The Basics: Knife Skills

As promised after the survey, I’m going to pass on more of the little things I’ve learned since I started CM. You guys gave me a few interesting ideas, so I decided to start a new section on the blog called “The Basics”. I’m aiming to add a new topic every month in place of one of the usual weekly blog posts. This week, it’s an intro to knife skills.

So, you have all your ingredients, you’re hungry, and you basically memorized a recipe. Great! Now, how do you get from this:

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To something you can work with?

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With some practice,  it just takes a sharp knife,  and a few seconds.  And yeah,  even I’m still practicing.

With a few techniques,  you can prep ingredients for anything. I’m going to stitch together examples from old posts to get you from prep to plating.

It helps to have your end product in mind before you start prepping ingredients.  Throwing stuff on the grill? You might want to keep things large. Making a sauce? The smaller the better. Small things cook more quickly,  but they also have less contact with the heat.  That’s one reason why you probably shouldn’t cut up your steak before you cook it if you want a good sear (the other reason is tenderness).

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You also have to choose the right knives– I do almost everything with one of two knives: my OG chef’s knife that I’ve had since college, and a cleaver. I don’t have a bunch of fancy equipment yet,  so for now I just need the knives to be sharp. It makes a huge difference!

Dani makes fun of me for it,  but I run the knives over a honing block right after I clean them! Sure, it sounds like I’m sitting in a corner planning to kill something… but it helps to keep the blade lined up. It’s not the same as sharpening, but it makes the blade as efficient as possible. Remember: dull knives are dangerous, people! While I’m on the topic, try to avoid glass cutting boards to protect the cutting edge. Bamboo and wood boards are my personal choice.

Another big part of safety is holding the knives correctly. You don’t want to leave a finger on top of the blade like you would at the table– instead, pinch the area right above the handle between your thumb, and first knuckle. The handle will rest against your hand and keep the knife stable. Then, use the lower half of the blade to do all the work. Look at the flick of the wrist–it’s physics! Use your other hand to hold your ingredients steady, but keep your fingertips tucked away to avoid accidents.

So now, here are some examples of the basic cuts, and when you might use them:

  1. The “fan” cut: plating
  2. Dice/Mince: sauté and sauces
  3. Rough chops: roasting/braising (examples: carrots, parsnips, and potatoes)
  4. Julienne/Wedges/Matchsticks: frying, baking
  5. Chiffonade: fresh herbs like basil.
  6. Rounds: frying, baking

Say you have some potatoes, and you want to make your own chips. You could easily slice them into thin rounds (bottom-left) and fry them. You would also cut them into “dice” of different sizes, depending on what you’re making.

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For dramatic effect, here are more rounds– only the potatoes are purple! As you can see, you can adjust the thickness to fit whatever you’re making.

Moving away from potatoes, imagine you want fresh herbs in your dish. You’ll get the best flavor if you use the chiffonade cut right before you add it in. Stack the leaves from largest to smallest, roll it up, and slice thinly. I forgot to get a separate picture of the process, but you can see the shape in the bottom left. That’s a guajillo chili that I wanted to use as a finishing touch. Cutting it that thinly lets it cook (and soften) almost instantly.

Still with me, or are you already practicing? Time to stick the landing. Let’s make some fries. Here are two examples of “matchsticks” made out of sweet potato (for frying/baking) and jicama (for pickling).

For this cut, try to make a flat surface by cutting a sliver off one of the round edges. Now that it’s stable, you can cut lengthwise, and and adjust the size as needed. The jicama picture was zoomed in more than it looks, but those were close to the traditional size and shape.

Ready to show off– I mean…plate? You have your protein resting, and you want to make it look good! I’m sure you’ve heard the pros tell you to “cut against the grain”, but what does that mean? Well, most of the meat we’re eating is actually muscle, and the fibers usually run in thin rows. When you cut straight up and down, you’re probably following that pattern– and you get a tough piece of meat. Instead, angle the knife between 30 and 45 degrees (basically halfway between flat against the board, and standing upright). Slice by moving the knife in one direction–don’t saw back and forth! The pieces will fit together perfectly, and you can plate them like a champion.

So now you know the basics of knife skills. It only took me 3 years to get this one out to you! Was this helpful? Comment below with other techniques you want me to break down. Even better– follow @craving_mad on Instagram and contact me there!

See if you can come up with a new way to use it! Tag me @craving_mad if you want to share it with the world, and I’ll add it to the CM story on Instagram.

 

 

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