Culinary knife skill techniques are one of the first things you need to master to work in a professional kitchen or just take your cooking to the next level. A large part of a commercial kitchen's operation revolves around their daily prep; there is no quality prep without efficient and accurate knife skills.
Learning how to cut properly can make the difference between seeing kitchen work as a chore and a joy. It can mean the difference between unevenly cooked dishes and poor flavor development, and excellence.
Correct knife positioning and cutting are some of the first precision skills learned in professional culinary school. They are the backbone of an impeccable dish, giving optimum flavor and aesthetics. The right hold results in the right cut which in turn, ensures evenly cooked ingredients that enhance the dish’s overall flavor profile. Cooking without mastering these basic strokes is like trying to run without knowing how to tie your shoes.
The cutting hand, which grips the knife, has the star turn, but the other hand is an important supporting player. That helping handholds, nudges and stabilizes the ingredient being cut, to maximize safety and efficiency.
For the knife grip used by most chefs, the palm of the hand chokes up on the handle, while the thumb and index finger grip the top of the blade. This is different from how many home cooks hold a knife, by wrapping the entire hand around the handle. The chef’s grip has evolved that way for a reason: it’s the most efficient way to use the weight of the knife, the sharpness of its blade, and the strength of your arms, which makes for the easiest cutting.
The ideal position for the helping hand is called the bear claw, with the fingertips curled under and knuckles pressing down on the ingredient to keep it from rolling or sliding. It may feel odd, but it’s the safest place for your fingertips to be in relation to the cutting blade. Alternatively, bunch your fingertips together and rest the pads on top of the ingredient.
In a perfect world, while the hand that is holding the knife moves forward and back to cut, the helping hand moves across in even increments, creating perfect slices. (Do not despair; this takes practice and is hardly a requirement for home cooks.)
Overall, the best way to handle a knife is the way that feels safest to you. Here are a few principles to live by:
• The knife handle shouldn’t be held in a death grip: try to relax hands and wrists and let the blade do the cutting.
• Position all 10 fingers so it’s virtually impossible for the blade to cut them.
• The hand holding the knife should be gripping the blade as well as the handle.
• The knife moves in a rocking motion, from front to back, as well as up and down.
• The knife should be at the same height or just below your elbows, so that the whole upper body, not just the hands, can put downward pressure on the knife.
These are the five strokes everybody should know.
To chop a garlic clove, place your unpeeled clove on a chopping board, and place the blade of your chef’s knife flat against its side, parallel to your chopping surface. With a swift motion, and taking care to avoid the edge of the blade, strike the knife blade to smash the clove. Remove the skin, and repeat the process with each clove you need for your recipe. Cut off the root ends and discard. Then, take a clove and hold it firmly on the cutting board. Slice thickly from the root end to the tip. To chop, pile up the pieces of garlic, hold together and chop them.
Use achef’s knife to chop leafy herbs like parsley. Start with clean, dry herbs with stems intact. Hold them in a bunch over your cutting surface, and run your knife through them at a 45-degree angle, trimming off the leaves into a pile. (Discard the stems.) Grab all the leaves into your palm, and using the “claw” grip, push them under your knife, using a rocking motion to chop them. Then, gather all the chopped herbs up, turn the pile 90 degrees, and chop them again for a rough chop. For a medium chop, repeat the process twice more. And for mincing, repeat it three to four times more.
More exact than chopping, dicing is the process by which vegetables and fruits, in all of their irregular and lumpy glory, are turned into small, neat cubes that cook uniformly. Whether chefs are prepping a giant potato or a baby carrot, they reduce the curves and bumps to cubic shapes. When that cube is cut along horizontal and vertical lines, neat dice are the result. We’ll show you how to take fruits and vegetables from a large dice, about 3/4 inch, to a brunoise, a 1/8-inch cube and the smallest dice of all.
To dice a tomato, first cut it in equal quarters using a sharp chef’s knife. Pick up a quarter in both hands and gently flatten it by pressing your thumbs against the skin side. This will loosen the flesh on the cut side. Place each quarter skin-side down on your cutting surface, and gently trim the seeds out, leaving the flesh intact. Flip the quarter over and cut the tomato in equal-sized strips from top to bottom, then turn the strips 90 degrees and cut them into equal-size cubes. (This process remains the same regardless of the size dice you are seeking.)
Another common cut is mincing. The most common thing you're going to mince is garlic. To do so, remove the root end. Then, place the garlic under the knife blade and smash down on it. That will make it easy to peel the papery skin off.
Chop the garlic up until it's very tiny. The finer the mince, the more flavorful your dish is going to be.
The word mince means a very small dice.
When cutting ingredients into larger pieces – like a round slice of tomato, lemon or cucumber, or a wedge of apple – the choice of the knife and how it moves most often depend on the texture of the ingredient. Although a super-sharp chef’s knife can be used to slice a tomato or lemon in quick downward strokes, many home cooks will prefer the controlled back-and-forth sawing the motion of a serrated knife. Either way, the goal is to have smooth slices of even thickness.
Home cooks are most likely to use these long, slim cuts for ingredients that are going into stir-fries and salads, for tough greens destined for the cooking pot, or to make fluffy garnishes from soft herbs and scallions. They’re also useful for making raw vegetable platters look their most elegant.
Which kind of knives do you have? How is your experience with the knives? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.