Whenever I hear the phrase “knife skills” I think of a knife thrower in a circus, flinging his blades with dangerous accuracy. Chopping skills sounds less impressive, but certainly in my life it’s more important to be able to cut an onion safely than to throw a knife accurately.
I’ve never badly injured myself when chopping, peeling or cutting something, but I’m always aware that I’m not being very safe – using the tip of a knife to dig out the eyes of a potato, or peeling towards myself, or dicing an onion with a knife that keeps slipping down the skin towards my fingers. Recently I decided that enough was enough, and got myself a decent set of kitchen knives. I’ve also been attending cooking classes, where I’m slowly picking up tips.
The first tip: use a chopping board! I have five different chopping boards, three of which are in regular use for various purposes (I have a wooden one for bread, another wooden one for fruit and vegetables, and a small bamboo one for small smelly things like onion and garlic). Plastic boards are fine but get discoloured and stained quite easily. Glass chopping boards aren’t even worthy of the name. Do not chop onto glass, it will blunt your knives faster than you can imagine (believe me – that’s how my old knives perished). Yes, glass is easy to clean, but it isn’t worth it. I use my beautiful glass board for rolling out pastry and taking pretty photos of things, such as the one above.
My first and most-used knife skill is chopping an onion. It’s something I do for at least half and probably more like 3/4 of all recipes I cook, and until very recently I was terrible at it! Here are a few of the tips I’ve picked up.
- Use a large sharp knife, one where the blade is easily long enough to cut through the entire onion in one go.
- Chop the onion in half lengthways (from root to tip) before peeling, as it’s a lot easier to get the skin off half an onion than a whole one.
- Leave the root on until you’ve finished chopping, as it holds everything together.
- Slice across the onion from just below the root to the tip, to create a fan of onion slices all still attached at one end.
- Chop the slices using a seesaw motion with your knife – keep the tip of the knife in the same place on the board and move the onion instead.
- Protect your fingers: hold the onion with your fingers curled back so that your nails are the closest thing to the knife, just in case you slip.
- Don’t try to chop too fast at first. It takes time to gain speed and it is much more important to retain your digits.
The seesaw technique also works well for slicing any other type of hard vegetable such as a carrot or potato.
One of my favourite things to do with my big chef’s knife is crush garlic cloves, by placing the blade of the knife flat on top of the peeled clove and pressing down with both palms (be careful, don’t slice your hand on the edge of the knife!). I crush garlic cloves this way even if I’m about to mince them, mostly because it’s fun.
Almost exactly the same technique applies to mincing garlic as to chopping onions, although it is much too fiddly to try and slice the garlic clove into strips first, and there are no pesky layers which need holding together by the roots. The same seesaw motion and finger-protected vegetable movement applies, though. I’m a little less bothered about chopping my garlic neatly, so I simply alter the angle of the blade and chop until the entire clove has been finely minced.
Back when I was struggling through life with blunt knives and no kitchen knowledge, I frequently crushed tomatoes to a pip-strewn death in my attempts to slice them. I never, ever managed to make a beautifully-presented tomato salad, because the innards were always spewing out and the flesh was split and mushy. Sharp knives really do make a huge difference!
When cutting tomatoes into those cute boat-shaped chunks for salads, it’s least messy if you chop between the segments. Sometimes it can be hard to tell where these are, but usually you can spot the slight indentation and change in skin colour. Cutting a small slit in the skin with the tip of the knife makes it easier to slice through the tomato without any squashing. If your knife is sharp enough, you shouldn’t need to do any sawing with the blade, it will simply chop right through.
There are still lots of knife-related kitchen tasks that I know I do badly, and want to work on. There are also obviously plenty of knife skills I will never need, such as filleting a fish or carving a roast chicken. I’ll add to this page as I learn new techniques or improvements to old ones. Please comment and let me know if you have any useful hints, or want to know how to safely use a particular knife skill. If I don’t know, I’ll find out!