Cooking 101: Basic Knife Skills

This post is from Rebel Chef Noel.

Hello brave Rebel. Are you ready for an adventure in knife skills?

Imagine this – you’re in a kitchen-like dungeon. Torture devices hang from the walls – maces and hammers and sharp objects of varying size and cleanliness – pots big enough to boil 6 or 7 human heads. The room you’re in has a blue tile floor and several metal prep tables lined up neatly in the center of the room.  A 10 burner cook top flanks the wall to your party’s right and several stacked ovens sit beside it.

It’s been a while since these kitchens have been used. They’re dirty and fly infested. They smell like mold and rotting meat. The sick, yellow bulbs of the fluorescent lights above you flicker. Most of them have burnt out, but a few remain on their last legs. You just want to get the heck out of there.

kitchen_dungeon_ArshrAAm

You start making your way to the swinging door on the opposite side of the room, careful not to step in the puddles of god-knows-what as you cross the kitchen dungeon.

You and your party make it about halfway across the room when the room begins to heat up. You hear a heavy, metallic *clink* as the door behind you locks shut. You’re trapped.

A red glow appears in the cracks of the swinging doorway, and a mechanistic CHEFBOT 2000 kicks his way through the doors armed with a flamethrower at his back, a massive meat tenderizer in his left hand and a sharp chef’s knife in his right. Smoke pours from atop his tall chef’s hat.

The heat emanating from him is immense, and the smoke billowing from his hat is filling the room, sure to suffocate you and your friends if you don’t do something.

Let’s make sure you have kick-ass knife skills to defend yourself!

Knife Skills Quest: Begin

clry2

CHEF beckons you to the prep table in the center of the room.

You feel your skin begin to burn ever so slightly as you stand across the prep table from him. He challenges you to a knife skills duel: a battle of  skill, precision, and accuracy.  You reach inside your pack and pull out a wooden cutting board and place it on the table. It begins to crackle and burn slowly – you better get this over with fast.

Strapped to your leg are your weapons of choice – 2 sharp knives: a paring knife and a chef’s knife. CHEF snaps his fingers and a bowl of fresh vegetables and a prep sheet appear at your table. The prep sheet reads as follows:

  • 1 Cucumber – sliced
  • 1 Onion – diced
  • 1 Bellpepper – Julienned
  • 1 Clove Garlic – Minced

In order to defeat CHEF and unlock the doors out of the kitchen, you must successfully cut each of the things on the prep sheet with accuracy.

Have you practiced your knife skills lately? You damn well better hope so, pal.

Choose Your Weapon:

Stijn Nieuwendijk

  • Paring knife? A paring knife is a small knife (2.5-4in or 6-10cm long) for delicate work such as peeling, de-veining shrimp, removing seeds from peppers, and cutting garnishes.
  • Chef’s Knife? This is your all-purpose kitchen knife. It has a broad, heavier blade that is pointed at the end. It’s significantly longer than the paring knife (6-12 in or 15-30cm).

For this exercise, you choose the all-purpose chef’s knife.

3, 2, 1, GO!

Slice – Take your cucumber and place it across the cutting board. To slice any fruit or vegetable, line your knife up perpendicular to the vegetable or fruit and cut down, creating uniform sized slices.

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With a cylindrical item like a carrot, cucumber, or zucchini, this will create circles or medallions. Do your best to slice them into similar sizes – this way they cook at the same rate.

slice

Dice – Take your onion and chop off the top. Peel the skin from it and throw the skin away.

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Place your onion so that the sliced part from the top is facing you. Carefully cut the onion in half down the middle.

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Now you have a  flat surface to place on the cutting board. This will help you keep control of the onion and prevent it from rolling or slipping as you dice it. Safety first (even with the CHEFBOT breathing down your neck)!

Now make several incisions along the top of the onion with the knife perpendicular to the top of the onion that you chopped off. Make sure when you’re making these slices that you’re cutting ALMOST all the way through to the end. The word almost is important here, people.

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Keeping the onion whole at the butt-end will make dicing much easier and will give you something steady to grip when you make your next cuts. Now your onion is pre-diced.

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Place your onion on the cutting board (with the top of the onion that you already chopped off at the beginning) parallel with your knife. Turn the onion 90 degrees and make uniform slices starting at the end of the onion that you already cut off.

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Slice as uniformly as possible.  As you slice the onion, the bits you’re slicing off will be diced. Fancy!

Julienne – “Julienne” is a fancy word that means cut into long, thin strips. You can do this with bell peppers, carrots, potatoes, etc. First cut off the top and the bottom of the pepper. Remove the insides.

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Then cut the pepper into rectangle-shaped quarters.

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Now you’ll have smaller, relatively flat pieces of pepper to work with instead of a round pepper. This is safer and easier. Take each quarter of your pepper and make thin slices of it – again, you’ll want to do your best to make them uniform in size.

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The more you practice, the easier this becomes.

Mince – “Mince” is a fancy word for “cut up super duper small.” It is done for more aromatic or flavorful ingredients like garlic or ginger. When mincing garlic, you’ll first you’ll want to pull your cloves from the bulb. The bulb is the big guy. The cloves are the small pods that make up the entire bulb.

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Next, you’ll want to peel them. To do this easily, take each clove separately and smash between the broad, flat side of your knife and the cutting board. Push them flat so that the skin cracks and begins to pull away from the flesh of the clove. You can now more easily pull the skin from the bulb.

garlic smash

Now you’ll roughly chop the cloves (uniformity isn’t necessary here) until you’ve chopped them into tiny little pieces.

Usually I start at one end and work my way to the other – similar to slicing the cucumber.

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Then gather all those little garlic bits into a pile, place your hand over the top of the knife, and chop in a back and forth, rocking motion over the pieces of garlic, making them extra small.

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Victory!

Jenn and Tony Bot

You finish your cuts, sweat dripping from your brow. Behind you, the rest of your party quietly cheers you on, but they’re coughing from the charcoal smoke and ash in the air. You present your cutting board to CHEF. He stares at it quietly, his robot brain calculating the accuracy of your cuts. As the gears in his head turn, you cooly clean your blade and place it back in it’s holster at your side.

The light above the door changes from red to green as you hear the metal *clink* and the door is unlocked. CHEF steps aside. You have passed the knife skills challenge and are free to go. Covered in soot and coughing from ash, you and your party pass by the robotic CHEF ever so carefully. On to the next room of the dungeon!

tmib_seattle

knowing is half the battle!

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You now have four basic cuts that you can practice and use in your every-day cooking. Consider this a skill formally unlocked in your character.

Remember that as you practice your cuts, they don’t have to be 100% accurate – and they won’t be if you’re just starting out! That’s totally okay!

Unless you’re working in a professional kitchen, your techniques don’t have to be perfect, but knowing what a recipe means when it says “3 carrots, julienned” without having to look up what “julienned” means gets you one step closer to making that dish.

Eliminating even the tiniest steps between you and your food (and keeping you safe) is the goal here.

And let’s be honest, if cutting an onion this way feels like too much work at first, don’t do it that way! If your mother taught you something different and you prefer that, do it her way. There’s more than one way to slice and dice!  Don’t let doing it the “right” way or feeling like you do something “wrong” stop you completely from getting in the kitchen.

Your slices and dices don’t have to be perfect, but now you’ll be able to confidently cut up some veggies when you’re helping out at Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe you’ll be able to show off some of your knife skills instead of being charged with setting the table and washing dishes!

  • What other skills would you like to learn?
  • Do you have other cuts that you would add to this list?
  • How do you do things differently?

Let us know in the comments!

-Noel

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Photos: Stijn Nieuwendijk: Kitchen Knives, ArshrAAm: Dungeon Kitchen 02, clry2: Bad Robot, Stijn Nieuwendijk: Eden Classic Damask, Jenn and Tony Bot: George Mendes Bot, tmib_seattle: Dungeon door

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  • Dan Schmidt

    Top post Noel, very helpful, I really need to stop using the same knife for everything.

    But as the resident Aussie, I feel this needs to be said:
    “That’s not a knife, THIS is a knife!”

  • Let’s not forget the best way to hold the knife, too! All the pictures are showing it: pinch the blade with your index finger and thumb. More control=better cuts! NO index finger along spine of blade. NO gripping handle like an axe.

  • Red Alasto

    Really Loved This Post, for all us Kitchen amateurs… no more randomly cutting the onions! 😀

  • Noel

    Thanks Dan!

  • Noel

    Yes! Very important. Thanks coming in a knife skills 102 post! 🙂 Great minds think alike!

  • Noel

    Glad it was helpful!

  • Becca Smithers

    Great article! I will never chop an onion the same way again!

  • Jim Williams

    Great article! I would definitely echo the need to show the proper way to hold the knife. I would also add the proper technique for holding the vegetables to be sliced (fingers curled under, knuckles as a guide for the knife). One technique I use regularly because I like fresh herbs and leafy vegetables, is chiffonade. Sounds fancy, but easy to learn!

    Keep up the good work!

  • Hinermad

    Thank you, thank you for showing me how to dice an onion! I’ve been doing it the hard way (slicing all the way through, then trying to wrangle the loose pieces through another series of cuts) for years.

    If I can make a request for a future adventure: seasonings? Following a recipe is fine (although some I’ve seen online were obviously never made, or at least tasted, by a human being), but sometimes I don’t have time to stop at the market and have to make a meal from what’s in the cupboard. Having the right spices up my sleeve would make meals like that less bland.

  • Vylotte

    EQ2! Looks like my carpentry workshop 🙂

  • Xavier Smith

    I’ve been lurking for almost as long as this site has been around. That being said I do have some thoughts. What is the most time effective way to sharpen knives? My mentor Bruno(r.i.p) said to sharpen at first thing in the morning and when you clocked out. Any thoughts on that?

  • MTangel

    Another very important point: make sure your knives are really sharp! One time I was helping dice potatoes using someone else’s knives. I thought the potatoes were soft – nope, turns out it’s actually easy to cut potatoes if your knife is sharp. None of the standing on tiptoe and bearing down with two hands that I was used to, just chop chop chop, easy to control. A sharp knife makes prep work a pleasant experience, very fast and easy. As long as you hold the veggie correctly, it’s also much safer because the knife is less likely to slip and cut your fingers.

  • Tony Langdon

    Great post. Knowing which knife to use and when is very helpful in food preparation.. I’m no gourmet chef, but I can prepare and cook food well enough to eat comfortably, but still picked up a good tip or two in this post. 🙂

  • rhiannion

    Thank You for the knife lessons, especially the onion(s). If a cucumber is going into a salad or sandwich and the skin is a little thick, I was taught to ‘score’ the side of the cucumber from one end to the other (or however much you are using) around the cucumber to ‘tenderize’ the skin. Also, looks ‘cool’ if you’re making a veggie tray.

  • rhiannion

    Oops. The ‘scoring’ of the cucumber is done with a fork.

  • Hayekian

    May I suggest you slice the onion in half, and then peel the outer layer by hand before dicing it?

  • Rhia

    I would you yo know how to tackle a Butternut Squash so I don’t keep buying the pre-prepared stuff!

  • Julian Rickards

    For peeling garlic, I take a 1 Qt/Litre mason jar with a lid, drop the garlic cloves into the jar, seal it, shake hard for about 10-15 seconds and take the peeled garlic out. Apparently, you can do this with a whole clove but I rarely have need for that much garlic.

  • Julian Rickards

    Yes, as MTangel said, a sharp knife is essential and as Jamie Oliver mentioned in a YT video, sharpen it before every use.

  • Hinermad

    Unless somebody else is using your knives after you clock out, sharpening them at the end of the day and again at the beginning of the next day seems unnecessary.

  • Kristin

    I would love to see a post on how to make tasty (paleo friendly) sauces.. I don’t love store bought stuff because of all the chemicals in there, but how can I make good marinades, flavor sauces, etc to mix in with veggies, meats, and things… sauces is a mystery to me.

  • Sam1234

    Really useful tips! Especially for the onion!

    For mincing garlic, I’ve actually started using a cheese grater. I find it to be less mess with the same outcome.

  • debby isaacs

    Thanks for the post, at the end when you said it would say in a recipe how to julienne an onion, i was like: “really, how?” it would be harder than ‘julienning’ a pepper, so I’d like to hear about that.

  • Jimmy Jam

    For doing the julienne on a pepper, you can skip the paring knife and the steps for cutting the top and bottoms off. Hold the pepper upright on your cutting board by the stem and simply cut down the side four times. You leave the stem and seeds in tact. See the picture for a visual aid. Then you julienne those four pieces.

    Another thing to note here is that once you have the julienne, you rotate the pile and run your knife through that and you have a dice of peppers as well.

  • charis_sophia

    THANK YOU!! I don’t need kitchen knife skills, but I need all the examples of converting things into quests I can get. This is a beautiful example that has already inspired me on two other issues.

  • A.Sobi

    If outside links are permitted here…I found this tutorial about a year ago, and it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. Tackling butternut squash is no problem for me now, and I’m totally addicted to the roasted seed snacks! 🙂
    http://toriavey.com/how-to/2012/10/all-about-butternut-squash-how-to-peel-seed-slice-and-prepare/

  • Jeff P

    On skinning the garlic cloves. My wife LOVES garlic, so I tend to use several cloves at a time for recipes. I have used the smash and peel method in the past, as it was how I first learned. While it doesn’t take much time, it feels like it when you have to do each one that way.

    I have found that I can do it faster by simply grabbing one end of the clove in each hand between thumb and index finger and just twist in opposite directions. this cracks the skin the same way, but just in one move and without smashing and getting garlic juice all over.

    As always, try new things, but ultimately do what works best for you.

  • Jennifer

    I used to chop garlic with a knife–until I got a microplane grater. Now I just grate it. So quick and easy.

  • I only came here to comment about the pin on the knife rack. Nice touch lol.

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  • Andrew Hammond

    Hone, not sharpen. The difference is that sharpening actively removes metal from the blade, whereas honing or truing, just straightens up the very edge of the blade. If you actually sharpen every day, you’ll grind away your knife pretty quickly.

  • Andrew Hammond

    This works really well, especially if you’re peeling a lot of garlic. Also, for a proper mince, you’ll need to add a pinch of coarse salt. The salt actually grinds up the garlic while you’re cutting it. Of course, you’ll get equally good results with a good garlic press (according to the blind tasting done by America’s Test Kitchen) with a _lot_ less work. I’ve tried a bunch of presses over the years and recommend the Kuhn Rikon. It does a great job and is extremely easy to clean.

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  • By the Left Lion

    Yes, it’s much easier to peel after cutting it half. If you only want half an onion diced it’s easier to keep the other half fresh if some of the skin remains.

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