Seminar: Knife Skills

I’ve taken some cooking classes where the teacher coaches us in basic knife skills and I’ve taken a real knife skills class. My knife skills are still pretty rudimentary. Fortunately, pastry chefs don’t have to have brilliant knife skills, but we need to wield our knives better than I could.

The knife skills class for the pastry students is much less extensive than the culinary students have to go through. We have to be able to use our knives efficiently and without injuring ourselves. Knives are the basic tools of culinary chefs; I’m much more concerned with my rolling pins and wire whips. The pastry equipment kit includes four knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, a cake knife, and a bread knife. In this seminar we learned to use the chef’s knife.

First we had a lecture and demonstration about how to care for our knives. Chef Jim, who taught the seminar, warned us against sharing our knives: If you let someone else use your knife, the next thing you know, they’ve dropped it on the floor! Then we moved into the kitchen, where we practiced honing our knives with the steel. Chef Jim says you should hone the knife before and after you use it, as well as any time it seems to need freshening while you’re using it. The edge gets beat up by cutting, and the steel smooths it out again. You can’t ruin your knife with a steel. We have a stone for sharpening, which I’m nervous about using because it’s possible to damage the knife with the stone if you don’t know what you’re doing. We can have our knives sharpened by someone at the school for a nominal fee.

Chef Jim is clearly a culinary chef. I know he’s a culinary chef because he taught us a nifty way to cut carrots and he kept talking about what a versatile vegetable the onion is.

We started out by slicing zucchini, which are easy to cut. From there we moved on to the carrots, which are more of a challenge. With a good knife and some practice, though, even carrots are doable. Then we cut potatoes and onions. From my previous knife classes I’ve learned the basics and really just need practice. The trick is to get all the pieces about the same size and shape so they look nice and cook evenly. That’s what I have the most trouble with and need serious practice with.

We learned to do the basic cuts, including julienne, which we practiced on the potatoes. While we cleaned up at the end, Chef Jim popped our julienned potatoes into the Frialator and we snacked on french fries.

Here’s Chef Jim’s nifty way of cutting carrots. First, though, the ergonomic way to hold your knife is at a 45-degree angle to the cutting board because that’s the natural angle of your arm. If you’re cutting straight across the carrot, then the carrot also has to be at 45 degrees to the cutting board so it’s at 90 degrees to the knife.

Hold your knife at 45 degrees to the cutting board

Hold your knife at 45 degrees to the cutting board

For this cut, though, the carrot is parallel to the bottom of the cutting board (i.e., the edge closest to your body).

Slice the carrot at 45 degrees

Hold the carrot parallel to the cutting board and the knife at 45 degrees

Slice the carrot at a 45-degree angle.

Slice the carrot at a 45-degree angle

Slice the carrot at a 45-degree angle

Roll the carrot toward you a quarter turn.

Roll the carrot toward you 90 degrees

Roll the carrot toward you 90 degrees

Slice the carrot again at 45 degrees. Cut it just past the first cut. Roll the carrot a quarter turn toward you again.

Slice the carrot again at 45 degrees

Slice the carrot again at 45 degrees and roll it toward you 90 degrees

You get chunks of carrot that cook evenly and are pretty, too.

Pretty chunks of carrot

Pretty chunks of carrot

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About linguina

For most of my life I've loved to read and to make stuff. My mother says I taught myself to read when I was 4, and I never looked back. I also liked fooling around in the kitchen, but my mother wasn't really into cooking, so I learned a lot of that on my own, too. My sister and I had the Betty Crocker New Boys and Girls Cookbook (1965), and naturally I had to make the Enchanted Castle Cake. I learned how to bake bread when I was 14, and I bought a copy of the Joy of Cooking when I was 17. My aunt and uncle gave me Mastering the Art of French Cooking for my 19th birthday, and the first thing I made was soufflé. I've always been more of a baker than a cook, though. When our niece used to visit us during her breaks from college, she'd get me to show her some cooking things (including soufflé, of course!), but I kept having to tell her, "This is just how I do it. I have no idea if it's the right way." Finally, I took a basic cooking class, and that changed my life. After that class, I signed up for a 4-day baking class at King Arthur Flour. That's when I knew I was really a baker. Now I'm taking the professional pastry program at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. With this training, I'll become a pastry chef.
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3 Responses to Seminar: Knife Skills

  1. Peg says:

    I like the pretty chunks! I will use this the next time I make vegetable soup. I usually cut carrots on the angle, trouble is they tend to stick together and suction to the sides of the soup kettle. This should eliminate that problem. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Annie Wynn says:

    And the finger position of his non-knife hand is also good. Long ago, a professional cook (guys on workboats that cook are never chefs!) taught me to tuck my fingertips in like that so that the knife wouldn’t cut off a tip, it would only bounce off the nail if you were clumsy. Which I was. I still have a faint chop scar on my left index finger, which was the instigation for the lesson on handling knives from that cook.

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