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Jul 22, 2012 02:45 PM

Knife skills

General question. Using a chef's knife or gyuto...are chopping motions considered "good knife skills" among chefs? Or are people simply showing off by chopping vegetables as thinly and as quickly as they can (e.g. YouTube videos)? I've always used either a rocking of slicing motion. Never chopping.

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  1. Sort of a hard question to answer. There is nothing wrong with a rocking motion or a slicing motion. Straight up-and-down chopping is typically a bit faster and flashier, which is one reason you'll see it a lot on youtube when people are trying to show off their knife or their skills. It works best with certain knives (gyutos, santokus, knives that have a reasonable amount of straight edge section to work with) on certain ingredients (not too tall, long, fragile, fibrous, or hard), and certain cuts (usually thinner slices). Like rocking or slicing, it's a legitimate technique that is useful for some things and less useful for others.

    Having "good knife skills" is really just the sum of working on various techniques with your knives, and being comfortable and agile with those techniques. Rocking, slicing, chopping, push cutting, draw cuts, mincing, skinning and coring, filleting fish, boning out meat, breaking down poultry, decorative cuts, katsuramuki technique, and thousands of ingredient-specific techniques - they all apply. If you learn a single technique (such as fast. thin, straight up-and-down chopping) and that's all you're particularly comfortable with, you still have a lot you could go practice.

    1. Jacques Pépin chops vegetables with an up-and-down chopping motion using a paring or utility knife, and he's so practiced at it that he can do it at high speed while continuing to talk. He's not showing off, it's his technique. But you have to have a very sharp knife to do it, sharper than my knives usually are, and very good control of the hand holding the knife. Chopping with a chef's knife using a rocking motion, with the stroke away from you doing the cutting, as Alton Brown demonstrates it in his show on knives, is best for the likes of me.

      1 Reply
      1. re: John Francis

        The bottom line is you are processing foods and you use your knife to control the process. Some recipes call for different technique - mince, dice, slice thick, slice thin, square, julienne, chiffonade, etc. Same thing applies to proteins - how you break down a chicken, or prepare meats for a particular dish - these situations require a different technique perhaps a different knife for the job. All part of a skill set that you develop with practice over time.

        I was shown techniques by watching Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Martin Yan, Morimoto, etc, but I learned by practice - over and over and over for about 4-1/2 decades now. And I'm still learning.

      2. Good knife skills, to me, are about safety and efficiency. I like to pay close attention to selecting the the right knife for a given task and how to hold it (and the product being used) properly. Speed comes with time. I do love A. Brown's knife episode. Also, picking recipes with a ton of prep have helped me practice without wasting product. I love Michael Ruhlman's Weapons-Grade Ratatouille and French Fries for this. Great topic!


        1. Knife skills are the ability to produce the desired result using a safe and proper technique.

          Speed is relative to practice. Professional situations require speed, home cooking doesn't.

          Work at a pace where you can produce the desired result in a safe manor.

          26 Replies
          1. re: Brandon Nelson

            Honestly, I think speed offers a home cook almost as many advantages as it does a professional. When you're fast and efficient with a knife, you won't forgo components because you're short on time; you won't avoid cooking prep-heavy dishes when you're short on time; you won't burn, underseason, or otherwise botch one component of a dish because you were slowly fiddling around with a garnish or another component - that is, you can pay more attention to other aspects of your cooking.

            But there is a catch - while speed and efficiency with a knife is a boon to any cook, speed at the expense of accuracy or safety is a disadvantage. You shouldn't practice cutting faster; you should practice getting cutting techniques right, and that will make you faster over time.

            IMO home cooks usually have 4 disadvantages when learning to cut quickly and efficiently. Some can't be avoided, but others can. Generally:
            - Home cooks simply don't cut anywhere near as much stuff as a professional cook.
            - Home cooks aren't generally surrounded by other cooks from whom they can learn techniques like pros are. That said, there is a lot of good instruction and demonstration on the internet nowadays (as well as some bad instruction) - you just have to search it out.
            - Home cooks often don't have adequately sharp knives. If a straight-edged knife doesn't easily and cleanly cut a ripe tomato, it's not sharp enough to allow you to learn good knife technique.
            - Home cooks don't actively and purposefully practice different techniques. Some don't practice at all, just cutting 'freestyle' whenever they cook. Others learn the claw grip and rock chopping (which is admittedly useful and MUCH better than nothing) but then apply that to almost everything and never work on other cutting motions or techniques. Some just try to cut everything super fast but skip right over basic mechanics (which can be dangerous).

            1. re: cowboyardee

              When I was taking a CIA extension knife skills seminar one of my classmates was trying to be blazing fast and producing sloppy product.

              The instructor told him to slow down. "I pay my kitchen staff for their speed. I expect them to be practiced and fast. I want you to learn the technique. The speed will come with practice"

              Repetition is the mother of all skills.

              1. re: Brandon Nelson

                I'd say repetition is eventually what makes you fast, as long as you have solid technique in the first place. The instructor was right on.

              2. re: cowboyardee

                For a home cook, knife speed is not a practical issue. Trying to make prep-heavy dishes when you're short on time is not smart, and being able to chop an onion in 7 seconds rather than 32 doesn't make it any more doable, or make errors in preparation or cooking less likely. What such cooks need isn't better knife skills but better sense - planning the dish or meal to fit the available time, or planning to leave enough time to make a particular dish or meal. Or family and friends who are patient enough to wait until the food is ready. :-)

                Different home cooks have different degrees of physical dexterity, and no amount of practice will bring everybody up to Jacques Pépin speed safely. I don't think they should even try. Nobody will know when sitting down to your table how fast you sliced the carrots, nor will they care. What they will notice is whether you cut the carrots cleanly and evenly so that they cooked evenly. Precision, not speed, is what it's about, and when one of them has to give, it's not precision.

                1. re: John Francis

                  I disagree with basically every part of your post, except the last sentence. Why would being fast and agile preclude you from having a good sense of timing or planning or organization? Frankly, the people I know with good knife skills generally have much better timing and organizational skills in the kitchen than most other cooks do. Not because they have better knife skills (though it does make it easier to organize your prep when it doesn't take you 10 minutes to fine dice a single onion), but because they've very consciously put the work in to be good cooks and tend to identify their own weaknesses and address them.

                  The kitchen is like anywhere else - if you want to get good at something, you study and practice. It doesn't matter if you're a professional or not - I say that as a home cook myself.

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    I would further say the goal is not necessarily to get fast at cutting, just to practice and become more comfortable and safe with knives, The more you practice, the safer and better you will be able to cut. Increasing speed is just a byproduct of increasing your skill and knowledge through practice, as would the organizational skills.

                    I don't think anyone is saying practice cutting an onion in 7 seconds, they are saying practice cutting an onion so you can cut it in uniform size so it cooks more evenly and so you can cut it without sticking your fingers under the knife. The speed just comes naturally.

                    1. re: TeRReT

                      Agreed. The benefits of practice and sound technique include safety, precision, and speed. But you don't practice cutting faster - you practice cutting well and eventually you get faster.

                    2. re: cowboyardee

                      You haven't understood my post, but have got it the wrong way around. I summed up my view: In effect I said that if a cook tries to make prep-heavy dishes when short on time, what he needs isn't better knife skills but better planning. Do you disagree with that? Surely not. Then you don't disagree with me.

                      As for not taking 10 minutes to fine dice a single onion, that's just silly. But do you believe that taking 32 seconds rather than 7 to chop an onion is a big deal? Surely not.

                      TeRReT's post makes good sense, but BDD888's original post brought up the issue of speed, and deserves an answer. I've given it.

                      1. re: John Francis

                        "In effect I said that if a cook tries to make prep-heavy dishes when short on time, what he needs isn't better knife skills but better planning. Do you disagree with that? Surely not."
                        Yes, I disagree. If you're fast enough and efficient enough to make a prep heavy dish while short on time, what's wrong with that? It's only bad planning if you don't have the skills to pull it off.

                        10 minutes for an onion was an exaggeration, obviously. 10 seconds vs 30 seconds might not matter much if that's all the knife work you do for a dish, but it starts adding up when you have a meal that requires a little more than chopping up one onion. Thanksgiving sure gets easier, for one. More importantly, it changes the landscape of what you can pull off as any given 'weeknight meal.' Likewise, 10 minutes is not much of an exaggeration for how long it takes some people to, say. break down a chicken; someone with good knife skills can manage it in well under a minute. That's also significant and potentially provides ancillary benefit to everything else you're prepping and cooking.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          I think both of you have the respective points. Obviously, planning is very important. The knife skill, however, does make a difference. This compounds when the dishes require a lot of knife works. A dish centered around a T-bone steak isn't going to require a lot of knife work. Thus, better knife skill may not buy much. However, other dishes require more knife works.

                          Let's take two extreme cases. A Jamaican jerk pork requires very little knife skill, but a lot of marinating time and a lot of cook time. The ability to cut the green onion in 10 seconds vs 60 seconds isn't going to change the total cook time by more than 1%, despite a 6 fold difference. However, Yangzhou fried rice is the opposite. The food prep time can be longer than the food cook time. In such cases, the impact from knife skill can be very significant.

                          Of course, good planning is important.

                        2. re: John Francis

                          I agree with you. I've worked in a professional kitchen. The chef, an old guy with a lifetime of experience, was certainly efficient with his knife, but not crazy fast and not showing off like Martin Yan. When we were slammed, the cooks were always busy and working hard, but they managed because they were efficient, the kitchen was staffed to handle the peak load when necessary, and, especially, they wete prepared. There is not much time to be saved by knife technique, because most of the knife work is done ahead of time. The difference between ordinary professional competence with a knife and top-notch knife technique is not going to make much difference at the time of peak workload.

                          As for the difference between amateur knife technique and professional technique, which does make a difference, it's not that hard. I did some of the prep, and learned to whack up a head of lettuce for the salad in a few seconds with just one lesson.

                          1. re: GH1618

                            "The difference between ordinary professional competence with a knife and top-notch knife technique is not going to make much difference at the time of peak workload."
                            Two counterpoints:

                            - Talking about a professional kitchen, this is arguably a bit misleading. The bulk of the knife work done in most professional kitchens isn't done during service or while being slammed, but before service. While most professional chefs don't hold their subordinates to the highest Yan-like standards for knife skill, most would also step in with some advice (or a sharp word) if they see a new cook fumbling with a knife and clearly unpracticed - because it does hurt the business.

                            - The bigger difference, and the one that's probably more on-topic here, is the difference between ordinary professional knife skill (which a home cook can certainly acquire with practice) and the knife skills of the average home cook. This is a much bigger jump than the difference between excellent and ordinary professional knife skills, and can make a significant difference even in a home kitchen.

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              You seem to be restating what I wrote here. I wrote that most of the knife work is done in prep ahead of the peak cooking time. That's the point. I also wrote that the significant diffetence is between untrained amateur technique and any professional.

                              I never say one of the subordinate cooks "fumbling with a knife" when I worked in a restaurant.

                              1. re: GH1618

                                Random stagiaire story.

                                Handed a bird's beak to a new guy to trim mushrooms. I look over to check on him a few minutes later, he had blood running down his arm.

                                1. re: GH1618

                                  "I never say one of the subordinate cooks "fumbling with a knife" when I worked in a restaurant."
                                  There's probably a reason for that. Cooks who don't have and don't quickly develop a basic level of knife skill probably don't last long in the industry.

                                  "You seem to be restating what I wrote here."
                                  i might have misread you. But I don't really understand your basis for agreeing that knife skills are unimportant for home cooks if you agree on the gulf of skill between your average professional and your average home cook. Prep is easier and faster with half-decent knife skills whether you prep ahead of time or not.

                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                    I dif not write that knife skills are unimportant for home cooks. I agree with JF that precision is important, not speed, to which I would add efficient technique. Also I agree with JF that planning and preparation are the key when one is cramped for time, not speedy knife skills. Safety is paramount. Safety is largely a matter of correct technique and discipline. The safe speed comes naturally through practice, and should not be forced.

                                    1. re: GH1618

                                      Efficient technique + practice + good equipment = speed

                                      You guys keep on saying X, Y, and Z are more important than speed when really X, Y, and Z are completely and utterly beside the point. You can be fast and a master of X, Y, Z all at the same time. In fact, the same things that actually make you fast (practice, sound technique, etc) ALSO make you safer and more precise. These aren't opposing skill sets - they're skills that are developed together.

                                      Look at my first post on this subthread, back in July.

                                      1. re: cowboyardee

                                        Acquiring speed through learning proper technique and using it is not at all the same as making a deliberate effort to go faster under the mistaken notion that speed matters. It does not.

                                        1. re: GH1618

                                          "Acquiring speed through learning proper technique and using it is not at all the same as making a deliberate effort to go faster"
                                          OMG I think we agree...

                                          "...under the mistaken notion that speed matters. It does not."
                                          Damn. Nevermind.

                                        2. re: cowboyardee

                                          <Efficient technique + practice + good equipment = speed>

                                          +1.  I'm a home cook with no formal training.  My knife skills came from watching pro's and older cooking shows that stressed the importance of good knife skills.  At first, I just mimicked their techniques and through repetition, the mechanics of the motions became less forced and more second nature. I never set out to go fast, i just got faster as I became more proficient.

                                          Same thing happened to my friends ' kid. Several years ago, they were over for dinner and their teenage daughter insisted on helping out. After watching her hack and slash for a few moments, i showed her the pinch and claw technique.  She got it right away and within minutes just went faster.  

                          2. re: John Francis

                            I completely agree. Professional cooks will be faster than home cooks because they get a lot of practice and because they have a need to turn out a lot of product. A home cook should not be trying to emulate the speed of some tv cook who is showing off.

                            1. re: John Francis

                              Ignoring the development of technical skills and solely favoring a tactical skill set doesn't make you more proficient at any given task.

                              When I plan a meal I include less time for prep than my wife would for the same dishes. My knife skills are vastly more refined and practiced than hers. Handling a knife for hours every workday has produced that result.

                              Not everyone has the potential do to do knife work at the same speed as a pro. However, everyone can reduce prep time significantly with some practice.

                            2. re: cowboyardee

                              But even a person with "slow" knife skills can make prep-heavy dishes, they just have to do it all ahead. When I'm making a dish with many components, I get out the really big board, a discard bowl and two knives--the Chef's knife and the paring knife. As I prep, finished items go into nice piles on the back of the board and when it it time to actually cook it is all set. I have decent knife skills, but find that doing it fast makes the whole cooking process less enjoyable. To each his own.

                              1. re: escondido123

                                No one's forcing anyone to cut fast when they don't want to, especially when they're cooking without any time constraints in the first place. Likewise, I'll readily admit that there are excellent cooks out there who aren't especially fast or skilled with a knife - there are a lot of skills involved in cooking, and using a knife is just one subset.

                                I'm just saying that being able to cut fast (while still maintaining good technique and precision and safety) is an advantage. Kinda baffled that others would disagree, to be honest.

                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                  I agree that being able to cut fast is an advantage. I was just saying that there are ways to cook fast even if you prep slow. Best to you.

                          3. I would never chop with my chef's knife, although I do sometimes with my heavier Chinese knife.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: GH1618

                              I chop with a 9 inch gyuto that weighs under 150 grams (that's an extremely light and thin knife). Course, I wouldn't chop through bones or ice with it. But an onion or cucumber is fine. A chopping motion in itself doesn't imply a lot of force.

                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                True, but it does imply an extremely sharp knife. I know that some here are into ultrsharp Japanese knives. Nothing wrong with that, but most home cooks get by with less.

                                1. re: GH1618

                                  Fair enough. It is indeed much easier with a very sharp knife, and a thinner knife can help a bit as well. Though I have seen Western chef knives that are easily up to the task. Heck, I've often seen Pepin chop with a utility knife, cutting at the edge of the board so he doesn't bonk his knuckles.

                                  1. re: GH1618

                                    Are you implying that the pushing cutting (or here we call chopping) requires sharper knives than rock chopping?

                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      I don't understand your terminology. If I were going to chop rocks, I think I would need a heavy, but not particularly sharp, maul.

                                      But a sharper knife works better either way, for garlic e.g.

                                      1. re: GH1618


                                        I mostly use the terminology of push cutting and rock chopping. My understanding is that rock chopping is like the beginning of this:


                                        (keep in mind that both rock chop and push cut were demonstrated in the video


                                        Pushing cutting is more about pushing down with/without a small slicing forth or back motion. So the entire motion is more about up and down. Here, Jamie Oliver demonstrate push cut:


                                        I read that you wrote: <True, but it does imply an extremely sharp knife>

                                        So I assume you were talking about pushing cutting (or here we called chopping) require an extremely sharp knife. This must mean that in some way that pushing cutting require a sharper knife than rock chopping since you also said that <most home cooks get by with less.>

                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                          Yes, I get it. After a little experimentation, it seems to me that what matters most is the characteristic of the object being cut. Using my light Chinese knife, I touch it up with the steel so the blade is in reasonably good shape, but this is not a sharp knife by the standards applied to good Japanese knives. I find I can mince garlic as effectively as with a rocking motion. Crisp onion, however, tends to fly around with either type of cutting motion. Using a rocking cut makes it easier to contain the wayward pieces which want to jump on the floor. I expect that a sharper blade would minimize this. For the green part of green onions, I find the chopping cut doesn't work at all. It cannot be relied upon to cut completely through, whereas a rock and slice motion can. The latter also gives more control of the process, and that's the way that I learned in a restaurant kitchen long ago.

                                          I am sure you are not arguing for dull knives. Sharper is almost always better. But I am not an enthusiast for ultra-sharp knives. I don't want to slice paper with my knives, as is sometimes used to demonstrate a sharp edge. I don't even want to slice a tomato skin cleanly.

                                          1. re: GH1618

                                            < For the green part of green onions, I find the chopping cut doesn't work at all.>

                                            I completely understand what you are saying. I find that if I have a very sharp knife and a decently soft cutting board, then this is not a problem. However, this becomes a problem (not cutting through) if the knife is getting dull or that the cutting board has very little give. As such, I often have a slight forward or backward motion during the push cutting to "clear" the cut.

                                            No, I am not arguing for a sharp knife. I just thought you may have meant that push cutting require a sharper knife than rock chopping -- which can be true, but I wasn't sure if that is what you meant.