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January 10, 2005 4:22 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to learn professional level kitchen knife skills? [more inside]

Background: I'm a beginner-intermediate cook who likes to try difficult, complicated recipes to challenge myself. However, I often find myself slowed down/poorly performing due to knife skills and want to eliminate that as an excuse for not cooking as well as I could. When I can I do prep work in advance, but that usually adds an extra ~hour for work that (I think) could be done during the cooking process.

I'm basically looking for two things here: 1) recommendations for specific books, videos, classes etc. (or even just tips for finding good ones) 2) techniques/drills that I should practice on my own (i.e. julienning a bunch of carrots, or trying to slice potatoes as thinly as possible, etc.).

Also, a tangential question: I've got a decent farberware knife set that gets the job done, but have been thinking about buying at least a high-end chef's knife. Should I run out to the store now, or wait until I'm a bit more experienced so that I'll have a better idea of what I like?
posted by rorycberger to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Upper-end restaurant supply stores, chef's supply stores, and specialty kitchen stores often have classes in knife skills. Check the YMCA, local community college, or similar organizations -- you might luck out. Also, check, there are a lot of videos there dealing with knife skills.

If all else fails, find a local chef on a slow afternoon (think 3-4 pm) or after work (buy him/her a drink) and offer to pay for lessons. (It says there's supposed to be a more inside!) He or she will know plenty of drills to hone your skills, as mass potato cutting, carrot cutting, etc. are all part of a standard culinary school education.

As far as a knife goes, I found that my knife skills improved drastically when I started using a high-end (read: Wusthoff) chef's knife. The balance, weight, and edge really helped me. I think that most of the high-end chef's knives are about the same and it comes down to how you personally "feel" about each brand and its design. Each chef has a brand that he swears by, but it's usually because he was taught on that brand of knife and has grown accustomed to its balance.

If you're going to buy any knife at all, buy an eight-inch chef's knife and spend a good amount of money on it. Also buy the requisite equipment for keeping it sharp (i.e., whetstone and steel). You won't regret it.

(On a sidenote, getting some nice and heavy cookware took my cooking to a new level as well. I have a mixture of All-Clad and Calphalon stainless steel and they help make up for a really crappy electric range.)
posted by trey at 4:39 PM on January 10, 2005

If you want to slice thin, a santoku knife works well, and it doubles as a all-around chef's knife. I have a 6.5" MAC santoku that is razor sharp and I use it for veggies and boneless meat. I wouldn't cut bone with one though.

Get a sharpening stick or stone and keep the blade sharp, clean and dry. If you take care of good knives, and you have good technique, the knives will reward you by doing all the hard work.

If you don't like sharpening, you might look into Kyocera ceramic knives. They're expensive and can shatter if they're dropped, though.
posted by AlexReynolds at 4:46 PM on January 10, 2005

If you can get a hold of the Jacques Pepin Cooking Techniques VHS (unfortunately, not on DVD), check out the 1st tape, which has a show on knifework (which I learned a lot from). Check your local library.
posted by matildaben at 4:47 PM on January 10, 2005

Buy a knife right now.

I agree with trey that there's probably not much difference between a high-end Wusthoff and a high-end Henkel (I'm a Henkel guy, myself).

But get one now. It makes a world of difference, and there's no danger of outgrowing it if you buy the very best. They have a lifetime warranty, too.
posted by chrchr at 4:51 PM on January 10, 2005

Another data point for Wusthoff, but I'd agree that high-end German carbon steel is the best. 8" chef's is the standard tool. My wife is a chef and she can do 99% of all kitchen tasks with a chef's knife and a paring knife. Buy a steel and a sharpener, too.
posted by fixedgear at 4:55 PM on January 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips - my local Sur La Table just had a knife skills class, but they don't have another one for at least the next month or two. I'll check out those other avenues as well.

Yeah, I keep hearing about how knife selection is all about how you feel about the brand/design, but I wonder if I really know that or not yet. For instance, I have no idea if I use a rocking or chopping style of cutting, so should I get a French or German style blade? Or am I overthinking this? Should I just get the one that fits best in my hand?

As for cookware, I'm starting to build a collection of quality cookware, as I'm stuck with a shite electric range as well. Unfortunately I'm limited by cupboard space and budget, but I've at least got the basics now.

[on preview: hmmm, guess I should go get that knife... I've looked (mostly online) at pretty much every high-end chef's knife and am really drawn to Shun. Anybody got any thoughts on them?]
posted by rorycberger at 4:58 PM on January 10, 2005

Because of endorsements, I don't usually bother with recommendations from cooking shows, but Cooks Illustrated is a good source of unbiased info. They do a more scientific evaluation of products and don't do endorsement deals, like a cooking equivalent of Consumer Reports.

Their online site is not free, but the reviews, in my mind, rarely fail. They do have several articles on cooking knives. You might head to your grocers and thumb through their magazine while you're in the checkout lane.
posted by AlexReynolds at 5:04 PM on January 10, 2005

I'm not even much of a chef, but having a good knife makes kitchen work a lot easier. I've got an 8" carbon-steel chef's knife from Japan (carbon steel knives are a lot more common there for whatever reason, and you can probably find a few at a Japanese grocery, if there's one in your area)); I've got a nice Henkel as well, but I don't like it as much.

Carbon-steel knives hold a sharper edge longer than stainless, but they are also more susceptible to knicks, and of course, they can rust. You really need to wash the knife, dry it (oil it for good measure), and put it away as soon as you're done with it.
posted by adamrice at 5:07 PM on January 10, 2005

1)here's a little a mandolin. i don't know any chef that actually uses a knife to slice potatoes, onions etc paper thin. it's a waste of time and you'll most likely cut yourself.

2) CIA level knife skills usually only add one thing to a dish: heightened presentation. The flavor of a dish, complicated or simple, is not going to change because your brunoise is not perfect. Trust me, when I was a chef, we DID spend hours every morning getting a perfect brunoise for the peppers, tomatoes, etc. You know what all that stuff was used for? GARNISH. Sprinkled on the edge of plates. Probably never went in a customers mouth.

3) Knife skills do not help you during the cooking process, period. They help you in prep. That's it. If you want to decrease your actual cook time, it's prepping your mise en place that will do it and at home, like I said above, your mise doesn't need to look perfect.

4) All you'll need to really learn to do is chop quickly. For that, use the knife as if it were a paper cutter..the tip is attached to your board..rock the knife from the pivot point of your hand. Move the knife along whatever you are chopping by guiding it with the knuckles of your other hand against the flat side of the knife. Just practice. You'll get it.
posted by spicynuts at 5:15 PM on January 10, 2005

Oh...and's a great knife discussion from Chowhound's Home Cooking Board
posted by spicynuts at 5:18 PM on January 10, 2005

Probably not the best way, but a way: eGullet's knife skills article. While I'm at it, since you're off to get a knife, have their knife care article too!
posted by mendel at 5:33 PM on January 10, 2005

Since prep speed is your primary goal - rather than presentation tricks - get as someone above said a (cheap) mandoline and also a mezzaluna which is much faster for chopping herbs than a knife for a beginner.

But I still recommend you get an 8" Wusthof Classic immediately - I love mine - the deeper curve on the German-style blade makes the rocking chopping motion that spicynuts describes above more effective.

One style note: I prefer to hold the base of the blade itself between my thumb and first finger with my other fingers curled around the handle. Much finer control over the blade direction, and better balance. Opinions probably differ on that though.
posted by nicwolff at 5:57 PM on January 10, 2005

I'm in cooking school right now, and really think 90% of knife skills are just from repetition. Once you cut fifty of something in a row, you get the hang of it. Use a book or the Food Network videos to get a basic idea of how you should be holding the knife and what to do with your other hand and then just go buy bulk bags of veggies and get cutting.

Mise en Place is definitely the biggest time saver with prep work though, and you should spend some time learning about that along with your knife skills. Getting all of the things that need prepping out on the counter before you start and thinking about what order to prep in and what you're going to do with things after they're prepped is just working intelligently.

For knives, you really shouldn't over think it. You can usually just go into Sur la Table and ask to try out some chef knives. They should have someone who knows what they're talking about hanging around in front of the knives who can give you advice on what will work best for you. Once you have it narrowed down some, it's really just all about what feels the best to you. I have the Shun 10" right now because the balance feels great to me. And kinda cause it's just so pretty.

Personally, I'd rather let a professional sharpen my knives for me a few times a year because I can't get it as sharp as I'd like doing it myself (and I'm really scared of hurting my pretty pretty knives.) A steel is a very very good thing to have though, and can be used just about every time you bring the knife out. Get a mandoline too. I know you probably have the urge to shun gadgets and want to do everything by hand (like I do), but seriously, it just does some jobs so much better and faster that there's no point in doing it the hard way.
posted by evilbeck at 6:04 PM on January 10, 2005 [2 favorites]

When you start work as a restaurant cook, you have to pay your dues doing a lot of prep work. This means chopping an entire 5-gallon bucket of onions, 200 carrots, etc all in preparation for the evening's shift. It's totally from the Mr. Miyagi school of rote, but it works. Having to do something 100 times in a row gets you pretty quick at it, especially if you repeat this every day.

I wouldn't recommend you bother trying to get quick with a knife unless you are using the best equipment and keep it very very sharp. Let's put it this way: do you want to replace your Faberware crap or one of your fingers? Perhaps learning to make good use of a Cuisinart would be a better option. You can actually do all manner of slicing, chopping, and grating with them.
posted by scarabic at 7:02 PM on January 10, 2005

If you're looking for a reference book, the Culinary Institute of America has a book on knife handling.

After using (and loving) Henckels and Wüsthofs, I'm a recent convert to Globals. Much lighter and faster than the big German blades and I find they're better at holding their edge.
posted by Monk at 7:08 PM on January 10, 2005

You can't learn knife skills (well) from a book or video. Take lessons. Most areas have a few schools or stores that offer culinary classes. Sign up.
posted by cribcage at 8:15 PM on January 10, 2005

(If you aren't real excited about spending $80-100 for a Wusthof or Henckels, I know Cook's Illustrated has always liked the Forschner/Victorinox chef's knives, as well as the Oxo Good Grips - both are about $30)
posted by milkrate at 8:21 PM on January 10, 2005

I feel like I'm always the only one plugging this, and I'm sure I'm boring everyone to death, but the ceramic Kyocera chef's knife rocked my world. I don't use anything else now for veggies or meat off the bone and prep work is actually a joy with it. Just don't drop it, as I did tonight. (It was safe this time, whew.)

Also, a second for those who say it's all practice and repetition. I've always had good but slow technique and I've noticed I'm getting marginally faster every time I slice up an onion these days.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:10 PM on January 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the tips. Just to be clear, I'm not totally opposed to the idea of a mandoline or food processor (though I don't currently own either), but I'd like to be able to do everything by hand (and fast) just to be, you know, a badass.

Sounds like the best bet is to maybe take a class, but mostly hit up costco for a ton of veggies and spend a day or two just practicing. Follow-up question - anybody got good recipes for a million chopped up veggies? Surely there must be some sort of stew or something....

Oh yeah, tomorrow I'll be checking out knives...
posted by rorycberger at 9:15 PM on January 10, 2005

Carrot soup. Turnip soup. Potato soup. Winter soups made from root vegetables will get your cutting skills up to snuff in no time -- you can fit a good 10 pounds of chopped carrots in an ordinary dutch oven!
posted by bcwinters at 9:59 PM on January 10, 2005

Hollow ground, convex ground and saber ground blades are rarely found in the kitchen. I mention them only to confuse you.

mendle, great links, thanks.
posted by fatllama at 11:52 PM on January 10, 2005

Just make a giant pot of vegetable soup. Piles of pretty much any chopped/sliced vegetable simmered with a little chicken broth is delicious.

Not cucumbers though, and cukes are the best to practice on to get that ability to cut even discs at speed. (Actually rory, I like the idea of getting some cukes just to practice on. I'm going to try that and make a giant cucumber salad.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:27 AM on January 11, 2005

There is nothing bad ass about being able to slice potatoes super thin with a knife. Seriously. Bad ass is being able to get more portions out of a pork loin than anybody else. Those are serious knife skills. Potato slicing is not. Get the freakin mandoline. Honestly. You're looking for some kind of chef street cred, you're not going to find it with knife skills.
posted by spicynuts at 7:06 AM on January 11, 2005

[on preview: hmmm, guess I should go get that knife... I've looked (mostly online) at pretty much every high-end chef's knife and am really drawn to Shun. Anybody got any thoughts on them?]

I *love* my 8" Shun chef's knife. The knife has a nice feel and the handle is very good for my smaller Asian hands. Love love love. Sur La Table has the Shun line for a very competitive price, cheaper than many online retailers that carry them.
posted by moxyberry at 7:27 AM on January 11, 2005

I used to sell Cutco, and my g/f works at a specialty cookware store where knives are "her thing". Heed my advice.

For most stuff you come across, you'll only ever need two knives:

- A 7" Santoku. Wustfof makes a good one. It slices extremely well, and is heavy enough to double as a chef's knife.
- The 5.5" Global Vegetable Knife. Light, sharp. The blade is slightly curved so you get great rocking motion, and the handle design leaves good knuckle clearance.
posted by mkultra at 7:35 AM on January 11, 2005

The 4 knives that I use most often, in order:
  • 8" Chef's Knife (I have 2, Chicago Cutlery and Wusthoff - they are interchangeable)
  • bread knife
  • paring knife
  • boning knife
I learned knife skills by watching Jacques Pepin and Julia Child and following it with lots and lots of practice. Alton Brown did a pretty good step-by-step as well. Making soup or a mirepoix is a great way to learn knife skills. If I'm making a galette, I get out the mandolin, but most of the time I use a knife because it's faster and it honestly feels better--more like I'm actually cooking.
I found that one of the best ways to speed up cooking is to learn how to saute without a spoon or spatula, but instead to flip the food over with the pan itself. That also takes practice, but if you're willing to shower the kitchen with food while you get it down, go for it.

A friend of mine went to an end-user class at a cuilinary academy and was ranting about having to cut up potatoes so that they had seven perfect, even sides to them. Sheesh.
posted by plinth at 8:16 AM on January 11, 2005

On the note of "street cred with knife skills", the most amazing thing I've ever seen was Tony Bourdain's Les Halles butcher (sadly, I forget his name) boning a leg of lamb without cutting the meat through. That's seriously badass.
posted by Caviar at 10:24 PM on January 13, 2005

You can practice flipping in a pan by filling a ziplock bag with dry beans and flipping that.
posted by Caviar at 10:26 PM on January 13, 2005

Also, I'm quite fond of the Kyocera knives. Knife Depot seems to have recently started selling them exclusively through Amazon for much much cheaper than anywhere else I've seen them:

6" black blade (plastic handle) for $74.

posted by Caviar at 10:34 PM on January 13, 2005

Caviar, in case you're still reading: thanks for the flipping tip! I had heard of using beans, but not the ziplock bag part, which will make all the difference. Also, the Knife Depot tip. (I just went to amazon to look for myself without clicking your link and was taken by the search function to a small chef's knife in this amusing category: Sports & Outdoor > Categories > Sports Equipment > Martial Arts > Weapons > Swords

posted by CunningLinguist at 5:36 AM on January 15, 2005

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