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Fundamental knife technique question/issue

post #1 of 15
Thread Starter 
I definitely have an issue with my knife technique. Hopefully someone can help?

Goal:
to cut 1/4'' thin strips of carrot, or celery, into 1/4'' cubes.

Technique:
- I place the strips in front of me, so they are perpendicular to my knife which is in front of me like the extension of my right arm.
- My left hand forms a claw and holds the strips together firmly on the table. The index and middle fingers are both bent so the 2nd knuckle is against the blade, which is 1/4 inch from the right end of my strips, ready to cut.
- I lift the knife, then push it forward as I bring it down, then in a round motion I bring it back toward me and up, ready for the next cut.

Problem:
At that point I am having a problem. The only solution I've found is to lift the knife entirely from the cutting board, move it 1/4 inch to the left and start the motion again. Perfect cuts, but totally inefficient (slooooooow).

I figure from all the videos I see etc... that you're supposed to keep the knife anchored by its tip (or almost the tip) on the board and kinda TURN it to the left by about 1/4 inch. Problem is, after a few turns, the cuts are no longer square dice, but more like losanges! The knife is no longer perpendicular to the strips of veggies.

Am I supposed to....
- live with it?
- slide the edge of the knife against the board? (I doubt it)
- push the strips below the knife with my left hand?
- rotate the strips so they stay perpendicular to the knife?

.....????

THANKS!
post #2 of 15
There's so much. I can't cover it in one post, and still keep length down.

You've got a few things -- not so much wrong -- but misconceived in terms of "classic" Euro knife technique.

The most important is that you're moving the knife along the food, instead of moving the food to the knife. You hold the food with a "claw" and move it towards the knife. When the knife gets close to the claw, you move the hand back -- "cut and retreat."

If you're cutting very fine -- so fine you're using your finger bones and knuckles to control the action of the knife, you either have to use your off-hand thumb to push the food forward under your claw, or retreat after every cut. Whichever works best.

Always claw. The offhand fingertips always point down and never towards the knife's edge.

Almost, but not quite as important as claw + cut and retreat, is that you're starting the slide forward too soon. Tip comes down to or almost to the board; edge comes down -- half pivoting from the tip, and half "push cut," as the edge almost hits the board; knife slides forward as the edge comes down to the board -- preventing "accordion cuts" and making the chop silent.

A lot of really good modern technicians don't use the sliding action at all for chopping, instead using a straight push-cut. It takes a very sharp knife to push cut only. Sharpness is a hugely important part of knife technique, too.

Also, it's nice that you have everything square to the board but I suspect your body isn't angled correctly. It's natural to cut across your body, and things work best if you go with what comes naturally. That is, rotate your feet and hips so that you're almost in profile to the counter -- and the angle of your arm and blade is naturally perpendicular to the horizontal axis of the board. For a righty, that's left foot and left side forward, right foot and side back, hips angled on about the same line as the feet, shoulders slightly less angled, head down.

The idea is to control the line of the knife, all the way down to the tip, so that it's totally intuitive. That is, where your eyes go, the line of the knife automatically goes as well. As long as you control the angle by swinging your elbow out from your side, you'll fight the knife instead of harmonizing.

Good grip helps too.

There's an interdynamic unity of knife, sharpening and skills. If each is good the totality is good.

BDL
post #3 of 15
i had alot of trouble figuring that out i just move my blade
don't rush your self your gonna slice your finger , i did and i payed the price x4

its really about practice and doing it over and over and over and over

does your school have a skills class to time you and critique your cuts? If soo go
post #4 of 15
Thread Starter 
We will have a knife skills class, yup, trying to get as ready as I can before the class though.

Thanks a lot for all the information, I'm going to practice some more with it. :roll:
post #5 of 15
Thread Starter 
OK still trying to chew on this!

Arggh... I'm afraid in this passage I can't tell what you're describing as me doing something wrong, and what you're describing as the correct technique I should be doing. Do you want to move the food to the knife? Or the knife to the food? From all the knife technique videos I've seen, it seems to me one should be moving the knife to the food, not the other way around?

Cutting very fine is usually not a problem, as the movement of the knife to the left is so minimal that I have no problem moving the knife to the food. The problem occurs when the cuts start getting bigger, say 1/4" or 3/8". That means for each individual cut, I want to move my knife to the left by 1/4" or 3/8", and that seems like a LOT of knife movement - and I'm not sure HOW or WHEN to make that movement occur.

This part was crystal clear, and corresponds exactly to what my natural instinct tought me: to avoid accordion cuts (which I used to get all the time), give the knife some slicing action, especially once the edge is in contact with the board - that'll cut through the skin of your bell pepper or whatnot.

Very interesting to know. I think for now I'll just focus on the "classic" technique (a rotary motion with the right hand so the knife lifts up, retreats toward me, comes down, slices forward, and repeat...) - and on sharpening my knives properly. I can always add a new technique such as straight push-cut as I get more comfortable with the bases.

Really interesting concepts, that I frankly never thought about. Food for thought (I'll chew on that while practicing).

I guess a sharp knife is much more than half the equation: I sharpened my knife this past week end and all those micro-knife-management issues quickly became a non-issue as I was just cutting instead of thinking. Cool! Makes me think I should spend at least as much time learning to sharpen as I am learning to operate the knife.

I've said it before, I'll say it again, but at the risk of sounding repetitive, please allow me to say it once more here: THANK YOU! Your help is invaluable.
post #6 of 15
Thread Starter 
OK I think I'm getting there. Apparently you cut for a while, push the food forward, cut some more, push a bit, etc... it's real easy to be smooth for small cuts on small foods, i.e. julienning a bell pepper. It's harder as the food becomes bigger, or even as the cuts become bigger (much harder - for me - to cut 1/4" celery stalk slices than to finely mince a shallot).

Body position does help a lot. Thanks for that - I'd never thought of that.
post #7 of 15
knife remains stationary and the food is moved to it.
with practice it becomes one fluid movement; cut, lift, move food, cut, lift, move food....etc.
Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
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Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
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post #8 of 15
Thread Starter 
Thanks Just Jim - so for bigger cuts - say 1/4" slices, you'd be actually moving the food by 1/4" to the right for every single cut? The way I've been doing is: about 4 cuts, move the food 1", about 4 cuts, move the food 1" etc...

On many videos I've watched it seems the chefs aren't even moving the food at all, which is confusing the (*&@# out of me.
post #9 of 15
Yes, I would move the food for 1/4" cuts.
It's even more important as the cut gets larger, or you'll have a narrow end (closest to the knife tip) and a fat end to all of your cuts.
Most won't notice.
In fact, my wife tells me I cut all of my food exactly the same size when I chop, dice, etc., but it's not true.
I can see the slight variance, but she can't.
Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
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Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
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post #10 of 15
To practice this, I would suggest you begin with just one julienne strip, rather than a bunch, then, as your skill improves, add more strips until you can successfully cut however many you wish. Believe me, it won't be very long before you're chopping like it's second nature to you. I've found that having the correct size knife, and ample cutting board space also makes the task easier for me. Good knife skills are vital to any chef, however it's like anything else. You have to grow into it. Start with a comfortable sized knife, and as your skills improve, you can graduate up to larger knives.
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post #11 of 15
I had never thought about body position as being important to a good cutting technique - thank you BDL. I actually just went and grabbed a carrot to see how I do it naturally - it seems I work at more of a 45 degree angle to it. I am a righty and the right foot *was forward, so was the right hip. It would take practice to do it as you describe - I've always had a dodgy back and it did seem a bit awkward to try it at virtually 90 degrees to the bench- not to doubt your technique for a second. It's just my back didn't like it. I am not having to do them in great quantities, just for home. (Actually normally they are done on the ironing board in front of the tv :D But still at 45 degrees) My one reward after being on the phone all day.

Fascinating info. And I'm keeping my supermarket swords as sharp as I can. Makes a huge difference.
 Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.
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 Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.
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post #12 of 15
DC:

Whatever works. Standing as you do, you naturally have to turn the food 45* to the counter -- and maybe angle the board as well -- and cut across your body in order to keep the knife square to the food. It's not a bad thing or habit. Just "naive," to the extent no one ever took you to hand and taught you "the right way." But "trained" and "naive" pale before "works." So if you're comfortable and the work gets done at an adequate speed and quality not to worry.

French Fries

Apparently Just Jim is more rigorous about moving the food than I am. That's not terribly surprising. Not only are there q few "approved" styles, but I'm not the world's greatest technician.

The style I learned for cutting largish pieces is called "cut and retreat." You cut towards the claw (your offhand holding the food) until you get too close to your hand. Then you move, i.e., retreat, the claw. When the knife chases the food far enough to the left (for a righty) that the knife arm crosses your body enough for the the blade to start to angle you move the food to the right, so food and blade are square again.

For cutting smaller pieces, like those 1/4" (and less) planks, sticks or dice, I measure the cut by placing my claw, so that with the flat of the blade against my knuckles, the edge cuts 1/4" -- rather than by trying to measure the cut with just the knife.

Speed and efficiency comes with ingraining good technique to the point you no longer have to think about it. If you're thinking, you won't be fast. So, while you're learning and thinking, don't worry about speed. Just try to keep your grip sufficiently correct that you don't have a death grip on the knife; keep everything square, straight and even, the best you're able; and keep your knife sharp.

At this stage of the game, the most important thing is to get your grip right. Your teacher will go over the other stuff at school and teach you his (her) technique until it starts to come out your ears. Eventually, you'll adapt that to something which is comfortably yours.

Sharp is important to the point of being sine qua non. I know it seems like I'm a bit nuts on the subject. Or at least it seemed that way until you felt the difference using a sharp knife makes.

BDL
post #13 of 15
Thread Starter 
Without the edge of your knife ever leaving the board? That's my big issue: how are you supposed to have your knife move 1/4" or more to the left with each cut with the edge in constant contact with the board, but without twisting the knife left and right with each cut?

For fine mincing it works great, as I suppose the twisting is so minimal you can't even see it with your naked eye. For big cuts it becomes a problem.

Or, as Just Jim said, if I don't twist the knife left and right, then I end up with cuts that are not squares, but have a fat end (toward me) and a thin end (toward the tip of the knife).

Thanks for all the help.
post #14 of 15
I've heard Jacques Pepin explain this issue of the knife on the board. His technique is very classical French; as BDL says, there are others, some arguably superior. But I think on the whole the principle on this one is the same.

When you're just beginning, you keep the knife anchored on the board. This allows greater control with fine precision cutting. It also has the disadvantage of being slow and not working well with large amounts of material. As you get better at it, the knife begins to rise up off the board, until that whole anchor thing just disappears except when doing very fine mincing. The danger is that if you start doing this too quickly, you get ahead of yourself: because you haven't got perfect control over your grip and your claw hand, you can't make those perfect cuts you need. So you end up with speed and imprecision. What you want is perfection first, then speed, not the other way around: once you're going fast and sloppy, you have to unlearn stuff.

There are those who think you should start the way you plan to finish, with the knife coming well up off the board, but just go SLOOOW and insist on perfection in your cuts. That is the standard learning and training method in classical Japanese kitchens, but you must recognize that they're using a knife -- the usuba -- that cannot be board-anchored in the same way. This method is also much more dependent on sharpness, and may possibly irritate your teachers.

Hope that helps.
post #15 of 15
Start with proper posture and a "pinch grip," while holding the food with an appropriate "claw." A proper pinch means you hold and control the knife with your thumb and forefinger on the blade (not the handle), and the remaining fingers use the handle only to stabilize the knife. If you have to hold tight to cut through, your knife is most probably dull. Squeezing the handle is a sign that you're doing something wrong -- sometimes it's just tenseness.

If you're going to keep the knife tip on the board:


The rationale behing the anchored tip is mostly LEARNING to make vertical cuts, not efficient production. To make it work, you must move the knife up and down in one vertical plane. In turn, that means means you have to move the food under the knife to size your cuts. That's the ONLY way to make it work. Think of it like a guillotine. Every cut means moving a new aristo under the blade. Ah, the good old days.

It also means that you have to raise the handle nearly straight up in order to cut large-sized foods. For instance, slicing a large onion for lyonnaise. This will range from awkward to impossible. If it's uncomfortable, don't do it. Just relax and do whatever works best.

Finally, the anchored-tip learning technique is also a useful production technique when pushing a bundle of smaller "planks" under the knife to make small sticks (e.g., batonet, julienne). Or pushing small sticks under the knife to make small dice.

If you can make consistently square vertical cuts, you can relax a little and let the point come off the board:

Start with proper posture and a "pinch grip," while holding the food with an appropriate "claw."

Raise the knife off the board enough to move it laterally, holding it in a tip down attitude; when you make your cut the tip will be the first thing that hits the board. When that happens, push the knife down so the heel goes to the board while simultanesously giving it a small, gentle push forward so it slices as it chops.

When you've moved the knife far enough to the left that your claw is threatened, retreat the claw. That should also signifty that it's time to move the food. Otherwise, when you've moved the knife to your left so far that your arm's position across your body causes the blade to angle, move the food to the right with your offhand so everything is comfortably square. It takes awhile to get the feel and to coordinate all of the different actions.

In a nutshell, that's "classic," "French" knife technique for three of the four chopping tasks (planking, sticking, and dicing). The fourth, blocking, is a little more catch as catch can, and depends on what you're starting with.

At this stage, you've probably already had enough practice that you can let the tip come off the board, and try to get the same guillotine action going while adding a little glide to it. By the way, that sliding action is what makes French technique silent. If your cuts are consistent, and you're not making much noise, you're doing a lot of things right.

It takes a few months to put everything together to the point where the grip is comfortable and automatic, and to the point where the action is so automatic you don't have to think much about it. Once you get your brain out of the equation, you can start developing actual proficiency.

BDL
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