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I am about to buy new knives, but I don’t even know how to chop. In fact, I’m afraid I might chop my fingers off because I’m a bit clumsy. Do you have any advice for learning how to chop properly? I also would like advice on how to choose the right knives to purchase. Thanks so much!
Jinta, Los Angeles, CA
Garden Eats: We’re laughing over here Jinta – one of our contributors, Laura Seery says she can’t stand to watch Christine chop because she’s afraid she’ll take a finger off! We understand your driving force behind the need to learn how to wield a knife well in the kitchen! We called Bryant, another of Garden Eats contributors to field this question. He put together a few thoughts and photos to help you get your choppin’ flow down. Let us know how it works out for your learning curve.
For Chefs they become extensions of their hands. Knife skills take years and thousands and thousands of hours to master. There are some basic chopping and cutting techniques that anyone can do with just a little practice though!
I personally use a wood cutting board. The cool looking glass and ceramic boards are not good for your knives. They destroy the nice sharp edge that is so crucial to good clean chopping. Wood is the best as it will last the longest and it only needs a little bit of extra care.
I would suggest investing in a high quality set of knives. Take some time to do a little research before you go out to buy them. They might be a little expensive, but with minimal care they will last for decades. You can go to a kitchen and cooking store like William Sonoma, but I have found that although they offer quality products, they tend to be over-priced. Most major cities have restaurant supply stores that sell knives- check those out.
Knives are like a good set of pots and pans. If you take care of them properly you will get more than your moneys worth.
You can purchase knives in sets or choose individually.
They come in all shapes and sizes depending on the job they are designed for. These days the good knives tend to come from two places- Germany and Japan. They both have their positives and negatives and it usually tends to be just a personal preference.
Ok, onto helping out with your question about chopping! Let’s get to the actual using of the knife. Depending on what kind of cutting you are going to be doing, select the proper tool. Realistically, unless you are a professional cook or do a lot of entertaining and cook a lot, you can really get away with only three to four knives in your house. You will want a Chef’s knife, paring knife, serrated knife and maybe a slicer for sure. Most things that you will do, you can do with those three knives. You also want to make sure the knife is comfortable in your hand. This where heading to a store and actually holding and feeling the knife become important. You don’t want it to be too heavy because you will get tired and fatigued more easily- yes, really, you’ll get tired while chopping. Be sure the knives you choose feel natural in your hands. If your tools are awkward, so will be what you’re attempting to chop!
When using the chef’s knife , proper hold is everything. Now you are probably thinking, “duh, I just grab the knife by the handle and get to work.” While this is true, there is a better way. A good knife is properly balanced between the blade and the handle. Holding the knife as close to this balance point will make it more comfortable and easier to use. It can take a while to get comfortable holding the knife this far forward toward the blade but once you do, you will notice how much more control you possess while cutting.
The best knives are the sharpest possible. A lot of people are afraid when the knife is sharp. They tend to think that they will cut themselves more easily with a sharp knife. Most cuts happen from improper handling and not paying attention. However, if you do cut yourself, having a sharp knife is actually better and here’s why… When the knife is sharp you do not have to press as hard to actually cut your product. Not having to press hard equals less chance of the knife slipping and less chance of getting cut due to slippage. However, should the unfortunate happen and you cut yourself, contrary to what may be thought, the sharper the knife, the cleaner the cut. The cleaner the cut, the less damage is done to the tissues and the easier and sooner it will heal.
When chopping, you obviously hold the knife with your dominate hand while using your other hand as your guide. Hold the knife at the balance point I mentioned earlier- usually where the handle meets the blade. You also want to make sure that the product you are chopping is neat and organized on your cutting board. If you cannot hold the product being chopped with your guide hand then you need to make the amount smaller or you increase the risk of cutting yourself. Also, keeping the fingers of your guide hand out of the way is very important if you do not want to cut yourself. If you have watched a lot of cooking shows and are paying close attention- if and when they show a close up of the food- and therefore the Chef’s hands, you might see that they keep their fingers bent and the knife runs up and down the backs of the fingers. This can take practice, but start slow and practice and you will get it down.
Depending on what you are chopping, the first thing that you want is a stable base. Take a carrot for example. A carrot is obviously a round object. Round objects are not ideal for chopping. To start, you want to cut a small portion of the carrot off so that it has a flat side. This will stabilize the carrot and allow you to chop the rest of the carrot without having to worry about it rolling around on your cutting board. You can then cut the carrot into small planks of the desired thickness. Next cut each plank into matchsticks of the desired size. From there you can dice. Lastly, you can proceed to cut the carrot into the desired size.
Consistency in size of cuts is important. Why? You want everything to cook at the same rate so that it all finishes at the same time! Depending on your cook books or as you get more adventurous in your cooking and try more complex recipes, there are some generally accepted sizes that you will find in most recipes.
1) Rough Chop generally is anything bigger than 1 inch.
2) Large Dice is generally ¾ to 1 inch.
3) Medium Dice is generally ½ inch.
4) Small Dice is generally around ¼ of an inch. Again consistency is key when chopping. The overall size doesn’t really matter as long as all your cuts are the same.
With a little practice these techniques can become good habits. They will make prepping for your meal quicker and render your cooking consistently pleasant.
So, get to it and happy chopping!