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The question I’m most frequently asked by potential and new students to the Cooking School is, “What is the one thing I can learn that will improve my cooking the most?” The answer I give them: knife skills.
Knives are the most important tools in your kitchen. Even if you’re just making a raw salad, you’ll still need to cut up the ingredients. Knowing what knife does what job best, how to sharpen and hone your knives, and the proper technique for everything (from mincing garlic to slicing a roast) is the single easiest way to make your food better, your cooking faster, and final dishes looking nicer. It all comes back to knife skills.
Now, we have an amazing Knife Skills lesson in the Cooking School that will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about knives and how to use them. If you like what you read here and want to learn more, I’d suggest you sign up for a 14-day free trial and take the lesson. However, I’m happy to share our 4 essential tips for better knife work here:
1. Use the right knife.
You can get pretty much anything done with just four knives. Cooking stores will insist that you can’t cook without a fluting knife, peeling knife, bread knife, tomato knife, boning knife, cheese knife… you get the idea. In fact, most of these are a waste of money. What you need are these four knives:
- Chef’s knife. We use this knife for everything from butchering a chicken to mincing garlic. While you can certainly spend a bundle on a nice chef’s knife, our favorite Victorinox is just $24.99. We prefer a 10-inch chef’s knife here in the test kitchen, but it’s important that the knife be the right size for you. Go to a culinary store and try chopping with an 8-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch chef’s knife to see which works best for you.
- Paring knife. The small blade of a paring knife allows for more dexterity and precision than a chef’s knife can give. We like a paring knife for tasks like deveining shrimp, coring tomatoes, or cutting citrus segments. We recommend a 3- to 3 1/2-inch blade, long enough to handle things like slicing large shallots, but small enough to be precise with things like berry hulling.
- Serrated knife. While a chef’s knife is great at 90% of your kitchen needs, when it comes to cutting through the skin of a ripe tomato or the crackling crust of a loaf of bread, you need a serrated edge. The points grab the surface of the food and cut into it, allowing you to make thinner, smoother slices than a flat edge can manage.
- Slicing or carving knife. Specially designed to cut neatly through meat’s muscle fibers and connective tissues, our holiday birds and roasts would be torn to shambles without this knife.
2. Keep it sharp.
Not only does a sharp knife kick your knife skills to the next level, but it’s also much safer than a dull knife. You get more precision and control with a sharp knife and don’t have to use as much force. A sharp knife will allow you to say good-bye to crushed and bruised foods forever. Want to learn more about knife sharpening and the best tools for the job? A 14-day free trial will get you access to Equipment Guru Lisa McManus’s blog post: A Sharp Knife is Your New Best Friend.
3. Grip it correctly.
Once you have the right knife and you’ve sharpened it well, you need to hold it correctly. For the most control, choke up on the knife, with your thumb and index finger actually gripping the heel of the blade. The knife is now an extension of your hand and will allow you to use slicing, chopping, and mincing movements safely and easily.
4. Protect your guiding hand.
When you watch professional chefs chopping food, they normally have one hand holding the knife and the other on the food. The hand on the food can guide the knife, allowing you to have more even slices and better control; however, proper position of this hand is important to protect your fingers. Use a “bear claw” position (fingers tucked under and the first joint of the fingers should be the closest part of the hand to your knife) to hold the food in place and prove guidance while minimizing danger. During the upward motion of each slice, reposition your guiding hand for the next cut.