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Do you value knife-skills?

ipsedixit Feb 22, 2011 01:19 PM

I grew up learning how to cook and, more importantly, how to prep without gadgets.

If I needed to shred cabbage, it was cutting board and knife. Same with julienning veggies, dicing or mincing garlic, ginger, onions, etc.

That's what my mom demanded, at home and even at the restaurant.

Fast forward to present day and now I've come to sort of a fork in the road dilemma. I've agreed to take up the task of teaching how to cook with my newphew.

And while my uncle's kitchen has all the gadgets to slice and dice -- from the food processor to the garlic mincer to the French mandoline -- I can't help but try and impart on the kid how important it is to be able to wield a knife and shred carrots without giving yourself an unintended (and bloody) manicure.

Do you still value knife-skills? Or do you simply think it is better to roll with the times and rely on cooking apps?

Call me a Luddite, but I think knife-skills are not only a dying art, but an important one ... if for the aesthetics and nothing else.

  1. c oliver Feb 22, 2011 01:37 PM

    I can tell that your knife skills are better than mine but I also think it's important and, IMO, aesthetics have little to do with it. I have a fair number of 'toys' in my kitchen but my knife is the most used. I'm not going to use a food processor for small amounts or for things that I want very precisely sliced or chopped. I would consider it un-Chow-ish to turn to gadgets too often :)

    1. chefathome Feb 22, 2011 01:39 PM

      Good knife skills are important to me for several reasons - mainly safety, of course. Secondly, for ease and speed of preparation. Thirdly, it is a very useful skill to know. One can never learn too much about cooking!

      9 Replies
      1. re: chefathome
        ipsedixit Feb 22, 2011 01:47 PM

        c oliver and chefathome,

        While I totally agree with both of you, what do you say to those (incl. my nephew) that "it is simply easier to use [insert gadget]?

        If I'm teaching him how to make carrot cake, it's hard to convince him that it is "not easier" to use a food processor to shred the carrots. It certainly is to some extent easier for me to julienne the carrots my knife and hand, but for him ... not so much.

        And truth be told, it takes time and patience -- for both parties (him and me) -- to teach proper knife skills.

        1. re: ipsedixit
          MVNYC Feb 22, 2011 02:00 PM

          It is easier to use a knife. You only have the board and the knife to clean afterwards.

          1. re: ipsedixit
            c oliver Feb 22, 2011 02:29 PM

            Don't make carrot cake :) But serioiusly, how can one not use a knife? When we have lox, bagels and the accoutrement, I cut the tiniest little pieces of red onion, all pretty much the same size. When I need to chop an onion, I'm not going to haul out the FP. The size won't be uniform and I'll have to clean the FP. When I make a 4X or 5X batch of Bolognese sauce I use the FP for the carrots because I have weak hands and it's really hard for me to chop that many. But I have to be careful not to puree the dang things. So then I'm chopping some by hand anyway.

            1. re: c oliver
              sunshine842 Feb 23, 2011 03:27 AM

              I was gonna say -using the FP is easier as long as you're not the one who has to clean it....

              Knife skills all the way.

              I have owned a mandoline...and got rid of it because it took up space and never got used.

              I have owned several food processors -- my giant Cuisinart was sent packing because it took up space, weighed a ton, and never got used.

              The fp attachment that goes on my Oster blender gets used about once a year, if that. I own a grater, but use it mostly for cheese (I NEVER grate cabbage with a grater) and the once or twice a year I make carrot cake.

              But my knives? I use my knives every single day and would be seriously hampered in the kitchen if I didn't have them.

              1. re: sunshine842
                c oliver Feb 23, 2011 06:32 AM

                I use my mandoline (still scares the bejesus out of me!) for thinly sliced, uniform potatoes as I don't manage that very well with a knife. FP gets used two to four times a month. Grater for cheese. And I don't make carrot cake :)

                1. re: c oliver
                  m
                  mandycat Feb 23, 2011 07:05 AM

                  I have small scar on one finger that still throbs when the weather changes. My husband found me at the kitchen island weeping and bleeding and, after he bandaged me up, put the the mandolin in the Goodwill pile (carefully boxed and labeled). I haven't been able to pass one of those gadgets in the kitchenware department since without cringing. There's a reason why some people call them "guillotines."

                  1. re: mandycat
                    Jay F Feb 23, 2011 07:56 AM

                    That's why I never could use a mandoline. First time I tried to use one, I *knew*...

            2. re: ipsedixit
              JuniorBalloon Feb 22, 2011 02:34 PM

              I really enjoy using a knife and use it to do all that stuff and rarely break out the gadgets. Mostly because they are a pain to wash up. Maybe he will hate doing dishes more than using the knife.

              I was going to post a thread and ask how often people cut themselves as it had been several years since I got a finger in the wrong place and of course last night I knicked my index finger.

              jb

              1. re: JuniorBalloon
                sunshine842 Feb 23, 2011 03:28 AM

                that's the good/bad side of mad knife skills -- when you've gotten good with a knife (and have learned to keep your knives very sharp), you very rarely cut yourself.

                But when you do, it'll be a doozy.

          2. scubadoo97 Feb 22, 2011 01:58 PM

            I view them pretty high. I also shred cabbage and other vegetables with my knife and rarely use a grater, mandoline or food processor to chop, slice or shred. A gadget sure makes things go faster but what if you are in a pinch and didn't have your trusty gadget. Basic knife skill will get you where you need to go with minimal gadgetry.

            1. p
              pine time Feb 22, 2011 02:07 PM

              I hold knife skills in high esteem, but I must admit that I don't have any knife skills. My scared fingers are testement to that.

              1. r
                Reposado Feb 22, 2011 02:07 PM

                Good, or decent at least, knife skills are essential to enjoying the cooking process, imo. And a sharp knife on a good cutting board is also the most efficient means of prepping a variety of products. If your nephew doubts that, sit down with him and watch an old episode or two of Jacques Pepin breezing through his prep work. In small or medium quantities, nothing is faster. There certainly is a place for food processors and mandolines, but in more of a support, not primary, role.

                1. hambone Feb 22, 2011 02:08 PM

                  You are 100% right.

                  But let him learn that. Don't make it a contest or a battle of wills. Teach him by doing half yourself and being done first. There is no better lesson than the one we figure out for ourselves.

                  1. raytamsgv Feb 22, 2011 02:20 PM

                    I'm with you. Good knife-handling skills are indispensable. The gadgets are nice, but they aren't adjustable. For example, I will mince garlic according to how long I plan to cook it so I don't burn it. A garlic press results in just one size. The same is true for cutting veggies and meats to the right size and surface area so they can cook correctly in stir-fry.

                    Good knife skills are essential for proper removal of meat from bones. It's a lot cheaper to buy a whole chicken or even regular chicken breasts than to buy that boneless, skinless stuff.

                    Good knife-handling skills are vital to make your dish look good. Badly cut veggies or meat look pathetic and unappetizing.

                    It's also just a lot cheaper to buy a couple of good knives and a cutting board as opposed to kitchen gadgets.

                    I've only taught two other people (adults) to cook, and most of the lessons involved knife skills and/or selecting the freshest ingredients. Once you have those two, everything else is easy.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: raytamsgv
                      K K Feb 22, 2011 02:29 PM

                      +1.... even though I am extremely amateur in the kitchen.

                      And good knife skills will create superb textures to the bite, whether it be perfecting slices, or using those cleaver or Chinese veggie knives to chop meat into tender submission...where you could double fist cleavers to drum beat the hell out of the meat (followed by what I call hand or clawing and downward tossing skills afterwards, as exhibited by classical preps of Cantonese steamed pork patties, again something that a machine will not accomplish).

                      This is also why numerous traditional/classical/old school receipes are dying, that rely heavily on labor intensive preps (particularly knife skills). Everyone just wants to make 30 min meals or less and take short cuts.

                    2. chefj Feb 22, 2011 02:30 PM

                      When I was training my Chef made me learn to do EVERYthing with out the aid of electricity or gadgets. And although I cursed him then I have thanked him ever since.
                      Having those skills are a great boon to me especially in a home kitchen where I am dealing with small quantities. Also it gives that starting point to know how things should be when done correctly.
                      You can not Batonnet, Dice, Brunoise etc...... with a machine any way. The way that you obtain the dexterity to do precise cuts is by using your knife for the basics and becoming comfortable with it.

                      1. onceadaylily Feb 22, 2011 02:31 PM

                        I really do place a high value on that skill, and I admire anyone who can do it well. I've had a mandoline for over a year, and have used it exactly once. It felt far more like a chore to me than slicing by hand. I rarely used the attachments on my food processor, mainly because it is messier to use, and gives chunkier pieces than what I usually am looking for.

                        That said, my knife-skills are not very good; the only kitchen skill my mother taught me was how to do the dishes. It takes me close to a full minute to chop a large onion, and I lack uniformity. But I *enjoy* doing it. I find the portion of the meal prep spent over the cutting board to be the most peaceful and grounding aspect of the process. And if the power goes out, I (with my gas stove) don't ever see that as being a burden to getting a meal together.

                        If your nephew isn't yet impressed with either the importance of the skill or the sense that he is being tutored in the familial tradition, you can't force him. But he may still come around, someday. Sometimes, with new cooks, the *meal* comes first, and the other stuff gains importance later.

                        1. Caroline1 Feb 22, 2011 02:32 PM

                          I'll open by saying I have all of the "gadgets." Cuisineart. Kitchenaid. Microplane. Blender. And with the sole exception of the Microplane, NONE of them work during a power failure! Or on a camping trip. Or at the beach without one hell of a long extension cord. But my chef's knives work under all circumstances. When I want to prepare an elegant and perfect dish, all cutting must be done by hand, from mincing meat to julienne to peeling potatoes or fluting mushrooms. (Why have I never come across the ultimate mono-task kitchen gadget, an electric mushroom fluter? Even Alton Brown would buy one. Somebody is missing out on a cash cow here!) Yeah, I can julienne in my Cuisinart, but it produces curved "matchsticks," and who needs bent? No elegance there! Just tell your nephew that REAL men use knives. '-)

                          And real women too.

                          1. steve h. Feb 22, 2011 02:41 PM

                            I'm still working on my knife skills. Over the years, I learned that good knife skills absolutely require sharp knives. You can't separate the two.

                            1. Jay F Feb 22, 2011 02:50 PM

                              Tell your nephew he needs to learn first to do with a knife whatever he thinks the Cuisinart does faster and/or more easily. If he tries it, he may like it. And how else can he compare? It's Cooking 101.

                              I've had a Cuisinart for exactly as long as I've had good knives. I learned to do both simultaneously, more or less. I've done all the knife-y things you can do in a Cuisinart, and there's not one I wouldn't rather do with a good, sharp knife.

                              Is he actually *resisting* using knives? If so, maybe he isn't someone who wants to learn to cook. I have a friend who's afraid of the sharp edges of knives, the way someone might be afraid of bugs or snakes. He basically eats out, buy pre-made stuff at the store, or orders in. He will not use a knife. If your nephew is like this, it might be a lost cause.

                              Good luck.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Jay F
                                ipsedixit Feb 22, 2011 05:45 PM

                                Thanks for your concerns, but my issue isn't so much with trying to convince my nephew to adopt using a knife or to convert him from gadget to manual labor. If he wants to be a "cooking app" extraordinaire, then so be it and more power to him.

                                It's just that his attitude took me a bit off guard, and it got me to thinking whether I was alone out here ... in thinking that there's something special and unique to using a knife.

                              2. cowboyardee Feb 22, 2011 03:22 PM

                                I think knife skills are important. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who's read my posts on the cookware board. I don't own a mandoline, use my food processor once in a blue moon, and wouldn't use the slap chop as a paper weight.

                                People have already listed many of the reasons - using a knife is often more efficient than the alternatives once you're handy with one, less clean up, works in more settings, can do things the machines can't (uniform brunoise, tourne, supremes of citrus, filleting and boning fish and meat, complex decorative shapes, etc).

                                But another one I feel strongly about is that using a knife makes you more mindful in your cooking. Cutting into a potato with a knife allows you to consider the end product as not only one of whatever limited options your mandoline, food processor, and slap chop offer you. The potato can be whatever your meal needs it to be, to the best of your ability. Yeah, it might be a pain in the butt to have to worry about the evenness of your cuts so that your food cooks evenly, but in the end, that kind of concern is what makes you a better cook. Cooking well is about the little decisions and touches, and relying heavily on the machinery takes some of those decisions away from the cook.

                                On the other hand, I've known quite a few excellent cooks with poor knife skills. My mother for one. She never relied on machines much, but even so her knife skills never got beyond middling, in large part because she never had a knife that was halfway sharp. For most of her life, she used serrated knives for everything. And the woman can cook. I can prep a lot more than she can in the same time frame, but that's not the be all and end all of cooking. I'd bet a lot of good home cooks are inefficient and sometimes sloppy with knives, though I'd also bet that most of the really good home cooks still use their knives regularly, inefficient or not.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: cowboyardee
                                  Chemicalkinetics Feb 22, 2011 09:02 PM

                                  Agree. Knife skill is an important part of the cooking skill, though it is only part of it.

                                  Of course, knife sharpening skill is part of knife skill. :D

                                2. e
                                  escondido123 Feb 22, 2011 03:26 PM

                                  I haven't seen anyone discuss the meditative, call it almost "Zen" like experience of working with a good knife. When I make minestrone I kind of get into the zone doing all that prep--slice zucchini, chopped onions, shredded cabbage, smashed garlic and more. If I used the food processor there would be a lot of noise for a couple minutes and then everything would be done. Give me my chef's knife, an oversized wooden cutting board, a bowl for the bits to be thrown away and I'm happy to spend the time--throw in a cooking show I can watch and it's wonderful. (When I go to other peoples' houses to cook, I tend to take along my knife.)

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: escondido123
                                    ipsedixit Feb 22, 2011 05:43 PM

                                    Indeed there is a Zen-like quality to cutting veggies. You get sort of in a rhythmic trance almost. It's quite relaxing.

                                    1. re: ipsedixit
                                      c oliver Feb 22, 2011 05:53 PM

                                      I haven't gotten quite that far (yet) but I do derive disproportionately large pleasure when looking down at some perfectly chopped/diced/minced 'stuff.'

                                  2. greygarious Feb 22, 2011 03:40 PM

                                    It seems to me that today's PBS cooking show stars (I don't have cable) with the best knife skills are also the ones with the best recipes and tips to impart to the audience. But watch Julia Child - she was rather ham-handed with a knife and it didn't affect her abilities. In her heyday, the only mandolines available were very expensive imports. When she used one she'd explain that they cost $150 (if memory serves) and she certainly didn't expect her viewers to have one. Today a good one can be had for under $30. I use mine a lot and don't think it makes me a less accomplished cook. Ditto the food processor. Yes, I could do these things by hand but I could also do my laundry on a washboard. What would that accomplish? Knife skills like filleting, de-boning, and artistic garnishing will never be obsolete but I wouldn't award any gold stars for hand-slicing carrots. People unfamiliar with their history are always surprised that the Shakers were quick to adopt modern conveniences as these became available. Before the last two Shakers who lived at Canterbury NH's Shaker Village passed away, they used a microwave oven. Shakers invented many labor-saving gadgets. Their reasoning was that saving time on chores allowed them more time for prayer. My motives are not as lofty, but I see no reason to spend a long time doing something that can be done as well and faster with different equipment.

                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: greygarious
                                      e
                                      escondido123 Feb 22, 2011 03:55 PM

                                      I guess it's like painting with a sprayer rather than a brush. I like to enjoy the process so for me it's not about saving time since it is a task I actually enjoy--painting and cutting.

                                      1. re: greygarious
                                        scubadoo97 Feb 22, 2011 05:53 PM

                                        You can not Batonnet, Julienne, Dice or do a fine Brunoise with a food processor. Sure Batonnet can be accomplished with a Slap chop and Julienne can be done with a Julienne peeler but a good dice or Brunoise is only going to come from good knife skills. Good knife skills can improve the overall appearance of your final dish. It may not taste any better with your eyes closed but I guarantee that the fish salad I made this evening looks better than most I've seen even in a restaurant due to the detailed knife work in preparing the vegetables for the salad.

                                        1. re: scubadoo97
                                          ipsedixit Feb 22, 2011 06:20 PM

                                          Bingo.

                                          1. re: scubadoo97
                                            c oliver Feb 22, 2011 06:27 PM

                                            The visual part is huge IMO.

                                            1. re: scubadoo97
                                              e
                                              escondido123 Feb 22, 2011 07:18 PM

                                              And that's all part of enjoying what you are doing which creates a nicer product.

                                          2. PBSF Feb 22, 2011 03:50 PM

                                            I have never met a good cook that doesn't have good knife skills. There are also gadgets that can help make cooking easier.

                                            1. f
                                              Frobisher Feb 22, 2011 04:29 PM

                                              I was with you up to the shredding carrots. There are some tasks that are better suited to a gadget. For example, food processors are wonderful for shredding carrots, cheese and making pie dough. They are far far more efficient than doing it by hand and produce as good an end result.

                                              So if learning how to shred carrots teaches you great knife skills that have other applications than great, but if the point of learning how to shred a carrot with a knife is to learn how to shred a carrot than I'll call you a Luddite (though hopefully you don't go around destroying other people's food processors).

                                              1. w
                                                wallyz Feb 22, 2011 09:17 PM

                                                Ipsedixit-
                                                I would look at him intently and say "I am going tot each you how to cook, not how to screw around in someone else's kitchen. For the next two decades, you will not be able to afford half this stuff in here, You will have to do it with a knife, a cutting board and a pan. Learn my way, and be prepared. Learn with these crutches, and you will never cook well."

                                                This kid needs to learn knife skills.

                                                1. Hank Hanover Feb 23, 2011 03:03 AM

                                                  Use a timer and take an onion and dice it with your knife, put the diced onions in a cup and wash off your knife. Then time using a food processor, take it out and put it in a cup and clean the food processor. If you have any knife skills at all, you can beat the food processor.

                                                  Most of my chopping needs are for mirepoix. I can simply do it faster with a knife. I have a mandoline but I seldom drag it out. Uniform slices would have to be very important in the dish for me to do so.

                                                  If you show him how to chop an onion and then make him chop 3 or 4, he will be able to chop an onion as fast as anybody else. It takes what?... 30 - 60 seconds?

                                                  Make him clean that food processor then see if he wants to use it.

                                                  1. chef chicklet Feb 23, 2011 07:33 AM

                                                    I have a few gadgets that definitely help me but I don't rely on them for anything but saving time on vegetables that don't really get seen, and cheeses that are going to melt so sure, I'll take their help.

                                                    I don't mind cutting vegetables, I find it theraputic and necessary for even cooking and for getting all things to turn out nice without part of it being mushy. It also has to do with demands I put on myself keeping things neat and looking good. I've always hated big hunks of potatoes or carrots that were all different sizes. I remember avoiding them whenever I was served them.

                                                    I depend on the mandoline when I can't get those nice super thin consistenly even slices of lemon or cucumber. Mainly because I truly can't slice that thin (1/8 or less") without taking forever and day. To make perfect julienned carrots or zucchini, is somethign to be admired. Yes, to answer your question, and if I had a nephew that really didn't see the value in good knife skills, I hand him a fish and ask him to filet it without out wrecking or wasting the fish.

                                                    1. f
                                                      Faraway11 Feb 23, 2011 10:38 AM

                                                      Teach him the knife skills.
                                                      I didn't see if you mentioned how old your nephew is, but if he living at home with his parents, eventually he might have to move out and won't have free access to all of the gadgets he's gotten used to using. And once he's on his own, he'll be solely responsible for all of the dishes created by using the helpful 9-pieces-to-wash gadgets.

                                                      Maybe he'll moan about using a knife now, but in the long run, it's the most useful gadget in the kitchen.

                                                      1. c oliver Feb 23, 2011 10:49 AM

                                                        I think if every 'lesson' includes actually cooking he'll come along and enjoy himself while learning also. A thread quite a while back had a post about taking someone shopping for ingredients and then coming home and preparing and eating. Carrot-stick principle can be highly effective with kids AND adults :)

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