A week or so ago, we suggested a few things to look for when purchasing a worthwhile kitchen knife — possibly one of the most used tools in any kitchen. So whether you went out to shop for a single blade or are the proud owner of a set of knives, one things for certain: nothing’s going to stop your chop.
But, a tool is only as good as the person using it. And we’ll bet dollars to donuts that many folks’ knife skills — yourself included — consist of: “Put on food. Push down.” We can’t refute that the method works. But if you want A) your knives to stay functional and sharp for as long as possible, B) to prepare food that looks as good as it tastes, and C) impress the snot out of anyone watching, then allow us to introduce you to Omaha Steaks Executive Chef, Grant Hon, who’ll learn you a thing or two about how the pros slice, dice, and julienne.
Before You Start: 3 Safety Points
“The number one thing to look out for when chopping and slicing is a secure work surface,” Grant begins as he slaps a white, non-slip mat on the counter before laying his white cutting board on top. If you don’t have a non-slip mat, a cutting board with rubber grips or even wetting some paper towels will also do the trick, he continues.
Cleanliness is the second important factor in safety. Germs and bacteria can easily make a new home for a billion of their friends within the slices in your cutting board. After every time you use your board, ensure you give it a solid scrubbing.
“Look for something NSF certified if it’s a polymer-based cutting board,” Grant says. “If you’re going to go wood, you want a hard wood — great oak, maple, or bamboo.” Not only will a hard surface make it harder for your knife to create new bacteria utopias, but it will also help maintain your knife’s edge because your blade will drag in softer surfaces and wear down quicker.
The third and final safety precaution is ensuring your knife is sharp. It will help you cut easier, leading to less accidents. We’ll go into more detail about how to keep your knife sharp and properly cared for in our final piece on knife work.
Getting a Proper Grip
Now that we have a grip on staying nice and safe, how about we get a grip on the actual knife? A knife is a simple tool, but even simple tools, if held incorrectly, won’t work as efficiently as you need and be uncomfortable to use.
Before even glancing at the washed, but otherwise untouched vegetables that lay out before us, Grant provides a quick primer on what a proper knife grip looks like and why it matters.
- Place the first section of your index finger — the one closest to the palm — at the back of the blade’s spine, the area closest to the bolster.
- Wrap your fingers around so your thumb is firmly pressed on one side of the blade and your index finger on the other side. So, you’re “pinching” the blade between index finger and thumb.
- Your other three fingers are wrapped around the handle and the tang.
This grip gives your hand the best overall control. Usually people want to extend their index finger along the spine of the blade. Doing this will fatigue your hand quicker, and make it easier for the knife to roll left or right when you start slicing.
As for your non-knife hand, you know, the one that’s holding the item you’re slicing, it should look like a claw, fingertips inward. “It’s like you’re gripping a doorknob as to keep your fingers away from the blade,” Grant says simply. “The flat of the blade can run along the backs of your fingers, so your alternate hand is the one guiding the thickness of your cuts.” Well put, Grant, but we can tell that’s going to take some practice.
There is an exception with paring knives, though. Paring knives are used for much more detailed work such as coring strawberries or cutting the tops of tomatoes. As such Grant advised to choke up way on the blade, thumb and forefinger still pinching the blade like before, so your thumb acts as the marker for how deep you need the knife to cut.
You have a safe and clean surface. You have a comfortable secure grip. It’s finally time — let’s cut!
Grant shows us a variety of different cuts and dices of carrots, potatoes, peppers, and onions, which are all very fascinating, but the most interesting thing we notice is how much noise it makes — virtually none.
When we mention this, he’s very quick to respond. “Chopping and cutting vegetables should be a quiet activity. It should be a quiet kitchen.”
How does he do it?
- With the tip of the knife on the cutting board, rock the blade back.
- The flat of the blade should be against the back of your alternate hand’s fingers (grip that door knob!) for guidance.
- Keep rocking the blade back and forth, but try not to ever bring the tip of the blade off the cutting board.
When you’re done chopping, Grant recommends using a bench scraper to sweep the food from the cutting board to its destination. If you want to use your kitchen knife, remember to use the spine of the knife. Using the blade will, as you can imagine, just wear it down faster.
Food for Thought
Before you start cutting, though, Grant challenges us to think about the ingredients “end use” as he calls it. “Think about how the food is going to cook,” he says. “If you’re going to make soup or kabobs, you’re going to cut into your veggies differently. Longer cook time use thicker cuts. Shorter cook time, use shorter, thinner pieces.”
Grant continues, “Everything should have balance.” Makes sense. Have you ever dunked your spoon into a stew and come up with a giant piece of beef and very little vegetables? That bite would be very heavy on the beef with little of the other flavors that make up your dish. But when your meat and vegetables are similar in size, you will have more balanced flavors for a much better eating experience.
So there you have it. A trio of valuable tips straight from our Executive Chef:
- Stable, clean, and dry work surface.
- Proper hand placement for both hands.
- The right cut for the right dish.
Join us next time as we conclude this trilogy of knife tips with a piece on keeping your knife shiny and ultra-sharp!