Knife skills are one of the essential parts of the culinary arts.
In culinary school, holding a kitchen knife is taught very early in the course.
A Chef’s excellent knife skills can aid in improving the quality of the food. It helps by ensuring that cooking times are uniformed and food presentation is enhanced.
It takes years of practice to achieve adeptness when using sharp blades, and that trait distinguishes a beginner from a pro. Professional Chefs are proficient in this area, but if you are looking to hire a Chef or to assess the performance of your current kitchen staff, you need to be able to know what to look for.
Here’s how you can spot great knife skills in a Chef:
1. Wielding the knife
How a Chef holds a knife has two primary purposes: Safety and Speed
The proper grip of a knife ensures that a Chef holds the item they are cutting in a way that prevents them from cutting themselves. Holding and using a knife correctly also makes for efficiency. When a grip is secured, a Chef can quickly move the knife along faster, without hesitations.
There are different ways to hold a knife, also known as knife grip styles.
- Pinch Grip – Ideal for when using a Chef’s Knife doing precise chopping. The position of the index finger and the thumb are opposite each other on either side of the blade, as if pinching the blade. The remaining three fingers are curled around the handle. A Chef grips the knife mainly with the thumb and forefinger in a relaxed and loose hold. This method can allow fast cutting due to more control.
- Hammer Grip – Ideal for when using cleavers and choppers. This is perhaps the most instinctive grip since the hands naturally adopt this grip when cutting through tough and big items such as pumpkin. This grip is strong but does not have much control.
- Dagger Grip – Similar to the hammer grip, but the blade tip faces in the opposite direction. Butchers, fishers and hunters typically use this grip for when extra pressure is needed to break down carcasses.
- Point Grip – This is the grip that offers absolute precision from the knife. The forefinger is placed on the spine of the blade. Typically used by Sushi Chefs and understandably so. The blade must be kept sharp. Incidentally, this is also the grip a surgeon uses on a scalpel.
- Toward the Thumb Grip – All four fingers are wrapped around the handle. The thumb is used for pushing the ingredient onto it. This grip is typically used for narrow blades with small handles. Skill is needed to apply this technique and to cut items fast without cutting the fleshy part of the thumb.
While speed in cutting is vital for efficiency, not to mention impressive, it shouldn’t be prioritized over safety. We see celebrity Chefs effortlessly cutting and chopping in lightning speed without looking at the food. However, this skill is developed after years of careful practice. Not to mention that speed is awe-inspiring only if the food cuts are usable and uniformly done.
2. Securing the food
A Chef makes efficient use of both hands when cutting food. The dominant hand holds the knife and the other one serves as the guiding hand. The task of the guiding hand is to hold the food securely to prevent it from sliding around on the cutting board. Fingertips are tucked safely while firmly holding the food to keep them out of the way of the moving knife blade.
This grip is called Claw Grip, where the side of the knife blade rests against the first knuckle of the guiding hand. Another technique is called Alternate Claw Grip, where the blade rests against the second knuckle of the guiding hand. In either method, fingers are kept from harm’s way, which is what’s important.
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3. Application and Precision in cutting
Precision is the quality, condition, or fact of being exact and accurate. Excellent knife skills include execution of uniformed food cutting and knowing which cut works best for a dish.
Uniformity is essential for two reasons:
1. Even cooking: Pieces of food that are the same size and shape cook at the same rate. You need this predictability in the cooking time to achieve your target serving time.
2. Presentation: Uniformed sized pieces are pleasing to the eye. There is an impression that care is given to the preparation of food. Customers appreciate aesthetically pleasing food presentations and consider them extensions of the special service given to them. Remember, people eat with their eyes first.
The type of cuts is also factored in how a dish is ideally prepared. When cooking stocks, Chefs use large coarse cuts to reduce the chance of the food items breaking down. Ingredients that break down while cooking will cloud the stock.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the different knife cuts done during food preparation:
- Julienne (or Matchstick) – The Julienne is a stick-shaped cut and very thin. The cut measures approximately 1⁄8 by 1⁄8 by 1–2 inches (0.3 cm × 0.3 cm × 3 cm–5 cm).
- Brunoise dice – an additional step is done to the Julienne to create tiny squares. Sides measure approximately 1⁄8 inch (3 mm).
- The Small Dice – slightly larger than the Brunoise. Sides measure approximately 1⁄4 inch (5 mm).
- The Batonnet – achieved by squaring off the item and then slicing it to the desired thickness. Measures approximately 1⁄4 by 1⁄4 by 2–2 1⁄2 inches (0.6 cm × 0.6 cm × 5 cm–6 cm).
- The Medium Dice – achieved by slicing the batonnet to make cubes. Sides measure approximately 1⁄2 inch (13 mm).
- The Baton – achieved by making the largest stick-cut. Sides measure approximately 3⁄4 inch (20 mm).
- The Large Dice – achieved by doing a square following this dimension: 3/4 inch × 3/4 inch × 3/4 inch. Keep in mind that using this cut yields more waste as a result of achieving nicely cut pieces to square off the item.
- The Paysanne Cut – achieved by making the desired stick cut then cutting it thinly to make thin squares. Measures 1⁄2 by 1⁄2 by 1⁄8 inch (10 mm × 10 mm × 3 mm).
- The Chiffonade – achieved by stacking leafy vegetables or herbs then rolled into like a cigar share. Once rolled, it is sliced thinly to create ribbon-like cuts.
- Tournée Cut – achieved by using a tourne or bird’s beak knife. The vegetable is rotated in the hand as cuts are made. This movement is done to create an oblong with tapered ends similar to a football. This is an advanced cut that shows high-level skill and is considered a show stopper in food presentation. However, because of the effort to achieve the shape, this cut will yield more waste.
- Thin Cuts, Potato Chip Cuts – thinly sliced vegetables desired for quick cooking and marinating. This is achieved either by using a mandolin or by a skilled hand using a chef’s knife.
Some Chefs take a precision cutting to an entirely new level. Sushi Chefs are well known for this pristine Precision. Whether on meat, vegetables, fruits or dough, a knife’s blade in the hands of a skilled Chef can create intricate patterns and designs.
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4. Safety, respect and care for the knife
Chefs consider their knives as their master tool. And any tool such as knives kept in good condition and at the ready, can help in faster cooking. Any professional Chef knows that a sharp knife is a vital tool in achieving the desired outcome when cutting food.
Knives that are kept sharp, damage-free and rust-free, slices cleanly and effortlessly. They make for faster slicing, and the integrity of the meat or produce is somewhat retained when a sharp knife is used compared to using a dull one.
A dull knife, on the other hand, is a lazy tool. It doesn’t want to work, so it makes you work harder. That means using more pressure or harder chopping motion. If you look at the cutting edge of a dull knife under a microscope, you can see that it is round like a wire and very smooth. Because of the smoothness, there is no friction when it is drawn over the food. The low resistance can make the knife suddenly slip off the food and cut the fingers. And when people are used to using dull knives, they become accustomed to using more force than they should.
There is physics in cutting, and you can read Professor Mahadevan’s (applied physics researcher at Harvard University ) published paper on this subject.
Knife skills are fundamental to a professional Chef. Proper execution of knife skills ensures that there are fewer chances of knife injuries in your kitchen, that the food served is prepared fast and presented well.
That’s it for this week.
As always, Professional Chefs on Call at Anytime!
Ciao for now,