Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Ruhlman's post yesterday (still today for me; had to stay up late because of an ill dog) put to paper my own pet peeve: the willful ignorance, bordering on stubborn refusal, by people to learn even the most basic of knife skills and care.

I realize that I am somewhat a strange case: my dad had trained as a chef in his 20s and felt that learning to cook was an important part of my upbringing, and learning to cook to him revolved around two basic skills he introduced me to at the age of 7 or 8. They are both very important; the first was making an omelette, the second was proper handling, care, and use of a chef's knife. And, for the past five years, I shaved exclusively with a straight razor (though practicality makes that impossible now that college is a waning memory). So, my skill with a blade, and my comfort with sharpening, is far and above that of the average American.

So, yes, one could make a very strong case that I shouldn't judge other people for not knowing how to use a knife. In fact, I will gladly give you that point. But, I don't see any possible excuse for the way so many people act around knives. They refuse to buy good knives, they buy knives that are grossly too small (a boning knife should not be used to dice an onion), they never sharpen them, they refuse to learn safe cutting techniques. And, of course, no one likes to be told they don't know what they are doing, even if they would readily admit their ignorance to someone who is just as ignorant (not that I ever patronize someone while they have a knife in their hands).

The point is, the knife is central to the kitchen. Unless one's entire kitchen repertoire consists of whole roasted vegetables and Chateaubriand, every dish starts under a knife. Properly honed knives, when used correctly, make such easy work (even if one doesn't work quickly) of prepping ingredients that cooking hardly seems time consuming at all. And the vast majority of my friends stubbornly refuse to pick up a chef's knife and a steel and learn even the simplest cutting stroke.

It can be intimidating to learn a new skill. Cooking on a daily basis, for all my meals, used to seem like something I would never be able to do. I certainly did not get to the place I am now in a week. Truth be told, even my knife skills could use some practice. But why don't more people at least want to learn these skills, even at the rudimentary level?

Here's a great example of the sort of benefit one can gain from proper knife skills. At Thanksgiving, I walked into the kitchen to see my mom slicing a carrot for turkey soup. She was gripping the handle, not the bolster, and was using straight up and down strokes to cut the carrot with the heel of the blade. The blade wobbled whenever she applied pressure, and her fingers were in danger of receiving a glancing blow if the carrot were to spin before the blade bit. Since it was my mom, I didn't feel too horrible a person for pointing out to her that if she gripped the bolster and kept tip of the blade on the counter, the whole affair would be smoother and safer, especially if she pushed the knife forward as she brought it down.

Reluctantly, she made the switch, more to humor me than anything else. However, just that tiny switch made the slicing so much safer and the carrot/blade so much more stable, that her speed immediately increased and she visibly relaxed. She actually remarked at Christmas, the next time I was home, how glad she was I'd made the comment.

1 comment:

Rebecka said...

Your comments are rather... cutting.