I am terrible at cutting things.
Nothing is even, I give up halfway through, my hand hurts. Yet, knife skills are fundamental in the kitchen – so I decided to do something about my total lack of blade control. I went to Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Northampton and took me a knife skills class.
The class promised it’d teach me to “dice, slice, chiffonade, julienne” and much more. I have to say that it absolutely did, and then some. In other words, it was well worth the $55.
Yes, I paid $55 for a two-hour class. If that upsets you, you are not going to want to read about what I did after the class.
There were about 15 people there, all with our own set-up in the built-in kitchen to the side of the store. I was the first to arrive and sat in the center row, not wanting to be in the front but not hiding in the back. Not five minutes later my (now) good friend Peggy arrived – a 65-year-old woman wearing a Band-Aid on her thumb, which she nearly chopped off while taking care of her 92-year-old mother in Virginia weeks earlier. (“I mean this woman sharpens her own knives, and I can’t even cut a damn cabbage!”) Peggy proved a wonderful partner to struggle alongside. She mastered dicing while I cruised through chiffonading, and we helped each other along the way. She also teared up a shit ton when we got to the onion and marveled at how dry my own eyes were – and then understood why when I refused to open my mouth to speak to her until the onions were cleared away completely. (No, you don’t need to chew gum or put a match in your teeth when dealing with onion – just keep your mouth shut.)
Our two instructors were a 50ish year old man and woman who held various positions in various restaurants over the years, and clearly knew what was up. We utilized a 3-inch paring knife and 8-inch chef’s knife throughout, cutting through celery, carrots, onion, scallions, tomato, lime and kale. We learned about different types of knives and how to care for them, and took our cuttings to throw into a soup that we all ate together in the end. It was awesome, and I felt proud knowing some of my nicely diced carrots were a part of it.
LET’S THROW EVERYTHING INTO A CATEGORY
The two main types of knives we talked about were German and Japanese steel, with ceramic knives as a little aside. While German and Japanese knives are both made of high carbon stainless steel, there are some differences.
- German: softer, so loses the edge a little quicker and must be sharpened more. Beveled at 19 degrees
- Japanese: harder, edge will keep longer, but tougher to sharpen. Sleek in design; smaller width than a German knife. Beveled at 15 degrees.
- Ceramic: Super sensitive; not good with pits or pivoting. However, there is nothing lighter or sharper out there.
There are forged and stamped knives. Think of stamped knives like cookies, being cut in big batches from a mold. Forged knives are just what you’d think, heated and hammered into shape.
There are different styles of cutting styles, as well. The European way uses a rocking motion, while the Japanese way is all about staying straight. There’s a knife that helps someone who wants to combine the two styles: the Santoku. Some Santokus have divets on them, which are called hollow ground. These spaces allow for air pockets that reduce drag while cutting.
The two main knives we used were a chef and paring knife, as seen below. The chef knife is the wayyyyy bigger one.
We started with the paring knife, which is a small knife used mainly for peeling. We took a scallion, cut a sliver of the root end off then, holding it by the white part, cut the other end off until it was about 5 inches long. We then used the paring knife and an upward motion to make little cuts from where we were holding the white upward, all the way around the scallion, until it was all little ribbons. We put it cut side down in a glass of ice water and when we took it out at the end of class each end had curled up, making teeny circles. It was a scallion firecracker! Perfect for garnishes, and a great way to start a class of handling super sharp objects.
We then used the paring knife to make a tomato rose. We started at the top of the tomato and cut down and around the center, very carefully slicing in a continuous, sawing motion in a spiral pattern until the tomato was skinned. We rolled the skinned piece in on itself until it looked like a rose. Mine needed some toothpick assistance.
We then took out the big bad knife and cut up a carrot. We did straight cuts, diagonals, dicing, and a julienne. All the while the key was to keep the tip of the knife on the board while gently, easily moving the rest of it back and forth, using the back part as the cutting area.
Not only was the motion hard to get used to, so was the grip. You have more control if you put your thumb up ON the actual blade. Yes, on it.
Regular cuts are a matter of holding the veggie at an angle, since you move your knife at an angle. Diagonal cuts mean holding the veggie straight. Dicing is slicing it into little cubes, and julienne is a form of cuts that are match sticks. Here’s a better look, thanks to the handout they gave us:
We also learned efficient ways to cut tomatoes and onions, which not only have a tendency to fall apart but are also tough because they roll around.
First of all, there is no shame in slicing a little off one side so they’ll sit flat. That’s the safer thing to do. For the onion, we cut the stem part off but left the root in tact. While we cut, the root side is faced to the left if we were right-handed, and vice versa.
We put the flat side down on the cutting board, and got eye level with that bitch. After placing our palms flat on the top to hold it in place, we made three horizontal cuts, though NOT all the way through. We stood back up, then used the tip of the knife to cut from the top down of the tomato/onion, making a sort of cross hatch pattern. We were then free to resume normal cutting motions, resulting in neat, diced pieces.
The other cool thing we did was cut a fancy- lookin’ lime using our paring knife. We held the lime in our hands and started at its equator. We cut a pattern that I like to think of as “Charlie Brown’s shirt”:
You do that all the way around the lime, them pull it apart. If it doesn’t come apart, go through the cuts again and make sure they go all the way through. THEN when you pull it apart, you have this badassery:
The class was incredible, and I felt so energized at the end of it – so much so, that I marched right on over to the knife counter in the store and purchased a 6-inch (the 8 was too unwieldy for me) Wusthof chef’s knife – for $105.
I KNOW. Look, I was saving up for a $150 one so, really, I saved some money.
And my present to myself just came a little earlier.