeably in cooking. You could use a sharp chef’s knife or a serrated knife to do this. This comes down to the texture and size of the ingredient as well as personal preference. Some cooks like slicing in quick, downward strokes using a chef’s knife, while some like to move their serrated knife back and forth to slice.
Slicing a carrot requires you to turn it upside down, so that it is resting on its stem end. From there, use your cutting tool, preferably a chef’s knife, to cut straight down the middle from top to bottom. Take one of the halves, and put it flesh side down then halve this vertically. Take each of the resulting quarters and cut them in half vertically as well. Once you’re done, you should have eight even apple wedges. Remove the seeds of the apple by slicing off near the slender end. Just be careful not to remove too much of the edible part of the fruit.
The chiffonade is next on this list of knife skills. This term may seem fancy for more inexperienced cooks, but all this skill entails is cutting things into thin strips. It is mostly used on scallion as well as soft herbs such as basil. Putting chiffonade herbs in a dish also adds much needed freshness and brightness to richer dishes. This is also perfect for stir fries and salads.
When we chiffonade basil, we begin by picking out the individual leaves from the stems. Stack these lengthwise on top of one another and roll them into something that more or less resembles a cigar. Then, use a chef’s knife cut across this rolled bunch of basil in quarter-inch think increments. If possible, the tip of the knife is on the cutting surface for the entire time. Rock the rest of the blade back and forth to cut quickly and stably. This helps achieve as good of a cut as possible.
Another important knife skill to learn is the julienne. This is similar to the chiffonade in that you have to cut ingredients into thin, even strips. You can use this technique to make your vegetable platters more beautiful. Unlike the chiffonade, which is used for softer ingredients, the julienne is usually used on stalky vegetables such as celery and carrots.
To julienne celery, place the stalks on your cutting surface and remove the tough ends and the leaves. Afterwards, cut the stalks crosswise into pieces that are about two inches in length. Take one of these pieces and put them curve side down. Cut this piece into long, slender pieces of even length. Repeat this process for the remaining pieces of celery that you have.
Up next, we have mincing. This knife skill produces small pieces of any ingredient. It isn’t really necessary to keep the pieces uniform if you’re mincing, but avoid having bigger pieces mixed in there. This is best for infusing dishes with the flavor of a certain ingredient, while at the same time not having big chunks of it for people to bite into. Having bigger pieces in your mince also means that they might take different times to cook. The smaller pieces might burn, while the bigger pieces remain uncooked.
Garlic is one of the most minced ingredients in the entirety of cooking. To mince garlic, place an unpeeled garlic clove on your preferred chopping surface. Turn the blade of the knife to the side, so it can lay flat on the clove. Use the part of the palm near the wrist to smash the garlic against the blade in one quick motion. Remove the skin and cut off the root ends afterwards. Slice the peeled garlic thickly from the root to the tip. Pile these thicker pieces together, then mince them into much smaller, even pieces.
Peeling and Skinning
To step up your cooking game, it is also important to learn how to peel. This is mostly applicable for fruits and vegetables, but this also applies to removing skin from livestock. You would need to use a paring or peeling knife for this to get the best results possible. A paring knife is small and sometimes flexible, which means it can contour to the angles of whatever you’re peeling. This type of knife can also be used to core ingredients before peeling them. You can also use them to devein shrimp, if you choose to do so.
When peeling tomatoes, it would be best to score an “X” on the underside of the tomato. Blanch them in a pot of boiling water for around 30 to 60 seconds. After this, “shock” them in an ice bath for just one minute. This will make it easier to separate the skin of the tomato from the flesh. If you don’t do this, you might end up juicing the tomato instead of peeling it.
It is also important for a cook to learn how to segment things such as citrus. You would also use a paring knife for this technique, since it will allow you to cut more delicately. After removing the outer peel, including the white bitter part, put the fruit in your hand. Carefully separate the fruit along the white lines created by its membranes. Continue around the fruit until you remove each of the segments.
If you want to ensure that the ingredients you use are as fresh as possible, you may also want to learn how to use a cleaver. This is particularly useful if you’re working with ingredients that haven’t been deboned yet, such as chicken and ribs since the weight of a cleaver can easily cut through bones. You can also use a butcher’s knife for this purpose. Avoid using smaller and thinner knives such as chef’s knives to cut through bones, since this can dull or permanently damage the blade.
Last, but not least, is deboning. You’ll need a boning knife and a fillet knife for this. A boning knife is narrow and has a straighter edge, while a filleting knife is also narrow, but curved. Both of these knives have a sharp tip. However, a fileting knife is more flexible compared to the longer, rigid boning knife. The former is used to debone more delicate ingredients such as fish and poultry. On the other hand, the latter is used to break down thicker cuts of meat.
When deboning beef, begin by locating both ends of each bone. Make smooth incisions down the flesh until you hit the top part of the bone. Proceed to trim around this bone, careful not to remove much meat. Use the now exposed portion of the bone as a handle to grip the meat. Trim down the length of your piece of beef until you can slice it cleanly away from the bone. Afterwards, trim all the way to the opposite side to cleanly remove the bone. Your deboned piece of meat can now be marinated or stuffed as you choose.
How to Maintain Knives
It is also important to keep your knives well maintained if you want to cut efficiently. Wash your knives regularly, especially if you are dealing with raw meat. Blood and other substances can cause the blade to rust. You can also keep your knife sharp by using a whetstone or a sharpening steel. However, if you don’t want to go through this trouble, you can always have a professional at a knife shop do it for you.
Now you know ten essential knife skills that you can use in most dishes. If you encounter one that’s not on this list, don’t fret. The skills you’ve learned here probably won’t be far off from those. Now that you’re more confident in your cooking skills, try whipping up a meal for your friends and family.