Food Network Staffer Diary: I Took a Knife Skills Class, and Here's What I Learned
Dear readers, this is my confession. I may work in food, but for my entire life, I have been holding my knife incorrectly. And using the wrong knives. And generally making life more difficult for myself than it needed to be.
Finally, I decided to do something about it.
For the last four years of my life, I was a college student, settling for cutting everything in my house with a haphazard set of serrated and paring knives. Everything worked, but just barely. I was too busy focusing on my classes to focus on technique or true expediency.
But now I have graduated and have a little more dignity than a bowl full of misshapen veggies — and the constant fear that I might slice my finger off with a steak knife as I slice through a slippery mango. And I have a whole slew of foodie co-workers to impress. So, what does any post-grad with a plan do?
Go back to school, of course.
Nestled beneath a busy highway, The Brooklyn Kitchen is a classroom space for foodies, with an equally busy calendar of classes. Want to learn to make pizza like a pro? They can teach you. Want to try your hand at tortillas from scratch? They can teach you. Total noob at using your knives and want to learn not only how to chop an onion, but also how not to seriously injure yourself? They can teach you.
I walked into the classroom, which was intimately set up for 12 students, and immediately got stoked. My fellow knife newbies and I were about to get a crash course in cutlery, and by the end of the night we would have chopped up everything on this table with expert ease. In my head, I was going to be a regular Daniel Boulud. (LOL. More on that later.)
We all took our places behind our stations and set off on that great quest to knife-skills greatness. And it all starts with the chef's knife.
If there's anything I learned in this class, it's that your chef's knife is your best friend. All other knives are amazing and serve their various purposes, but your chef's knife can do anything you put its mind to. Invest in a good chef's knife. If you take care of it, it'll last a good long while.
Size: 8 to 10 inches. Go to the store and hold some in your hand and see what size works best for you. For me, 8 inches is plenty — I have small hands.
Forged: You can get two types of knives: forged or stamped. Go for forged. They are stronger and better quality overall, according to this class.
Spine: Look for a knife with an exposed spine. It'll definitely rub against your skin when you learn to hold your knife right, but it's worth it.
Our instructor walked around the room to check out how we were holding our knives. I was holding mine with my index finger resting on the top of the blade. And I learned real quickly that that was an easy way to lop off that essential index finger.
Instead, be sure you anchor your index finger securely behind the heel of your blade, pinching it with your thumb on the other side. This ensures maximum control and cutting power.
You're not supposed to chop-chop-chop away at your food.
I learned in Knife Skills that your knife should never have to leave your cutting board. Instead, keep some contact between the board and the tip of your knife, cutting in a smooth, fluid motion, moving your arm back and forth. Don't worry, you'll still get that satisfying sound.
A stable cutting surface is a must. You're handling sharp tools here, kids. A surface that slips and slides surfaces is just another safety hazard for your fingers. We used ones with nonslip corners, but if buying a new cutting board is too much work, here's a hack: Lay out a damp paper towel beneath your cutting board. It works the same way.
You can cut your onions without tearing up (!!!!!).
I can't be the only one who dreads chopping up onions. The teary eyes do me in every single time, totally slowing down my process to an absolute halt until it clears up.
1. The fewer cuts you make in your onion, the less it will make you tear. So cut efficiently, succinctly and as quickly as possible.
2. If you hold a piece of damp paper towel in between your lips while you cut, it soaks up all the tear-inducing fumes. I don't understand this witchcraft, and I don't question it. I just know it worked for me and it'll probably work for you, too.
All right, all right, sustainability folks, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let me explain.
It is infinitely easier to cut a round food (think potatoes, onions, carrots, oranges) when you are working with a flat surface. For some of these, it might mean sacrificing some corners that you will inevitably not be able to use in this recipe.
As a college kid, I would have balked at the idea of not using every single piece of my potato — the potato I bought with my scarce funds. I would have toiled for much, much longer, chopping up a potato in its entirety instead of shaving off some of the sides to make it flat and stable.
Chefs don't do that.
Go ahead and chop off the sides of those round foods to make them flat. It makes them so much easier to turn into matchsticks and, in turn, to dice.
"But what about the waste?" you say. Turn it into stock. Or compost it and fertilize your garden later. There are a million things you can do with leftover veggie waste, y'all. Just be creative. Turn it into a juice, for goodness’ sake.
At the end of my class, I went home with a giant bag of veggie scraps to turn into stock. I just stuck it in my freezer until a day when I have time to do it. Simple.
You can drag the tip of your chef's knife across a celery stick to slice it thinly.
You can do the same thing with a bell pepper. Those thin, fibrous veggies can be sliced gracefully and thinly by simply pressing and holding down the tip of your knife and sliding it through the veggie.
Look at how good that bell pepper looks! Not a seed in sight. But how? Simple, y'all.
Cut off the top and bottom of that pepper. Find one of the ribs, the pithy white part with the seeds, and make a slice in the side. Then simply run your knife along the edge of the pepper, essentially deboning it. Just pop those little pithy parts off from the larger, greener body, and you're good to go.
DON'T use the blade of your knife to scrape bits of food off your cutting board.
You may see people doing this, but my instructor urged us not to. When you scoop a pile of onion into a bowl using the blade of your knife and your hand, the scraping motion will inevitably dull the knife.
Instead, use the back of your knife or a kitchen scraper. Your knives will thank you.
As for that that weird tool that came in your knife kit ...
That's your sharpening tool, and you really do need to be using it (sorry). Every time you make a cut, little microscopic fibers of your knife splinter off, dulling it. Getting a sharp knife is as easy as running its blade (at a 20-degree angle) across the sharpening tool. Do that 10 times on each side. Just do it.
So remember how I mentioned I was going to be a regular Daniel Boulud after this class? Yeah, not so much.
I did learn a lot in one night, but one class does not a knife pro make. It truly does take practice to learn the speed and precision of a pro. I still catch myself holding my knife wrong.
But the more you know, and the more you practice, the better you get. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.
In the meantime, I have a whole bunch of new tricks in my arsenal that I do use on a daily basis. Try them for yourself — they really do make such a difference. And if you have the chance, take a knife skills class. You'll be amazed at how much you can learn (and how much you already know).