Knife Skills – Top 3 Mistakes and 3 Essentials Knives


11 Jan Knife Skills – Top 3 Mistakes and 3 Essentials Knives

You wouldn’t know from my sleek bob cut, but I’m a rocker. A die-hard rocker, through and through.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the head-banging, metal-thrashing, ear-destroying kind. I’m the chop ’em, mince ’em, dice ’em kind.

I know this because Jeffrey Elliot, coauthor of The Complete Book of Knife Skills, told me so. I interviewed him recently, and when I sheepishly confessed that I couldn’t figure out how to use those ultra-popular, uber-chic Japanese knives, instead of telling me to just keep at it, he shrugged and said, “You’re either a rocker or a chopper. Few people are both.” Turns out Japanese knives are for choppers. Which I’m not. So my classic Western-style chef’s knife can stay.

Last month, I listed Complete Book of Knife Skills as one of my top picks for 2010, partially because it’s the best book I’ve seen on this topic, but mostly because I actually use it. I keep it in the kitchen, next to the phone book, just inches from the butcher block island and my knife block. Why? Even though I have perfected my knife grip and keep the fingers of my guide hand well out of the way, I still make a lot of mistakes. For instance, until I read Elliot’s FAQ on slicing onions (reproduced below, with permission), I always ended up with a stack of uneven pieces. While my gut tells my hands to cut across the striations, the correct technique is to cut with them.

And again, Elliot manages to make me feel good about my limits. He assured me that chopping food “isn’t as intuitive as you’d think.” In fact, this particular mistake is so common, he devoted two whole pages to the issue.  See…

Since mistakes are my specialty, I asked Elliot for some Don’ts as well as Dos. These lists apply whether you’re a rocker or a chopper.

Top 3 Knife Skill Mistakes

  1. Holding the knife wrong: The proper grip provides stability and control. You want to cut the food, not your fingers.
  2. Storing knives loose in a drawer: Without a protective sleeve or edge guard, a drawer is the worst place for a knife. Not only will the blade get damaged, you can easily cut yourself. A knife block is the most popular option, but an in-drawer knife tray or magnetic wall mount work just as well.
  3. Using the wrong knife for the job: Believe it or not, Elliot says the biggest across-the-board mistake is people using a serrated steak knife to cut everything. Sure, they’re less scary than long chef’s knives, but no matter now confident they make you fee, you’re just fighting the food not slicing it. The results? You’ll work harder, take longer to do the job and  end up with food that’s shredded more than sliced.

3 Knives Everyone Should Own

  1. A 10-inch chef’s knife if you’re a rocker or a Santoku if you’re a chopper. Either way, Elliot says to get the biggest knife you’re comfortable working with. Most people (like wimpy me) go for an 8-inch blade, but a longer 10-inch knife makes the work easier.
  2. Paring knife: These mini-chef’s knives are invaluable for tasks with small food, like hulling strawberries or dicing shallots.
  3. Serrated bread knife: For those with a steak-knife dependency Elliot clarifies this knife is, “for cakes and bread, not tomatoes!” He was so emphatic I clearly heard the exclamation mark.

So, are you a rocker or a chopper? Or are you one of the silent many who use the serrated steak knife for everything?

FAQ about Onions excerpted from Zwilling J.A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills by Jeffrey Elliot and James P. DeWan © 2010 Robert Rose Inc.  Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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  • Kathryn
    Posted at 11:35h, 11 January Reply

    Lucky me: I received this book as a Christmas present (thanks, big sis). I love it. It is difficult to teach knife skills via a book, but Jeffrey Elliot does an excellent job.

    I think that I am a rocker, and really want to be if only for the Bruce Springsteen connection, but my knife skills are poor so the definitive answer remains to be discovered. However, with this book counterside and some determination, those skills are improving.

    Soon-to-be-a Rocker.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 06:55h, 12 January Reply

      @Kathryn, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. Knife skills are hard to teach in any medium! It takes practice.

      I think the most helpful piece of advice Jeffrey gave was that it isn’t always intuitive. However, with practice, these skills do become second nature.

      Rock on!

  • Sally
    Posted at 12:26h, 11 January Reply

    The most frustrating thing when I travel in the summer and have to cook at other people’s houses is using an awful knife. Why do they cling to a tiny serrated thing that takes hours to saw away precariously at an onion? I think I’m a rocker (although I make an exception for celery – so satisfying) and I love my cook’s knife. I could use it for everything. Great article.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 06:58h, 12 January Reply

      @Sally, oh I’m so with you! I can see why the food processor became popular.

      I use my cook’s knife (chef’s knife) a lot, but am not quite comfortable with my boning knife. I can’t rock it, but I am now able to debone chicken without issue.

  • Robin Smart
    Posted at 17:35h, 11 January Reply

    I can relate to Sally’s post above. I take 2 of my knives with me on holiday, as it makes me crazy to use dull or wobbly knives. One of the other tricks you might like to post on is the correct way to sharpen knives.
    I don’t want to “hurt” my knives when I try to keep them cutting.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 07:00h, 12 January Reply

      @Robin Smart, honing is essential. I don’t do it enough. I can show you the technique. If there is enough interest I’ll post that section, too.

      If you have Henckels (which I think you do) the new kitchen store in town offers free sharpening. Sweet!

  • Amui
    Posted at 00:26h, 12 January Reply

    I’m a rocker :( I’m just too scared of big knives, and sincerely I enjoy so much cutting bread. Meat has never been an easy job, and I rather have very uneven pieces than not be safe, but of course I’ll never be a professional cook

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:03h, 12 January Reply

      @Amui, safety is always the first priority. If you’re afraid of the knife, the fear will only get in the way. I’m now comfortable with my 8-inch chef’s knife and feel I can “graduate” to a 10-inch. Not sure I could have jumped into that size first thing.

  • Amui
    Posted at 00:28h, 12 January Reply

    mistake, I’m a chopper

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 08:05h, 12 January Reply

      @Amui, cool. I think you’re the first chopper to post a comment. I envy you since the Japanese knives are so lightweight. But I’m a rocker and can’t get my head (or hands) around that technique.

      Happy chopping!

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    Posted at 10:22h, 02 April Reply

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  • Billy @ Best Knife Sharpener Guide
    Posted at 23:37h, 27 August Reply

    I am a rocker, but I use a Japanese chef’s knife. I will need to check out the book for my wife.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 00:19h, 28 August Reply

      I’m a rocker, too. I can’t get the rhythm with Japanese knives, but know many people who swear by them. The good news is the techniques work for either style. I hope your wife likes the book!

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