Stay sharp and stay safe

Tips for using, caring for kitchen knives

Tips for using, caring for kitchen knives

January 17, 2007|by JULIE E. GREENE

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Culinary arts instructor Ronald Berger likes to compare knives to cars when it comes to how people should treat the culinary instruments.

"If you don't maintain the car, it's not going to operate," says Berger, who teaches at Franklin County Career & Technology Center.

Knives should be kept sharpened for safety purposes. That might sound backward, but it requires more pressure to cut if the knife is dull, and more pressure could lead to accidents, says Berger.

Amateur cooks don't need to chop veggies as fast as the pros, and they don't need a vast array of knives, Berger says. But there are tips that a novice cook should know to make cutting and chopping efficient, easy and safe.


Frank Linn, who teaches a knife skills class in Arlington, Va., for Sur La Table - a kitchenwares store with a culinary arts program - and Andi Stouffer, a senior in the culinary program at Franklin County Career & Technology Center, along with Berger, recently shared some tips.

The proper tools

A chef's knife and paring knife are really all the home cook needs, say Berger and Stouffer.

The main knife is the chef's knife, while a paring knife is useful for trimming and to cut small fruits and vegetables.

Some additional knives a cook might want are a deboning knife or a bread knife, but any serrated knife would do well to cut bread.

Unless your chef's knife is really sharp, it might be easier to use a serrated knife for cutting fruits with tough skins, such as a tomato or kiwi, Linn says.

For amateur cooks, Linn recommends a filet knife rather than a deboning knife to remove bones from raw meat because the blade is more flexible and easier to use.

When shopping for knives, Berger and Linn recommend looking for forged rather than stamped knives. While forged knives can be significantly more expensive, they will hold their true edge longer because the steel is harder, Berger says.

Many knives today are stainless steel. While true steel provides the best edge, it can rust, whereas stainless won't, Berger says. Many forged knives are made of a mixture of stainless steel and carbon, so they have a good edge but don't rust.

Chopping tips

Berger doesn't have a preference for wood or plastic when it comes to cutting boards, but he does recommend using a nonslip material under the board so it doesn't move while you're chopping.

Stouffer, 18, of Waynesboro, Pa., uses a piece of nonslip vinyl shelf liner, while Linn uses a wet towel.

The safe way to chop fruits and vegetables is the claw method - holding food down on the cutting board with the fingers bent under and the knuckles further out, Stouffer says.

Move your clawed hand back as you cut food toward your clawed hand.

Go slowly, Linn says. There's no need to see how fast you can chop.

When chopping a small item, you can use a rocking technique so the knife doesn't need to leave the cutting board, Linn says. While rocking the blade with one hand holding the knife handle, pinch the end of the blade with your free hand.

Onions can be tricky to dice because the layers slip.

After peeling an onion, cut the onion in half vertically so both halves have part of the root to hold the layers in place.

Place the flat side of an onion half on the cutting board. Hold the onion down with your free palm while slicing the onion horizontally toward the root, Stouffer explains. How many horizontal slices you make into the onion is determined by the size of the diced pieces you want. For example, slice once for large pieces or three times for medium pieces.

Then cut the onion vertically, with the blade pointed to the root, but don't cut as far back as the root. This allows the slices to remain attached to the root.

Using the claw technique, chop vertically with the blade perpendicular to the previous cuts and work your way back to the root.

Stouffer suggests keeping a bowl nearby to dispose of scraps such as the skin and root. This leaves more room on the cutting board to work.

To chop herbs such as parsley, remove the parsley from its stems. Then ball the parsley leaves and place the ball on the cutting board. Chop the ball of leaves with the claw method. To cut into smaller pieces, pinch the blade with your free hand while chopping, moving the handle from left to right and back repeatedly.

Care tips

A good knife can last a lifetime if it's cared for properly, Berger says.

There are a variety of sharpening tools that work well if used properly and not overused, Berger says. Just remember to tilt the blade at 15 degrees to 20 degrees when sharpening, and sharpen both sides.

When done using a knife, leave it on the cutting board until you're ready to wash it. Dishwashers are a no-no, and placing a knife in a metal sink can dull the blade over time, Berger says.

The problem with dishwashers is the heat expands the handle, food gets in the crevices and the handle contracts, trapping the food inside, Linn says.

When it's washed and dried, store it in a knife block or sheathe it with a protective cover.

"It's like we had a Rolls-Royce. Would we put it in the driveway or in the garage?" Berger says.

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