Be clever with your cleaver

Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I'll cut to the chase your knife skills scare me.

While I'm far from a trained culinarian, I get the heebie-jeebies watching friends chop stuff in the kitchen.

Some grip the knife handle like a tennis racket and hack at an onion or tomato. They have all of the finesse of Jason, the hockey mask-wearing serial killer.

Others hold the handle with the thumb and three fingers but place the forefinger along the top of the blade. These cutters tend to be fastidious, careful and slow.

And don't even get me started about the peril in which they put the fingers of their noncutting hand. Chef's knives can give a nasty, unintended manicure.

The proper way to hold a chef's knife is to grasp the handle with the middle, ring and little fingers and pinch the upper portion of the blade with the thumb and forefinger. It provides stability and accuracy.

This leads me to a must-have textbook for any new cook or for that matter, any established home cook with bad knife habits. Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual (Norton, $29.95) demonstrates in detail the proper way to cut almost any food. Author Peter Hertzmann trained in Michelin-rated restaurants in Europe and studied under Martin Yan a clever man with a cleaver.

The book's pencil illustrations by Alan Witschinke are more detailed than photographs, if you can imagine. Detailed enough to convey the technique, they lack the gore that a photograph showing how to properly fillet a fish or bone a chicken might show.

I call this a textbook because it is all instruction no recipes, no stories. In fact, it's the sort of book in which you'll skim the first chapter and start paying attention about the time he discusses how to hold a knife, caring for and sharpening it, and the best cutting board to buy.

Speaking of cutting boards, there are a couple of schools of thought.

Several jurisdictions demand that restaurants use color-coded plastic boards so that meat will only be cut on red boards, poultry on yellow and vegetables on green. Hertzmann says wood boards can be cleaned and sanitized just as well as the plastic ones. It's a matter of personal preference.

When it comes to the actual cutting techniques, he leaves little to chance, even detailing how to cut items from both the left- and right- handed perspectives.

The book is especially handy when you're working with out-of-the-ordinary foods. You'll have a better understanding of how to trim, clean and cut leeks, celery root, fennel and artichokes.

The section on cutting poultry is more complicated and may take some study. But once you understand how to cut a chicken into eight pieces, you'll begin saving your family loads of money. When you buy just chicken breasts or thighs, you are paying extra for that service and the extra packaging.

The same is true of fish. If you know knife skills, buying fish whole or getting it from a friendly angler becomes more practical.

My advice is to buy a bag of large onions and study the section on dicing onions. Learn to properly dice an onion, and you'll be halfway home. What to then do with your handiwork? Put it in sealable plastic bags or containers and share it with the neighbors.

It'll save them from the danger of cutting an onion with their sloppy knife skills.

Dan Macdonald can be reached at

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