Knife Skills

A little while ago I finally took my first culinary class – Knife Skills at The Chopping Block. There are so many classes I’d like to take there – Building Blocks: Brasserie, A Night in Chinatown, Focus on Sauces: Mother Sauces to Modern, and someday when I have two free weeks, I’d like to take the intensive week-long courses of Culinary Boot Camp and Baking Boot Camp. But I decided to start with the fundamentals, and husband was nice enough to sign me up for a Tuesday night class.

A lot of the really basic information I knew already, such as the difference between a forged full-tang knife (the blade runs all the way through to the end of the handle) and a stamped knife (where the blade is cut from a sheet of stainless steel and attached to the handle with just a few inches of metal). I also knew already that the forged full-tang knife is superior to the pressed knife because it will lost longer, it’s sturdier, stays sharp and can be sharpened and allows for more control while cutting. The different types of knives I was already familiar with as well, such as the large chef’s (also known as the French knife), short paring knife, midsize utility knife, serrated bread knife and the thin boning knife (which is the only knife that should have a flexible blade).

But I also learned some new information. The most important of which is how to hold a chef’s knife while cutting. Instead of gripping the handle in a fist, put your palm on the top of the knife’s handle near the hilt (where the handle meets the blade) and pinch the blade between your thumb and first finger, keeping your first finger curled against the blade. Grip the handle with your other fingers. By holding the knife in this way it will be balanced allowing you to have the most control and force with the least amount of effort. The second most important thing is the cutting motion – you want to rock your knife, and pull the blade toward you during the downward (cutting) stroke. I (and a lot of other people) have the habit of pushing the knife forward on the cutting stroke, which does cut, but has the disadvantage of being less efficient. By pulling the knife toward you on the down stroke, you have the benefit of gravity and physics on your side – basically, you can make more efficient, controlled cuts and do it quicker.

Sharpening is important for quality knives. There are two types of sharpeners – a honing steel and a sharpening steel. Most of us have the honing steels that come with those knife block sets. The main difference between the two is a honing steel does not remove metal from the blade, but realigns it so that the edge becomes sharper. A sharpening steel actually removes metal from the blade, creating an entirely new edge. For the average cook, you should hone your knife before every use, and have it sharpened every month or so. It only costs a few dollars per knife to have it professionally sharpened, but you can also purchase sharpening steels and do it yourself at home. As far as honing your knife, there’s really no wrong way to do it – just sweep the blade along the steel at about at 15 degree angle. But I did learn that you shouldn’t let anyone else hone your knife – the blade with sharpen with the idiosyncrasies of the individual, and if several different people are honing it, it will misalign the metal on the blade, making it hard to get it as sharp as you want.

So I learned some excellent things, and I try to practice them daily. It’s been a little difficult to retrain myself to cut properly, but I find that when I do it successfully, I’m faster and more accurate with my cuts. I’d recommend anyone take a knife class – it was informative and fun.  

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