The Chopping Block

Every serious home chef should practice their knife skills regularly and know what each blade is best used for.

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Good knife technique is one of the most important skills of any home chef. Not only will perfect cuts improve your food aesthetically, they will ensure that ingredients cook at the same rate, lend texture to dishes, and prevent injury. 

NECESSARY KNIVES

Much like pots and pans, knives are typically packaged in sets of fifteen or more and, as a result, people often think that more is better. In fact, you only need a few quality knives that you will use often. A chef’s knife is probably the most valuable tool you can own. The other two essential knives for home cooks are a small paring knife and a serrated bread knife. 

The chef’s knife is the most versatile knife, with its broad and sharp blade. It is multi-purpose and can be used for a variety of kitchen tasks, including cutting meat, dicing vegetables, slicing herbs and more. This knife costs anywhere between $50-$300 but, ultimately, your decision will come down to feel and what you like. Chef’s knives vary in length, but the 8-inch blade is the one most common. 

The paring knife is small with a short blade and is essential for precise cutting, peeling, mincing and dicing. This specialty knife is particularly helpful for deseeding fruits and deveining prawns. While it is possible to get paring knives with blades as long as 5 inches, a 3-inch blade is perfect. It is important to never attempt to use a paring knife for bigger tasks such as carving or butchering meat. If you do so, you run a high risk of cutting yourself. 

After the chef and paring knife, most chefs will agree that a serrated bread knife is essential. A serrated edge is best used for foods that are soft on the inside with a harder exterior, such as bread, limes and tomatoes. The teeth of the knife perform a sawing technique which prevents the food from ripping. 

The chef’s knife is the most versatile knife, with its broad and sharp blade.

KNIFE MAINTENANCE

It’s important to understand what makes kitchen knives dull and the difference between honing and sharpening. If you’ve ever had to prepare food with a dull knife, you know the agony that is involved, not to mention the danger of cutting yourself. There are dozens of types of kitchen knives, but most share the same basic anatomy. On a dull knife, the sharp edge of the blade has been lost and/or the metal in the blade's edge is no longer aligned correctly. Even if the edge of the blade is still sharp, losing alignment means that it won't cut through food properly. The good news is that you can get both the sharp edge and alignment back through honing and sharpening your knives. 

A honing steel pushes the edge of the knife back to the center and straightens it, correcting the edge without shaving off much of the blade's material. Contrary to what many people believe, honing does not actually sharpen the knife, but the knife will seem sharper, as a result, because the blade is now properly positioned. Honing can easily be done at home and should be done frequently — ideally before each use. 

If you’ve ever had to prepare food with a dull knife, you know the agony that is involved, not to mention the danger of cutting yourself.

Sharpening is a process whereby bits of metal or ceramic are ground and shaved off the blade to produce a new, sharp edge. It can be done using a variety of tools such as a whetstone or electric knife sharpener. Sharpening can be done less often than honing, depending on how much the knife gets used. With a little training and patience, basic knife sharpening can be accomplished at home but, if you’re not comfortable doing so then it is recommended that you have your knives sharpened by a professional every six to twelve months, in order to prolong their lifespan. Keeping your knives clean and stored on a magnetic wall strip or in a knife block will also help them last longer. Lastly, it’s important to remember that knives should never go in the dishwasher!

THE SLICE AND DICE

Onions are one of the first things that you should learn how to cut, as they are used in 40% of any cook's repertoire. There are two basic onion cuts – the slice and the dice. To slice, place the onion half-flat on the cutting board and trim off the root and stem. Hold it in place with your free hand, keeping your fingertips curled backwards and the flat part of the knife resting against your knuckles. As you get to the end, rotate the onion so that it’s laying on its most stable base and continue slicing. 

Onions are one of the first things that you should learn how to cut, as they are used in 40% of any cook's repertoire.

To dice an onion, peel it, cut it in half and trim off only the stem end, leaving the root intact. Using the tip of your knife, make a series of parallel cuts, leaving the onion attached at the root. Again, keep your fingers curled back, using your knuckles as a guide. Next, rotate the onion and lay your hand flat on top of it to keep it stable and make one to two horizontal cuts. Now, slice the onion perpendicular to the cuts you just made. 

So when should you use sliced versus diced onions? Use onion slices as salad toppings or to saute caramelized onions. Use diced onions in pasta sauces, salsas, and soups. Remember, when chopping anything, use a very sharp chef’s knife.