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The Importance of Knife Skills

Citrus Reflection

The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. I am not talking about an overall naivety but the discovery of new skills, techniques, and just factoids that I would absolutely be considered elementary in. What’s important about this discovery is not how it should make me feel (stupid), but how it actually makes me feel – enlightened.

In stark contrast, I encounter people every day that would rather do something wrong than admit they really don’t know how and just ask for help. We are all adults here and I have personally never laughed or chastised someone who asked for help. What’s the problem then? Pride? I think it’s much more. It’s a level of unfounded confidence that fools people into realizing how little they know.

A couple of weeks ago it occurred to me that my roommates were using the balloon whisk attachment for the KitchenAid to make their banana and pumpkin spice breads. They were using a tool meant to whisk and introduce air into cream and eggs to mix thick batters for bread. What really struck me about this is the confidence they carried with them week after week, mistake after mistake. They have clearly never used a standmixer but when it came time to pick among four attachments, they considered the balloon whisk the best bet. Let’s put aside the food science aspect of things (how whisking and mixing differ) and even common sense and you still have a glaring problem. Rather than asking me (the owner of the mixer) how to do something, they just did it. It doesn’t end there. Not only were they doing it wrong, but they were so confident in their choice that they could not even imagine the choice being wrong. And that’s the real issue here.

I had some guests over for dinner a few months ago and we were splitting up tasks. I asked one of them if she knew how to use a knife and she replied as if she was insulted – “Pshhhaw, duh!” I was not sure how to respond so I handed her the cutting board, food, and knife and let her at it. Even with my back to her, I could tell by her comments and the sound the knife was making against the food and board that at the very least she was damaging my knife and at the very worse was going to seriously injure herself. Why didn’t she just ask for help?

I tell these stories because admitting you don’t know something and learning how to use a tool or perform a task correctly helps everyone. Let’s talk about knife skills, perhaps one of the most important in the kitchen and certainly the only common thread in every dish you make, whether it’s stir fry, fresh pasta, or a poached fish. Why is it then, that cooks put so little investment in their knives? Let’s ignore the physical knife for now (that will have to wait for another post), and focus on the use of a knife.

It does not take much to learn how to use a knife properly. And why wouldn’t you want to make the investment? A knife is a sharpened shard of sharp metal. It can stab you and cut you.  You would not pick up a gun you were unfamiliar with without some proper instruction first, would you? Then why is a knife any different?  If there’s one kitchen skill you want to learn how to master – it’s the knife. Use a saucer the wrong way – I don’t care. But if you are going to be in the kitchen, learn how to use a knife, for godsake.

So, where do you start? Well first find someone to teach you. I don’t care if it’s your neighbor or Food Network (thanks Alton Brown). You can’t learn unless you ask. Then practice, practice, practice. Cook. A lot. Often. That’s the only way you’ll get better. Yesterday, my friend Prakash, asked me how I cut an onion. So we spent 10 minutes discussing it in great detail over chat. An onion. Yeah, not how to filet a fish or carve a chicken. An onion. He asked me how I learned and I admitted I actually Googled it and watched videos on YouTube and various tutorial sites. Lame? Maybe a little, but I’d rather be embarrassed and eating than smug and in the hospital.

Next time you are in the kitchen with someone, watch them use a knife. Does it look like they have any control of their knife or is there a nervousness in their movement? Do they cut with certainty and deliberateness or is there hesitation. Is food sliding around? Is there slippage? If they seem like a pro and you could use some tips, ask for help. Or if they need it, offer them your advice.

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