Learning how to use a knife properly is one of the most, if not THE most, important skill you can gain about cooking. There are tons of knife guides online, but this is our version, where we go through only what we use on a regular basis. It’s a condensed, easy-to-learn version that’ll hopefully make your everyday cooking a little better.
This post was brought to you by New West Knifeworks. They sent us this beautiful blue knife to try out, and we love the quality and feel of it. They’re currently having a giveaway of a four-piece knife set on Facebook and their website through the the end of August, so get on it if you want some amazing kitchen tools. Anyway, to the post!~~
When people ask what are the most essential tools of a kitchen, I always say “a good knife, a cutting board, and a pan.” That’s all you really, really need to make something good. I keep five tools around for breaking down food for cooking.
from left to right
- A long, sharp utility knife. This can go through a whole melon, slice through pizza, and much more.
- A planar grater. I can zest and grate on the same board inside of a bowl with this, and it’s easier to clean than a box grater.
- A serrated knife. For bread, tomatoes, and other hard-to-cut delicate items.
- A standard chef’s knife, very sharp. Used for almost everything. If I had to pick one knife to bring with me on a desert island, this would be it.
- A paring knife. Good when you need a precise, stable cut, such as peeling or coring.
Make sure you find knives that fit well in your hand, for safety and quality of the cut.
Other good items to have around:
- A big wooden cutting board. We have three - an extra large, medium, and small. The heavier, the better. We like bamboo the most. DO NOT use glass or plastic cutting boards.
- A knife sharpener. Even the simplest steel rod can be great for honing the blade of your non-serrated knife.
People are scared to use knives because they have the potential to injure. If you start out slowly and use good technique, you’ll really minimize cutting yourself. Some tips for staying safe:
- Go slow. Don’t expect yourself to go as fast as you see on Top Chef. Start out slow, and as you get better at it, speed will come naturally.
- Hold the knife higher up on the handle to keep it more stable in your hand.
- Always keep the tip of the knife pointed away from you.
- Keep your fingers out of the way. The food-holding hand should have your fingers tucked underneath to prevent limb chopping.
- Keep everything stable. Put a thin kitchen towel underneath your cutting board to stop it from slipping. Square off the rounded edges of whatever you’re cutting to give yourself a level place to cut from.
- Always use a very sharp knife. Dulled knives need extra force to make a correct cut, which can be bad for a misplaced finger.
Since knives are such workhorses in the kitchen, it’s important to maintain them well.
- Don’t scrape the blade against the cutting board. (Say, when you’re sweeping the chopped food into a pan, or cutting with a dragging motion.) This dulls the blade really fast.
- Hand wash all knives, especially those with wooden handles.
- Store them in a knife block or on a magnetic strip, never in a drawer. Not only is it safer, but it will prevent blade dulling.
- Hone your knife’s edge every once and a while. Here’s how to do it with a steel rod.
Kinds of cuts
You can cut food in just about any way possible. The differences between all of them are aesthetic and/or for flavor distribution.
For the best presentation and uniformity, it’s good to square off what you’re cutting, like the grapefruit pictured above - but I care most about using up the entire food, so uniformity doesn’t matter much. Make sure everything is generally the same size, or it will affect the quality of the final cooking.
Here are the most-used kinds of cuts in our kitchen.
clockwise from top right
- Dice - usually for stews/soups.
- Peel - for peeling vegetables (obviously), and drinks & flavoring.
- Grate - for hash browns & breads.
- Round - in salads, stir fries and more. can be cut in circles or on the bias for an oblong shape.
- Mince - this is the largest mince I’d do for vegetables. good for flavoring without bulk.
- Chop - general purpose, loose break down.
- Julienne - thin match-stick sized pieces. good for salads, sushi, soups, and more. you’ll want to square off the rounded edges first, then cut into equal-sized pieces, however long you want them to be. slice into slabs, then stack them and thinly slice into matchsticks.
- Zest - almost exclusively for citrus, but usually used for adding a vibrant scent. take a whole lemon, with the peel on, and rub it on the zester until you’ve reached the white part. do that until the whole lemon is white.
- Chiffonade - for a clean presentation of delicate items, usually herbs. see how to do it here.
All foods are a little different when you break them down. Kale needs to be de-stemmed, peppers need to be de-seeded, butternut squash needs a fine peeling. Here are the two most common (and commonly confusing) foods we use every day here.
- Start by cutting off the top end of the onion.
- Slice it in half down the middle, from top to root. (NOT side to side, as shown on the left in the first photo below, unless you’re making onion rings!)
- Cut off the root end and peel off the thin, papery outer layer.
- Position your newly-cut onion half flat side down. Now that you have a flat edge, you can do a lot of different things.
→ I personally like a “petal” cut - slice the halved onion in half against the grain, then make thin slices along the grain. (Shown on the left in the second photo below.)
→ Or, go for a half-moon cut, simply by thinly slicing against the grain to end up with C shaped pieces. (Shown on the right in the second photo below.)
→ To dice/mince the onion, start with your onion half laid flat side down. Thinly slice with the grain first, not cutting all the way down, to “score” it. Then “score in again, thinly slicing against the grain this time. The onion will naturally fall apart into little bits.
A lot of people like to “crush” the garlic to get the peel off, but I find this way just as quick and less messy, personally.
- Separate the cloves from the head of garlic. Take one of the cloves and cut off the woody bottom and thin top.
- Lightly score down the center and peel off the papery coating, sort of like taking off a button-up shirt.
- Cut some paper-thin slices, and toss them in a pan for frying. If you want to put it in a soup or let it dissolve while cooking, stack the slices and mince them from there.
This is by no means an end-all-be-all guide - just some of our most-used tips. We hope you take some of these to your own kitchen and that they help you out, even a little. Be sure to enter the New West Knifeworks knife set giveaway, too! :)
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