If you’ve ever planned a big meal, then you already know how time-consuming the preparation can be. Professional chefs call it mise en place, French for “everything in its place.” It’s a reference to how you should set up your workspace before you begin cooking the meal and includes everything from chopping the vegetables to cutting the meat, fresh herbs, measuring oils and sauces or anything else that is any component of your meal. And one of the most important parts of successful mise en place is strong knife skills. Any chef will tell you that the first classes they take are about knives: what kind to use and how to move quickly and safely in a kitchen with them.
“Besides the safety factor, knife skills are important for uniformity sake,” said Chris Scalia, chef instructor at Boulder’s Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. “Vegetables, or whatever we are cutting, should all be cut within the same dimensions so there is consistency throughout the dish.” That may not be the biggest concern for the home cook when making a quick meal for themselves, but Scalia said, it’s sure to impress dinner guests since they eat with their eyes first. It’s not just about appearance, but uniform slices means the ingredients cook evenly.
How Much To Spend
Improving your knife skills in the kitchen starts with the right tools. There’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars on fancy knives or televised special offers. “I think my mother still has the Ginsu knife, it’s good for trimming trees and bushes,” laughed Scalia. “When I went to school, I bought the nicest knives I could find, but when I’m in the kitchen with lots of other people, I don’t want to keep expensive knives lying around.”
Instead, he uses a couple of Forschner knives. “I like them because they are softer metal, about $30 or $35, and when I need to sharpen it, being the softer metal, I can bring that edge right back to it.” After all, if you aren’t taking proper care of your nicest knives, they’re no better than more budget-friendly options. Nor do you need to stock up on a knife for every occasion. “I personally keep a six-inch knife,” Scalia explained. “I’ll keep a paring knife for more of my intricate cuts. At home, you’ll want a good chef’s knife or French knife, a paring knife and a utility knife. That should be good for any home cook.”
Care for Your Knives
Scalia emphasized that knives should always be sharp for safety’s sake. “I know it sounds strange that a sharp knife would be safer than a dull knife, but it really is. A dull knife would require us to use more force and potentially that dull blade can flip off and land on one of our fingers — which isn’t fun.” So you’ll want to plan on sharpening your knife as often as needed to ensure safety. “For someone that uses their knife every day, it really depends on what you are cutting and how often you are using it. The misconception is the honing steel — they don’t really sharpen your knife. The only thing that actually works is a sharpening stone — which is a skill in itself on how to use that.” For professional chefs, honing a knife is an everyday occurrence.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Pick up some potatoes and practice your skills: They’re inexpensive and something most home cooks can easily use after cutting them. Make sure to use a proper grip, and safely use your free hand for guidance. “I’m a righty and my guide hand is going to be my left hand, so keeping the side of that blade glued to my guide hand will enable me to know where my knife is at all times,” Scalia said. “Obviously, keeping your fingertips tucked in a ‘paw’ grip might seem awkward at first, but with that knife touching the first joint it should be brushed up right next to it.” Not that you should look away from the cutting, but if you were to look away the grip and guide hand against the side of the blade tell your brain that your hands are out of the way.
To really up your kitchen acumen, consider a knife skills course taught by a professional chef like Scalia, who teaches a six-week block of classes at Boulder’s Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. The school offers a Culinary Arts Diploma, but also more informal home cooking classes. The knife skills workshop includes all the basics of how to hold your knife, body posture and the fundamental cuts.
Whether you’re seeking to impress guests with a well-executed meal or make your meal prep more efficient, knife skills are essential. Your sharper, safer knives will help cut through setting up your mise before meals.