When I taught in culinary school, students always asked on the first day, "When do we start cooking?" They were so excited about their brand new, white uniforms to get into the kitchen and start making all the amazing things they’d seen on TV. And I always answered their question the same way: When building a house, you don’t start with the roof, right? The same is true about cooking. It’s important to start with the foundation first and then build up from there. So the very first we did in class was start with knife skills. In fact, we spent a full six weeks cutting 350 pounds of carrots, potatoes, and onions.
Knife skills are extremely important in the professional world, and I think the same thing is true for home cooks too. Why does it matter? Because having solid knife skills makes everything you do easier. Here’s why:
When cutting vegetables into even sizes, say large dice, it means they’ll all cook at the same rate. If knife cuts are messy with lots of random sizes, it means the smaller pieces are overdone while the larger pieces aren’t cooked through. Think about the difference that makes when biting into a batch of roasted potatoes!
Faster prep time
Most of us don’t have several hours a day to spend in the kitchen like I do. When we get home from work, we need to put dinner on the table in a short amount of time. Having good knife skills means you can work quicker, spend less time in the kitchen and more time around the dinner table.
We eat with our eyes before we even pick up the fork. Having good knife skills can make things like salads and stir fry’s look even more mouthwatering. Check out the photo below. Which carrots would you rather eat?
Knowing the proper way to hold your knife and your opposite hand while cutting makes a huge difference. I've seen a lot of minor and major accidents in the kitchen because someone was holding the knife incorrectly or forgot to tuck their thumb. I'd prefer if you stayed out of the emergency room and in your kitchen! Having good knife skills doesn’t prevent you from cutting yourself, but it does mean you’ll have fewer accidents.
Now that I’ve – hopefully – convinced you on the importance of good knife skills, let’s talk about terminology. When reading a recipe, pay close attention to how it’s written. Should the carrots be chopped or diced? Is the garlic sliced or minced? Here’s a quick guide on what each term means:
To chop means to cut food into bite size pieces (around 1 inch) with a knife. When you see this term in a recipe, it usually means knife cuts don’t have to be very precise.
When you see the word dice, it usually means a more precise cut. With this technique, you'll want to pay attention to the size and shape. For small dice, you want even pieces ¼ inch square. For medium dice, it's ½ inch square. For large dice, it's ¾ inch square.
This term means to cut into long thin pieces. Think celery, cucumbers or onions. Thickness can vary with each recipe, but if no size is provided, go with ½ inch thick. Also when slicing, slide the knife blade forward or backward as you cut down to get cleaner cuts.
This usually refers to garlic, and is the smallest cut and requires several passes with a knife until it's paste-like.
This French term means ribbon cut and is used with leafy herbs like basil and mint. Simply stack 5 or 6 leaves on top of each other, roll lengthwise and slice across into thin strips.
At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to improve your knife skills. Don’t worry – I have a solution that doesn’t require enrolling into culinary school!
- Check out your local kitchen store. Many places like Sur La Table have introductory knife classes.
- Watch some YouTube videos specifically on knife cuts. This one from AllRecipes is pretty good.
- Practice, practice, practice. You don't need to buy 350 pounds of carrots, potatoes, and onions, but pick some of your favorite recipes and get into the kitchen.
- Below my recipe for pico de gallo that will give you plenty of items to cut and dice. Having solid knife skills will improve your kitchen confidence and impresses your friends and family! So, what are you making tonight?
Fresh Pico De Gallo
From the kitchen of Chef Tse
Makes about 2 cups
- 8 ripe Roma tomatoes, seeded, medium dice
- ½ t salt
- 1 small jalapeno, seeded, small dice
- ½ red onion, peeled, medium dice
- 1 T fresh lime juice
- 2 T chopped cilantro
- Salt, pepper and hot sauce
Mix together tomatoes and salt. Place tomatoes in a colander set over a bowl to catch the juice. Let stand 30 minutes. Drink the tomato juice and place tomatoes in a medium bowl. Add jalapeno, red onion, lime juice and cilantro. Mix to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and hot sauce if desired. Serve with cucumber slices or tortilla chips.
Kitchen note: Salting the tomatoes in advance prevents the salsa from becoming too wet. When cutting the jalapeno, wear gloves to prevent getting the juice elsewhere on your skin.
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