Knife skills: how to choose the right knife and wield it like a pro
Does cutting up veggies with your kitchen knife make you slightly nervous? If so, it might be time to learn how to show your knives who’s boss.
First of all, confident knife use requires a blade that is capable of making clean, efficient cuts. “Number one is to make sure your knife is sharp. A dull knife is your worst enemy,” explains chef Curtis Webb of the Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver (2725 Main Street) during a phone chat. He recommends realigning the edge of your blade by using a honing steel every 15 minutes during chopping sessions and having your knife professionally sharpened several times a year.
Webb is teaching a knife skills class ($69) on November 14 that covers honing and sharpening as well as a variety of cutting techniques. When tackling round fruits and vegetables, he suggests, slice off a side to make a flat surface to place on the cutting board so those suckers don’t roll around as you’re trying to cut them. If students are intimidated, Webb tells them to breathe deeply: “Try and relax. It’s about being slow and steady. Work on your consistency, and then you can move on to speed afterwards.”
Giulia Vendramin, director of admissions at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (101–1505 West 2nd Avenue), says it’s important for home cooks to learn standard cutting techniques, such as a basic dice, brunoise (an 1/8-inch dice), julienne cut (matchsticks), and chiffonade (raglike strips of herbs), and to aim for uniformity when cutting. “That way, the pieces all cook at the same rate,” she says.
Vendramin also emphasizes the importance of protecting the hand gripping the food by shaping it into a claw, tucking those fingers out of harm’s way. She gives another safety tip over the phone: “When your knife drops, just let it fall. Don’t try to catch it.” As well, make your cutting board slip-proof by putting a damp kitchen towel or paper towel underneath it.
PICA offers a culinary-techniques class on essential kitchen tools ($150), but the next one isn’t until January 18.
David Robertson, chef and owner of the Dirty Apron Cooking School and Delicatessen (540 Beatty Street), emphasizes that gaining strong knife skills takes consistent practice. “It’s homework that you need to take home with you,” he says over the phone. The Dirty Apron will be offering a knife skills class on November 2 ($158) and January 11, during which you’ll learn knife safety as well as chopping, cutting, and sharpening skills, all while preparing a meal of grilled corn and clam chowder with double-smoked bacon lardons, and barbecued duck and veggie crepes. Dessert will be provided, as incentive to master those knife skills.
And that bad habit of constantly lifting up the tip of your knife and hacking downward? Robertson says your knife should always move in a fluid, rocking motion. “You need to treat your knife like a wheel moving forward. Always try to keep your knife on the cutting board as you’re cutting through something,” he instructs. Robertson adds that using a knife is easier if you invest in a decent one. The Dirty Apron, for example, sells an eight-inch Wusthof chef’s knife ($199) that Robertson recommends to the home cook for its ease of use.
Cookware stores like Ming Wo are good places to get a feel for what’s right for you. “You can’t buy a knife by just reading about it. You need to come in and hold them, and see what feels good in your hand. That’s the most important thing,” explains Ling Tao, a sales associate at Ming Wo, over the phone from the chain’s Chinatown store (23 East Pender Street).
If money is tight and you want a basic knife, she suggests the Henckels Twin Master eight-inch chef’s knife ($39) or the Victorinox Fibrox eight-inch chef’s knife ($52), both with stainless-steel blades. “They’re easy to maintain. They’re easy to hone and sharpen. They don’t need a lot of care. They have plastic handles,” she says. Henckels also offers a Twin Professional S eight-inch chef’s knife ($162) with a “no stain” stainless-steel blade and a synthetic handle that Tao suggests as a good workhorse knife.
“A lot of chefs on the Food Network and a lot of local chefs like the Japanese knives because they’re very sharp and the blades are very thin,” Tao adds. “They do a lot of precision cutting.” Popular are the Shun classic eight-inch chef’s knife ($175), with a high-carbon Japanese steel blade and an ebony pakka wood handle (made of layers of treated, fused hardwood), and the Kasumi eight-inch chef’s knife ($219.98), with a high-carbon stainless-steel blade and a laminated wood handle.
The bottom line on choosing the right knife? “Don’t buy a knife because it looks cool. Buy it if it feels comfortable in your hand,” says Robertson. With the perfect knife and the correct skills, you can cut with confidence.