The Secret to Making “30 Minute Meals”…Knife Skills!

8 Dec

…Knife skills, and possibly a team of assistants behind the scenes.  But that’s besides the point.   The point of this entry is to emphasize how having certain knife skills will empower you in the kitchen (is that too cheesy?).  It really will though!  If you have ever watched an episode of 30 minute meals, you know Rachael Ray saves a lot of time compared to the average home cook because she can prep all of her ingredients so quickly.  One of her most used terms is “chop and drop” – chopping things as she needs them and dropping them in the pan.  This saves a lot of time.

So before I get into specific chopping/cutting skills, there are a few knife basics to know.  Once you get yourself a nice, quality, and sharp Chef’s or Santoku knife, you need to take good care of it.  Here’s how:

  • Hand wash your knives in warm water and soap.  Don’t put them in the dishwasher! Wipe them dry with a paper towel before you put them away.
  • Store them on a magnetic knife strip or knife block (not just loose in a drawer!).  I use a magnetic strip and I love it because it won’t dull the blade at all.
  • Sharpen them when needed.  I don’t use anything fancy, just a basic sharpener from any kitchen store (I have still not mastered the art of using a steel rod – that scares me).

Now for some actual knife etiquette:

The first thing to know is how to properly hold a knife:

… That is not my hand, just for the record.   The image is from here.  But as you can see, you wrap your pinky, ring, and middle fingers around the handle.  Your thumb and index finger grip the blade.  Don’t extend your index finger straight on top of the blade – it may slip and you might get cut. 

The next thing is how to grip the food you are cutting:

Image from here

Tuck your fingers under – then there is no way for you to get cut.  You can’t chop off the tip of your finger if they are out of the way.  Use the rest of the fingers to guide the food you are cutting.   Practice on celery.  One hand holds the knife, and the other hand simultaneously guides and holds the food.  Which brings me to my next point – the cutting motion.

In most cases, the method to use is called the tip-fulcrum method.  In this method, the tip of the knife is always kept on the board.  While the tip is on the board, you move the rest of the knife up and down.  This is a safe and controlled way of cutting, because if the tip of the knife never leaves the board, it’s a lot harder to cut yourself.  If you pick up the whole knife when cutting, you’re more likely to lose precision and cut yourself.  A good video to demonstrate both of these principles is found here (between 0:30 and 1:30).

Once you get the motion down, there is some basic terminology to describe different ways of cutting food.  They include: chopping, dicing, mincing and julienning.  Chopping can be rough and is generally a larger cut.  Dicing is a smaller cut, usually into uniform cubes.  This can be a fine dice, medium, large, etc (below, top left and center).   Mincing describes a very fine dice, for example, garlic, into very tiny pieces (below, top right).  Julienning is basically cutting foods into strips or matchstick shape (below, middle row).  The best way to learn is to practice – use a soft food like potatoes – to practice the motion. 


Image from here

Finally, I thought I might describe some tricks and tips to cutting some very basic foods (you’ll use them so often that it really helps to be efficient).   

First, garlic.  The first thing is to break a clove off from the bulb.  Wedge your fingers in and pull one out.  If they are really tight and hard to get out, turn the whole bulb upside down on a cutting board and apply some weight to help separate the cloves.   Once you get a clove out, lay it on a cutting board, take the side of your knife (blade facing away from you) and hit the knife with the heal of your hand to smash the clove under the blade.  This removes the skin.  A trick I learned from a chef friend of mine is that the harder you smash the clove, the less you have left to chop.  So smash it well, then run your knife over it repetitively (keeping the tip on the board), in a swift motion to mince.  If you need to make a paste, add a little bit of salt to the mince (it helps bring the liquid out), and alternate mincing and scraping it on the board with the sharp edge of your knife.


Image from here

Onions are another basic to learn how to cut like a chef.  Once you learn the process, you will wonder how (and why) you ever cut an onion any way else before.  It’s methodical and leads to an even dice every time.    The process would be kind of hard to explain by writing, so I’ll rely on good old Gordon Ramsey to describe it: How to Chop an Onion.  I promise it will change the speed at which you can cook!

I have adopted Rachael Ray’s method for cutting up bell peppers because I’ve seen her do it on TV, and I think it’s clever and quick.  She just slices it in half, right down the middle, right through the stem.  Then, she tears out all the ribs/seeds/stems from each half – and voila, left with two perfect halves ready to dice or slice.

There are of course many other exceptional foods that have completely different methods to cut, but I think those are better left for another day.  The ones that come to mind are avocados, mangos, how to peel and seed tomatoes easily, whole squashes… etc.  In the future, as they come up in recipes here, I will try to remember to show how to cut them in my posts.  Otherwise, and when in doubt, there seems to be a YouTube video for just about everything these days – and videos speak more than a thousand words.

Hopefully you see the importance of learning some basic knife skills.  It will make you a more confident and efficient cook, and you will no longer avoid recipes just because it looks like a lot of stuff to cut up.  I HIGHLY recommend taking a knife skills class if you are able.  Cooking schools are popping up everywhere these days which offer them.  Even places like Williams-Sonoma offer classes (including “complimentary” technique classes!).  If you can’t take a class, watch videos online or watch cooking shows.  I have learned a lot of tricks and skills from watching certain chefs on TV (some are better than others – Giada and Rachael Ray are good examples).  And finally, practice makes perfect (which I am still far from – but I do like to practice and pretend that it is my workout for the day).  And if all else fails, buy a food processor (though I think I have cut myself more with the blade of my food processor than a knife, and I’ve owned it only a few months…oops?!).

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