Want to be a better home cook? Learn how to use a knife.
There’s a reason “every (professional) culinary school in the world starts with knife skills,” cooking instructor Brian Adornetto explains. Students have to learn how to properly and uniformly cut ingredients, otherwise food will not cook evenly.
If a cook who lacks good knife skills makes vegetable soup, you will taste it in every bite; some vegetables will be overcooked, others tender and some undercooked. It all adds up to a less-than-ideal meal.
That may explain why knife skills classes are so popular at avocational cooking schools from Cary to Charlotte. Adornetto began teaching such classes at Southern Season in Chapel Hill several years ago. He used to teach one or two classes every three months. Now, he leads as many as six beginner classes and a couple of advanced classes each quarter. The $50 classes sell out routinely and often have waiting lists.
Sur la Table’s culinary director Sephi Coyle said their 55 stores offer knife skills classes once a month, and more often than that in Durham and Charlotte. Last year, Coyle said, they taught more than 8,000 people. Home cooks take these classes, Coyle said, “so they can feel safe in the kitchen.”
Dan Saklad, owner of Whisk cooking store and school in Cary, agrees: “A lot of people come into my classes with fear.” After taking a class, Saklad said, they feel more confident, efficient and can replicate what chefs do on popular cooking shows.
To help home cooks improve their skills, Adornetto shares his advice on the best knives to own, the best way to keep them sharp, some cutting basics and more.
How to pick a knife
First, stainless steel knives are best. Ceramic knives, although sharp and pretty, have a tendency to chip or crack. Second, choose a knife that feels comfortable in your hand; otherwise, it will go unused and be a waste of money. Finally, a good knife will have a “full tang,” meaning the metal from the blade extends the entire length of the handle. A full tang improves the knife’s balance, making it easier to use and ensures the handle won’t break.
How to decide which knives to own
At a minimum, Adornetto recommends, home cooks need a chef’s knife and a serrated utility knife. The former is the kitchen workhorse for chefs and home cooks alike. The second is more useful and, therefore, a better investment than a bread knife; it can not only slice bread but its flexible blade also can trim melons and winter squash.
The next purchase should be sharpening tools, including a steel and a stone, which will keep the knife’s blade in good condition.
Beyond those basics, Adornetto recommends buying a boning knife, kitchen shears, a good peeler and lastly, a paring knife. Most professionals say to buy a paring knife after a chef’s knife, but Adornetto finds he rarely uses his paring knife and can accomplish most similar tasks with a good peeler.
How to care for a knife
Get your knives professionally sharpened at least once a year.
Every month or so, sharpen them at home. Adornetto recommends buying a synthetic sharpening stone, because it requires less preparation and maintenance.
Here’s how to use it: Wet the stone with water. Hold the knife blade at between a 19-degree and 22-degree angle to the stone. (Adornetto’s tip: Everyone knows what a 45-degree angle is; cut that in half.) Run the entire blade in one direction along the stone about a dozen times, and then flip the blade over and repeat on the other side.
There’s a misconception, Adornetto said, that a separate tool, the sharpening steel, sharpens a knife; the name encourages this confusion. Using a steel does not sharpen a knife; it hones the blade, removing small imperfections. Every couple of times you use the knife, run the blade along a steel to keep it in good condition.
Wash knives by hand with hot, soapy water. Do not put them in the dishwasher. In a dishwasher, the water can get so hot that it can warp the steel and loosen the rivets attaching the blade to the handle.
How to chop vegetables
First, make sure your hands are dry to prevent the knife from slipping as you chop. Second, the hand holding the food should adopt a “bear claw” stance: hold the food with fingertips curled under, away from the knife blade.
Adornetto recommends a “rock-and-chop” motion. The center of the blade is where the action occurs, so put the tip of the blade in front of the food so the blade center comes down where you want to cut. Then, as your wrist comes down, push the knife down and away from you to make a clean cut. Pull the knife back up, leaving the tip on the cutting board, and repeat the motion. (Watching Adornetto demonstrate at charlotteobserver.com/food may help you visualize this motion.)
Different-shaped foods require different techniques.
For “flat” foods, like celery, trim off the top and bottom and then cut the stalk into manageable chunks, say 3 to 4 inches long. Cut lengthwise, Adornetto said, for snacks, and serving with Buffalo wings. Dice celery sticks for soups, stews and sautés.
For round foods, like carrots or zucchini, trim ends and then cut into 3- to 4-inch pieces. Then create a flat side. Slice carrot lengthwise into 2 to 3 planks. Then cut planks into sticks. If needed, dice sticks for soups and stews.
For layered foods, like onions and cabbage, cut off the top opposite the root end. Place knife in center of the root end and cut in half. Peel outer layer. For onion slices, place the onion on the cutting board flat side down. Start at the edge opposite the root end and cut vertically, forming half-moon slices, and repeat, heading toward the root end.
To dice an onion, place it on the cutting board flat side down, and stabilize the onion with the palm of your hand. Hold the knife parallel to the cutting board and slice into the onion without cutting all the way through the root. Do this twice more. Then hold the onion half, use the rock-and chop motion to dice the onion, moving from the outer edge toward the root end.
One final tip: Do not use the sharp edge of the knife blade to scrape food out of your way. Use the other side of the blade so you will keep the blade sharp.