How to Practice Your Knife Skills and be a Better Chef
Chopping an onion: This is an excellent exercise in choosing the correct knife. We have discussed before the benefit of having a few very good knives in your kitchen. The chef’s knife, the paring knife, the chopping (nakiri or santoku). To be fair, you can (and I have) used each of these knives to ractice this skill.
But today I want to refer you to some of the classic techniques used by Jacques Pepin.
I will include a link to his tutorial videos at the end of this. And I highly recommend that you go and watch and practice. We will begin with his technique of chopping an onion. This doesn’t seem like a very difficult task, of course. However, imagine having been trained the way he was. Trained with a very strict Taskmaster leaning over his shoulder at all times. Listening for the clicking of the knife against the board, you will watch and you will be inspired.
As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, this appears to be a relatively simple technique One that should not require too much thought or review but let us try and break it down. And by the way, we choose onion for no particular reason. This technique can be used with other types of fruits or vegetables. In fact, the choice of showing how to chop an onion is simply because that’s the video available.
What knife do you use? You have a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a chopping knife ( nakiri or santoku). Which is the appropriate choice? The answer is that either one of these items will work for this task. I have used all three of these knives for this task and each of them has worked effectively.
But today we’re talking about Jacques Pepin. I saw him do this perhaps 18 years ago during a PBS show where he was cooking with Julia Child. They are short shows and they’re trying to cook a whole meal so they didn’t have a whole lot of time to discuss any one particular technique. However I recall watching him work and being inspired.
Jacques uses a Paring Knife
His preferred technique is to use a paring knife. Once again, I recommend you find one of his videos and watch and watch again and watch a third time. I would like to point out the way he holds his knife. This of course is a paring knife. It’s a short blade – 3 inches maybe 4 inches, and he holds it high up on the handle. In fact, if you watch carefully you can see that he holds it so that his thumb is about an inch away from the tip of the knife.
This gives him acute control of the knife and allows him to make very small, very detailed, very accurate cuts. I would also like to point out where he holds the knife. His grip is more on the blade than it is on the handle. I would say he holds the handle perhaps with his last finger. Then his two middle fingers and his thumb go around the blade and he uses his thumb to guide the point.
Another element of his technique with the paring knife is that he tends to hold the knife stationary and move the object. Whatever he is cutting, he moves around the point rather than trying to swivel his wrists. That is how you cut your hands and nick your fingers, These are some mistakes you can correct and avoid. His favorite expression is to use your thumb as a pivot and move whatever you are cutting around the point of the knife.
So let’s chop some onions.
First you gotta peel the onion. So you want to take your paring knife. You want to place the onion on the cutting board, preferably a wooden board. And you want to slice off the root end, turn the onion around and slice off the tip end & peel back one or two layers of skin. And of course a very sharp knife is always very good, very helpful and will make the task much easier.
So it’s not whether you peel 1 layer or you peel 2 layers. As the great chef reminds us you need to look at the onion and you need to decide if it is clean. You look at it and decide. sometimes it’s 1 layer sometimes it’s 2. Sometimes it’s more depending upon how old the onion is, how firm it is, how long it’s been sitting on your kitchen counter, etc.
Next, put the onion on the cutting board and cut it in half or just cut a piece off of it so that you create a flat surface and lay that flat surface against the board
I am obliged to remind you that those onion skins and onion peels should not be thrown away. You should have a small or maybe not so small bowl or bag or container you can toss those things in. Put them in a plastic freezer bag, put it in your freezer and save them so that when it’s time to make some stock you can take those little pieces from the onion or whatever else you have been working on the kitchen and put them in your stock. And it will improve the quality of your stock. This is not necessarily true for gravy, tho.
Ok, you have your piece of onion laying flat on your board and you can now slice the onion. Hold the onion lightly, push with your thumb against the back and your fingers along the upper curve. Your slices are going to go the long way along the top of the onion through the onion all the way to the cutting board.
And you want to make your slices or cuts as wide as you want your pieces of onion to be. Do you want it in very, very, small pieces then your slices will be very close together. If you want more of rough cut then your slices can be further apart. You slice all the way across the onion.
Next, you take your knife and hold it parallel to the cutting board horizontally and halfway between the cutting board and the top of the onion. And you want to make another horizontal slice. Now you’re ready to dice. you’re going to cut across the onion not along the onion and that will produce perfect little dices.
Another little trick is the sharper your blade, the less you will cry. This is because the onion releases sulfuric acid that is built up in the flesh. This is what causes tears. If you have a very sharp blade you don’t bruise the onion and therefore the sulfuric acid does not get released or at least not much of it gets released so you can cut more onions without weeping and wiping your eyes.
Also, if you put your chopped onions into a small sieve and run them quickly under cold water you will wash that excess sulfuric acid off and you will keep your chopped onions cleaner, lighter, with a sweet fragrance. This is a technique that is particularly effective if you are using your chopped onions for tacos or to sprinkle on the sandwich of any type.
Okay, Let’s have some fun. I am including a link where Jacques demonstrates how to make a pig with a lemon.
First you need to choose a lemon that is smooth around and has a bit of a bump on one end of it.
If you take a lemon and place it on your cutting board you will see there’s a spot where the lemon was connected to the tree and then at the base end where it was not connected to the tree there is a little bump. Your lemon should be slightly oval in shape.
That little bump will be the pig’s nose. Hold the lemon, using the heel of your paring knife make two small nicks just above and to either side all of the pig’s nose or the little bump on the end of the lemon. Jacques uses the tip of his knife and his favorite technique of using his thumb as a pivot. In this way you can swivel the lemon and notch out 2 small eyes.
Then cut a small X across the little bump on the end of the lemon. This will serve as the pig’s mouth Then take a black peppercorn, two black peppercorns, to use for the pigs eyes. You just take one peppercorn and push it into the little notch that you cut in the skin of the lemon.
Now to make the pig’s ears you will need two shallow cuts on either side of each eye. these cuts should go between the skin and the flesh. Don’t cut too deep. And don’t cut too long. You will pull these flaps away from the side of the lemon.
Then, you can take a small slice off the belly or the bottom of the lemon pig so that it lies flat against the plate.
Does it look like a pig? Practice, practice and your guests will be delighted!
You may want to take a look at our review of JA Henckels Knives & Sets. There is a lot of great information about these high quality knives.