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Knife Skills

I've recently begun the study of using my cook's knife properly. Obviously, this takes practice. I'm not crazy about cutting up food that I'm not planning on using (seems wasteful). I'm wondering if anyone has any ideas for what I could use so I don't waste food?

Specifically, is there something I could cut that I could put back together and then try again? Dough, Playdough?



El Bandito

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  1. Just cut the foods you're planning to eat. Knife skills include knowing how to cut for specific dishes, because the types of cut may affect the cooking time, final consistency, and the final appearance of the dish. You won't get that from just cutting playdoh..

    Every ingredient will have different textures and shapes. Practicing on a lump of playdoh will make you an expert in cutting playdoh, not chicken, onions, carrots, or leeks.

    Finally, knowing how to hold an object while using a knife is half of the challenge. You learn that from actually cutting those objects. Again, there are some big differences between holding chicken, onions, carrots, and leeks.

    Good luck.

    1 Reply
    1. re: raytamsgv

      "Practicing on a lump of playdoh will make you an expert in cutting playdoh, not chicken, onions, carrots, or leeks."

      +1 Excellent advice raytamsgv.Use real food!

      Go slow and easy to start.Try curling your fingers like a claw,use a sharp knife.

      I'm sure there's some good YouTube videos out there

    2. I think Playdough could be a way to start if you have virtually no knife skills. There's no reason why you couldn't use it to practice holding a knife, guarding your fingers, leaning how to cut/slide rather than cutting straight down. I think you have a good idea there; it certainly couldn't hurt. (An aside. When I needed to learn how to use a computer many decades ago, I was very timid because my job was writing and I was always afraid of losing something, not making deadline etc. My "teacher" told me to spend a weekend just writing to learn, without worrying about losing it etc. That worked for me and I think playdough would give you that same no worries about wasting food, not getting the meal cooked on time etc.)

      1. Make some vegetable soup, or a salad (or some pickles) featuring a lot of julienned vegetables. Lots of practice, and even if they don't look perfect, it'll still taste good. Or, volunteer at a local soup kitchen or other organization that makes food for people. You can get your practice and help others at the same time.

        My other advice is to go slowly at first. Focus on accuracy, and speed will come later. I am not really a fan of class learning, even for practical subjects, but I also really found that taking a short knife skills course was really helpful -- having someone guide my hand through the motion helped me understand how the movement should feel in a way that reading books or watching videos never did.

        1 Reply
        1. re: will47

          "Make some vegetable soup, or a salad (or some pickles) featuring a lot of julienned vegetables"

          I tell people who are practicing to do this all the time. If you make a potato soup or mashed potatoes you can get a lot of practice for pennies if you practice with potatoes. Peel the potatoes with a knife, then julienne, then brunoise etc...You can buy a 50# box of potatoes wholesale for less than $20.

        2. If you're a real beginner, I could see something like playdough being good for basic technique. Make an inch-thick, long roll of playdough (think carrot shaped) and work on cutting with a smooth push cutting or rock chopping technique while effectively controlling thickness of the cuts with your off-hand (held in the claw shape). A very basic video:
          Note- you're best off with the side of the knife resting against your knuckles as a kind of guide - the video doesn't really show this.

          For a brunoise, a dice, a julienne, batonnets - you're better off practicing with real foodstuffs. Find excuses to make things that require interesting knife cuts. For things like mirepoix, you can use whatever cut you want to practice. Also, your knife doesn't care if food is past its prime or discolored. Rather than just throwing food out, find an excuse to cut it up first. You also may be able to get produce from your local supermarket past its prime if you ask around - it's cheap, makes good practice, and would just get thrown out otherwise.

          Keep in mind that a lot of knife techniques are specific to what you're cutting. You'll need to practice with the correct ingredient to work on:
          - Dicing an onion efficiently or mincing a shallot
          - Cutting rounds of a large vegetable like a potato
          - Filleting a fish (different fish fillet differently, also
          )- Breaking down a chicken
          - Trimming silverskin from meat, or most types of butchery
          - Cutting corn off a cob
          - Cutting herbs into a nice chiffonade
          - Dicing a mango
          - Skinning an apple (with a paring knife)
          - Filleting a whole pepper in one smooth cut

          There are plenty of other examples. Cutting chives isn't quite the same as cutting green onions which is far different from cutting a potato. The point is that people who are good at using knives do two things
          1) they look for new techniques to learn and practice
          2) they cut a lot of stuff (this is easier for a professional)

          You're off to a good start, as I haven't seen too many people willing to practice beyond what they need for dinner.

          I know you didn't ask, but I will leave you with this advice - make sure your knife is sharp, that you have a way of sharpening it regularly (either yourself or a trusted pro). It really makes a huge difference in terms of how efficiently you can use it and also how much fun you have.

          3 Replies
          1. re: cowboyardee

            Norman Weinstein video does not really show the techniques in cutting playdough. I would suggest this one. Several techniques were demonstrated: the high and low techniques, the fast back and forth slicing techniques, food transfer using knife technique. ...etc:


            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              That kid is a natural. Gives me a few ideas to try out with baby cowb in a little while.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                "Gives me a few ideas to try out with baby cowb"

                :) These are the initiation of manhood. A plastic knife and playdough.

          2. Which knives do you have that you want to develop skills using?

            1. I agree. It seems very wasteful. That said, I am guilty of it at times. I find cutting up onions is a good one. Onions really teach me many of the cutting technique. More importantly, I can almost always add half an onion to any dish. Of course, lettuce is a good one too. Ultimately, I would just cut something which you think you will use. I won't use playdough. If anything, you can test it against air. Just going through the cutting motion without really cutting something. I don't think the playdough will help.

              1. I'm with those that recommend practicing on real food. I have found that my knife skills have gotten better as I have continued to use my largish chef's knife, and I am amazed at how it has become an extension of my hand. This comes with practice, and you get practice by chopping a lot of stuff. If you are preparing a dish for yourself or family, it doesn't matter if the food has not been chopped to perfection. You get better as you keep cooking. It is helpful to own a really good chef's knife though.

                1. Thank you to all for the responses.

                  1. I second those who suggest you work with real foods, and maybe keep an eye out for recipes that involve lots of cutting. Stir fries, for example. Also veggie-intensive soups and even vegetable dip platters.

                    Also, I strongly encourage you to keep your knives sharp--use a honing steel every time and get the knives sharpened somehow as needed.

                    Especially when I was starting off, I would let my knives get pretty dull. It became routine for me to cut myself within a day or two of getting my knives resharpened, because I'd grown accustomed to their previous slow and dull ways. That shows that cutting technique will actually be different, depending on how sharp your knives are. For consistency and speed, keep 'em sharp!

                    1. I would brunoise carrots, celery, and onions into a mirepoix (that's nearly my entire French vocabulary) and make soup, cassoulet, or a bolognese (or a myriad of other recipes).

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: John E.

                        Exactly my thought as well. In addition to the brunoise, other size cuts could be done as well. A big thing is learning to plank, then Julienne then dice with an array of vegetables. Blocking vegetables for clean presentation is also good to do. Not only does it result in a better looking dice it also stabilizes the vegetable so it's not rolling around on you while you try to cut planks. One should also practice roll cuts and other shapes like diamond cuts.

                        If you can't use the vegetables right away you can freeze them for later use in soup as John E. suggested

                      2. You'll find a way to practice; look for stews and vegetable stir frys and such that involve a lot of cutting. For my two cents worth; like anything else you do physically, you need to find balance; unfortunately, it's hard to say what it consists of until you find it, but you should never feel like you're leaning or reaching.. It's mostly important to start with the proper techniques, not really an intimidating array; concentrate on that first, then on the accuracy of the cuts, and last on the speed, which is largely a product of the first two and takes care of itself.

                        1. I found this Alton Brown demo. helpful. Somewhat of an infomercial for Shun, but focuses on knife skills.


                          1. Lots of good advice already, so I won't repeat any of it.

                            But one thing I don't think people have mentioned is practicing on vegetable and fruit scraps.

                            Say, you peel a carrot or take off the hard outer skin of broccoli stalks, or peel an apple, etc.

                            Save those scraps and use them to sharpen your knife skills.

                            For example, save enough carrot skins and you can stack them and practice making matchstick sized cuts, etc.

                            Good luck.

                            1. Hi, e b:

                              Best way to learn is on food. Best way to not waste food is to learn it right starting the first time. You might try Peter Hertzmann's Knife Skills Illustrated.

                              Or plan on making mushroom or onion soups a lot until you get enough confidence. Bags of onions are pretty inexpensive.


                              1. So, EB, are you cutting playdough? or veggies? these days. What knife are you practicing with?

                                1. i often tell students or acquaintances who want to "sharpen" their knife skills to practice on button mushrooms first. this is good because:

                                  1) their home knives are probably dull, but the person probably thinks they are sharp-- so the soft texture of the button mushroom can be cut and the skills developed without developing bad habits related to trying to get a dull knife to cut through, say, a parsnip or something

                                  2) ambidexterity and agility in the *off* hand is improved, in folks who have one very dominant tool-hand, because the off hand needs to grasp and manipulate many small mushrooms in succession

                                  3) button mushrooms are relatively cheap, you can cook a great quantity of them down into a manageable recipe, or at a last ditch you can cook them down in oil or butter (perhaps practicing saute technique) and freeze for the future.

                                  after you've demolished many button mushrooms, move on to other vegetables. get vegetarian or "world cuisine" cookbooks out of the library and look for delicious-looking recipes that have a lot of prep involved. this can be really fun!

                                  bear in mind 2 things: a home cook will just not achieve yan/pepin knife skills. the skills come from practice, and processing an enormous amount of food in a restaurant setting. there isn't any way around it, no matter how you go to town on the playdough. shoot for serviceable technique. also, don't try to cut super-fast right off the bat-- you will injure yourself and learn bad habits that will slow you down over time doing this. focus on correct technique, going slowly at first, working on muscle memory. as you become more proficient, your speed will come. this is a lot like learning how to play a musical instrument, or touch-typing, or any other manual skill.