There is no everyday tool that causes more trepidation than an old-fashioned knife — the gleaming blade that sleeps in every kitchen, ready and willing to draw blood (and ruin dinner).
I’ve heard so many friends suggest they’re a little nervous when they grab a sharp chef’s knife, and it’s not surprising that for a lot of amateur cooks, the task of chopping ingredients is an awkward chore to avoid. Turns out, many people who “don’t like cooking” really just don’t like prep work. We can blame the existence of the Slap Chop® on our aversion to handling knives, and I’m pretty sure the explosion of pre-cut ingredients being sold in supermarkets has something to do with it, too.
If you’re in a real rush, grabbing a package of diced peppers or crushed garlic can be a valuable time-saver — but it’s also more costly. The fundamental fix comes down to knife skills, and as with driving a manual-transmission car, there’s no replacement for the satisfaction of practice and competency. Being a smoother, quicker hand with a kitchen knife improves everything about cooking, whether it’s just for yourself or a family of five. And once you get a few rules down and log some time chopping, progress will come in leaps and bounds.
What you need to get started is a chef’s knife, a cutting board and a vegetable to cut. The knife needs to be sharp, obviously; if it feels dull, a sharpening or a cheap $45 Victorinox replacement may be in order. The mechanics, meanwhile, come down to two keys: How you hold the knife, and how you guide the knife as it cuts.
Many people hold a knife as if it’s an axe, with all fingers wrapped around the handle. In reality, the best practice is to pinch the base of the blade with the index finger and thumb, wrapping the remaining fingers around the handle loosely. Once you’ve got the grip down, we have to check the guide hand. You’ve probably been told to “tuck your fingers” while chopping. But it’s not just about tucking them in for safety — it’s about figuring out how to use them. The small knuckles of your guide hand are crucial, because they’re basically touch sensors. They help aim the knife through feel, making it easier to slice more quickly while staying in control.
It’s like a guillotine that moves on rails. The knife hand just goes up and down while sliding alongside the guide hand, as if pulled via magnetism. Confused? Just watch Jacques Pépin, the godfather of modern kitchen technique, demonstrate.
As for what to cut up? Value is the name of the game for practice, so I like potatoes and cabbage, since they’re super cheap, versatile to cook with and are fairly easy to cut into. And while you can theoretically practice any kind of cut, I think repeating a fine 1/8th inch slice is best. (You can use the ingredients for a potato gratin or some kind of cabbage slaw — may I suggest crunchy, thangy El Salvadoran curtido?)
Whatever you’re practicing with, remember that you’re slicing, not just slamming the blade up and down like a cartoon cook. That means either rocking the blade with its tip down or slicing down at a diagonal angle, using the length of the knife to do the work in both cases. (Your preference for one style over the other will develop with time; I prefer a flatter slicing motion.) Go slowly, only ramping up your speed when your precision is near perfect. It’s all about the movement of both hands in tandem, replicating the 1/8th inch shift again and again, like a sewing machine. The goal isn’t to chop fast and sloppy. Doing so will only reinforce bad habits and make it more likely you’ll lop off a fingertip one day.
You can ramp up the difficulty by advancing to finer cuts — slice a potato into 1/8th-inch planks, stack them up, and cut 1/8th-inch matchsticks for a simple stir-fry. Or try using carrots and green onions, both of which tend to roll on a cutting board and require a little more effort with the guide hand. You can repeat these simple practice tasks ad nauseam while listening to a podcast in the kitchen or even sitting on the couch, but to be honest, just applying the right techniques during your weekday cooking sessions will help, too.
It’s not just your physical dexterity that will improve with practice, but your mental enjoyment of knifework. I find cooking prep to routinely be the most “Zen” part of my day. It’s a pleasure to lay out my produce, plan what cuts I need and transform everything into a neat pile of symmetric vegetable bits. I may not be able to control climate change or civil unrest, but damn it, I’m chopping a perfect brunoise. (If you’re a real sicko, you may even be inspired to learn a tourneé cut.)
And in case you want a sort of “graduation” ceremony for all this practice and improvement, I think nothing beats the challenge of making confit byaldi, a beautiful remix on the rustic French vegetable stew ratatouille. Yellow squash, zucchini, Japanese eggplant and Roma tomatoes are sliced into perfectly thin rounds, then layered and baked with sauce. (You probably know it best as the showstopper dish in the third act of the Pixar film Ratatouille.) It tastes incredible and looks like an achievement, because it is.
Is there something slightly masochistic about all this practice?
I certainly remember it feeling like a chore when I was working in my parents’ kitchens as a teen, turning on my inner wannabe Morimoto and (poorly) imitating the machine-gun pace of a pro chopper. Fifteen years have flown by, but thankfully, my B-level knife skills have only gotten better with time. So remember, don’t get too frustrated if progress seems slow or you feel clumsy with a chef’s knife in hand.
You’re building a life skill, not competing in a sprint, and who knows? You could end up like this blindfolded onion wizard one day, all thanks to a little at-home practice during the pandemic.