Knife Fu 101

Welcome to Knife Fu 101!

Get out everything you need—all your ingredients and tools—and set them on the counter.

The French call this mise en place, which literally means “put in place.” It’s good to do this at the beginning of every cooking session, so you don’t have to rush around trying to locate stuff while things on the stove are exploding. The French, turns out, really knew a thing or two about cooking!

So have you mise’d everything en place? Great! Let’s move on.

This is your knife.

Well, technically this is my knife. Yours might look a bit different. But it will be roughly this big, with a comfortably-sized handle. This long-ish knife with a medium-wide blade is known as a chef’s knife, and it’s the workhorse of the kitchen. You will be using it for 90% of your kitchen chopping tasks. It will also ideally be perfectly sharp, because a sharp knife is a safer and more effective knife.

The knife is the second-most important tool in the kitchen. The first? Your hands. So before we dive in, take your dominant hand, lay it over your heart, and recite the following:

The Knife Oath

I solemnly swear to use my knife in the name of deliciousness, not harm. I will keep my fingertips, and the fingertips of those around me, safe at all times. If I fail to live up to my oath, I will administer Band-Aids swiftly and promptly. Also, a righteous tree sloth will appear out of nowhere and briefly turn my knife into a chihuahua.

Did you take the oath? Okay good.

Here’s how you hold a knife:

Step one: Take your dominant hand, wrap your fingers around the handle, and grip firmly.

Step two: Scoot your hand forward a bit, and try gripping the blade between your index and thumb. This gives you more control. Sometimes I hold the blade this way, sometimes I don’t. It depends on what you’re cutting. Give it a try and see if you like it.

Here’s how not to hold your knife:

  • With your index finger on top of the blade. – You’re not conducting an orchestra, you’re taking down a tomato! Grip it like you mean it.

  • Upside down – You laugh now, but… sometimes it’s hard to tell. Be careful with paring knives especially.

  • Backwards -
    There are some obvious issues with this.

  • Between your teeth -
    Unless you’re a pirate, this is not recommended.

Now you know how to hold a knife! Let’s learn how to chop with it.

How to move a knife

A knife cuts through food in two ways:

  1. by sliding through it
  2. by applying downward force

Sliding is good for cutting soft things like tomatoes and meat. It lets the blade do the job of separating the food without squishing it.

Applying force downward is good for cutting hard things like sweet potatoes. You need that force to split a hard substance in two.

Because most food is somewhere in the middle of the hard-soft spectrum, you’ll often combine the two motions. In other words, you will chop by simultaneously sliding your knife forward and applying downward pressure.

To do this, place the tip of your knife on the chopping surface. Proceed to lower the handle while sliding the knife forward.

Practice this a couple of times until you get the hang of it.

Your other hand

While your dominant hand (that diva!) plays the starring role of holding the knife, your other hand has the critical supporting role of keeping your food from getting away.

How? Just be like this adorable kitten:

The claw grip

Whenever you’re holding down food to be chopped, curl your fingers inward, mimicking a cat’s paw. Your finger knuckles will act as a shield to ward off the advancing knife, and your food will stay in place!

This is the biggest secret to having good knife skills. Practice it, love it, make it yours. Once you get used to the claw grip, you’ll be able to execute super-accurate, close-together cuts, while never ever injuring yourself.

It won’t start to click until you actually try it. So let’s go chop some things!

Let’s make salsa.

Watch carefully.

Too fast? Okay, we’ll do this at normal speed then.

Dice a tomato.

Start by cutting a tomato in half.

Then cut it into slices.

Neat Trick

Remember what I said earlier about making super-accurate cuts? You can actually use the knuckles of your claw grip to guide the thickness of your slicing. Watch how it works in the video.

Next, stack them and cut them into strips, and finally into cubes. That’s all there is to dicing!

Remember that a tomato is pretty soft, so slide the knife, instead of forcing it down. Otherwise you will get tomato mush.

Dice a total of two tomatoes. When you’re done, put them in a large bowl. Everything gets mixed together at the end anyway, so feel free to keep adding things to this bowl as you go.

Mince a jalapeño.

Mince just means chopping into tiny pieces. Remember dicing before? Do that, but at a smaller scale.

Beware the Spice

Hot peppers can be tricky to handle. People have varying sensitivity to the spiciness. If you are worried about your skin and have a plastic Ziploc bag handy, slip one over your non-knife hand to protect it. Otherwise, just be sure to wash your hands really well with plenty of soap right after!

Start by removing the seeds and white pith on the inside. These harbor most of the capsaicin, the chemical known for setting people’s mouths on fire. So get rid of that unless you enjoy mouth-fires.

To do this, cut the top of the jalapeño off. Then cut it in half. Then in fourths. Take one of these pieces and, holding onto the end of it, slide your knife along to shave off the pith and seeds.

Next cut it into thin strips.

Finally line up the thin strips and cut into tiny dice.

You’ve just minced a jalapeño! Repeat this until the entire jalapeño is gone, then put it in the bowl with the tomato.

Dice an onion.

There are multiple ways to achieve this, but I will show you what I consider to be the slightly messier but less dangerous way.

Start by cutting the onion in half. This recipe will only require half an onion, so wrap up the other half and save it for another time.

Now take the remaining half and lay the flat side down. Cut off both ends. This will allow you to easily peel off the skin.

Once you have peeled the onion, slice it into half-rounds. Here’s where it starts to get messy, as the onion slices fall apart. But line the half-rounds up as much as you can, and continue cutting them into smaller pieces. The pieces don’t have to perfect, just small.

You have now diced an onion. Add it to the bowl!

Chop the cilantro.

This is a matter of taste, but you can either use the cilantro stems or not. They are tender and have lots of flavor, but some people don’t like the texture and leave them out.

If you are leaving the stems out, pluck all the leaves off and put them in a pile on your cutting board. Otherwise, just line them up and use your claw grip to make close-together cuts.

If you want your cilantro to be chopped even more finely, use your non-dominant hand to hold down the front part of the knife, and make a few chops this way. This method gives your knife more leverage, so you can cut all the way through those scattered leaves.

You have now chopped cilantro. Add it to the bowl!

Juice a lime.

There are a couple tricks to getting the most juice from a lime, even if you don’t have a citrus squeezer.

First, roll the lime along the counter with your palm.

Then, cut it in this way that I learned from Chef Heidi Fink’s website:

Lay the lime on its side and cut it lengthwise a bit off center.

Repeat with the other side.

Cut off the 2 ends of the center piece.

Cut the 2 side pieces in half.

Squeeze these smaller halves into the giant bowl of stuff, just like you would a normal lime piece.

And here’s the cool part:

Take the core of the lime and wring it like a towel:

See how much juice comes out?

That’s it!

Add salt to taste and mix it up.

We have arrived at the final step, a.k.a. The Moment of Truth—when we find out whether all our efforts have been worth it.

Actually, I lied. We’re not at the mercy of fate quite yet. Because, at this stage, you still have a lot of power to influence the taste of the dish—you have the power of salt.

No dish is complete without salt. It brings out native flavors and takes whatever you’re making from bland to spectacular. The key to proper salting is to trust your palate and taste taste taste. And the first step to that is to learn to add salt with your fingertips. Which, by the way, are still attached, because I have taught you so well. Right? Riiiight? Anyway.

To do this, pour a mound of salt onto a small plate. Use your thumb and first 2 fingers to grab a pinch. Sprinkle it over the salsa by rubbing your fingers together. Try sprinkling from up high to help it disperse more evenly. (Now you know why the chefs do this.)

Different kinds of salt

If you haven’t already, try buying some kosher salt or sea salt. The grains are bigger and easier to grab. Not only that, they actually taste less metallic and almost sweeter compared to iodized salt.

After you’ve sprinkled on the salt, mix it in and taste. Repeat until it’s to your liking.

Practice this “three-finger pinch” every time you cook, and slowly you’ll develop the intuition to grab the right amount of salt every time. How’s that for culinary superpowers?

Pinching vs. measuring

Why not just put in a pre-measured amount of salt? It’s because in cooking, a lot of variables come into play. You could be using a brand of soy sauce that is already really salty. You could be using tomatoes that are much sweeter than average, which will affect the perception of overall saltiness in your dish. If you rely on a recipe to tell you how much salt to add, it could end up being the wrong amount. The only way is to use your fingers, develop your intuition for how much salt to pinch, and taste taste taste.

And that’s all there is to making salsa from scratch, not to mention learning a boatload of knife skills! Now grab a bag of chips, invite a bunch of friends over, and munch away!

Nicely done!

You made some delicious food. Now go enjoy it!

P.S. - If you want to show off your work on the lesson gallery, send me a picture.

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Take a picture of your finished salsa.

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