How to slice an onion without crying, and other kitchen knife skills
Whether you’re a new or experienced home cook, it’s a good idea to take stock of your strengths and weaknesses and find opportunities to raise your game.
The best way to get better is to watch how the pros do it. While there are many areas you might want to address, for now we’ve we narrowed it down to three: knife skills, homemade pasta making and butchering.
We’ve enlisted some bona fide experts to give you pro tips: Harold Arimoto, the Sacramento-based distributor of MAC Knives, well known to local chefs who use the Japanese-made knives in restaurant kitchens; Justin Green, the chef at Hawks Public House on Alhambra Boulevard; and Allyson Harvie, the former chef at Block Butcher Bar, who is in the process of opening The Patriot, a major new restaurant at the Milagro Centre in Carmichael.
While Harold Arimoto is not a professional chef, he has devoted his career to selling the MAC Knives line, mostly to professional kitchens. In doing so, he often gives product demonstrations, and it doesn’t take more than a minute to realize the man has mad skills.
The first thing most home cooks get wrong, says Arimoto, is the grip. Don’t grab the handle like you’re making a fist around the handle. The grip should be more intimate and tactile. The proper grip reduces torque (think wobbly blade as you cut). Take your index finger and pinch it against the inside of your thumb just in front of the bolster (where the blade meets the handle), then wrap your last three fingers around the handle.
“This stabilizes the knife. It also allows you bring the strength of your hand closer to where you’re using it,” he said.
Now comes the actual cutting. Inexperienced home cooks use too much muscle – pressing down too forcefully – rather than let the sharpness of the blade do the work. To demonstrate this, Arimoto takes a sheet of paper and points out that we get paper cuts by the back-and-forth slicing action of the edge of the paper, not by pushing down on the paper.
“This is the key to learning proper knife skills. The knife is moving either forward or backward in order to create a cut,” Arimoto said.
We can separate the products we are cutting into two main categories – soft and hard. The cutting action is different for each.
For something soft, like a tomato, Arimoto begins the cut near the heel of the blade, then pulls the blade toward him. He exerts almost no downward pressure and simply allows the sharpness of the blade to do the work.
“Draw back, using the full length of the blade, no force,” he said.
Pro tip: To keep the tomato slices from sticking to the blade, rock the edge toward the tip as you pull the blade toward you.
The cutting action looks easy, practically elegant, as Arimoto turns a whole tomato into numerous slices in seconds.
For something harder, like a carrot or potato, the action of the blade is reversed. You start near the tip and push the handle away from you. Arimoto emphasizes the sliding action as he pushes the blade forward. Again, you’re letting the sharpness of the knife do the work.
The biggest fear home cooks have with knives is the risk of injury. It’s a real concern. A dull knife can be more dangerous, according to Arimoto, because it can tempt people to use too much force. That leads to a lack of stability.
Sharp knives are paramount, but there are a few safety basics to consider. The first is the stability of the item you’re cutting. If it’s rounded, like a potato or carrot, Arimoto will cut off a portion to create a flat surface.
Then there is the use of the non-knife hand – the one that gets bloodied. Make a claw, tuck the fingertips underneath and hold the object you’re slicing with the top knuckles. This dramatically reduces the risk of injury due to carelessness. The side of the knife blade presses gently against the first knuckle. This is not only safer, it allows you to accurately control the thickness of your slicing action by adjusting the position of your off hand.
If you’re cooking a lot, you’re going to have to mince your share of onions. This most common of prepping tasks doesn’t have to be a sob story.
Pro tip: A sharp blade “allows the knife to slide through without tearing the cells of the onion and releasing all the fumes that will give you tears,” he said.
In the short time it has been open, Hawks Public House in East Sacramento has quickly earned a reputation for, among other things, making first-rate pasta. The more casual version of the upscale Hawks in Granite Bay invested heavily in pasta. Tucked away in the kitchen is a small commercial pasta extruder with all-brass components that costs $7,000.
The more common homemade pasta is usually mixed by hand with egg, flour, water and olive oil. Extruded pasta is made with a much drier dough and without the egg, according to Green, the chef de cuisine at Hawks who has years of pasta-making experience.
“Our pasta is made on the drier side, has a coarser texture and is denser than most people would expect,” he said.
The spaghetti, for instance, has a visible coarseness, almost as if grains are adhering to each strand. The texture is a result of the semolina flour, which is more like corn meal than all-purpose flour. This texture allows the sauce to adhere to the noodle. Most store-bought spaghetti is smooth, and the sauce will slide right off. Green’s recipe is large-scale for restaurant purposes, but it’s basically semolina, cold water and olive oil, with about a 30 percent hydration.
Because home pasta extruder attachments are not nearly as powerful, they don’t create as much pressure when extruding, so the dough must be wetter and have a binder (an egg). Here is a good recipe rundown for home cooks from Williams-Sonoma. This recipe uses a combination of all-purpose and cake flour, mostly because less-powerful home pasta extruders require a gentler dough with more hydration.
Pro tip: Most home cooks don’t put nearly enough salt in their boiling water when cooking the pasta, says Green. As the pasta cooks in minutes, it absorbs some of the salt in the water and gives the noodles more flavor. Also, never rinse your pasta after cooking it.
If you don’t want to go the extruded pasta route, all is not lost. For classic pasta made from scratch, all you need is a countertop, some basic skills, and a hand-powered pasta maker for under $100. An excellent reference for making pasta is the book “The New Making of a Cook” (William Morrow, $40, 1,228 pages) by Madeleine Kamman. For online, the blog “The Cooking of Joy” has a solid recipe.
Green says he finds the process of making pasta “kind of relaxing, actually,” though he points out there “is no real room for error.” In other words, the ingredients must be precise. Use a digital scale and weigh everything, says Green.
Then there’s the sauce. This is where Americans continue to struggle. They ladle too much onto the pasta and, according to Green, many fail to appreciate the art of simplicity.
“Lots of olive oil in a pan. Take your cherry tomatoes and cut them in half, or leave them whole, and just make a quick sauce by tearing some basil and slicing some garlic. To me, that’s amazing,” Green said.
While the professional butcher shop is not nearly as common as it used to be, the craft of butchering has made a strong comeback through much of the United States in recent years. You can thank the Slow Food movement mentality for that. People want to feel closer to their food and, in doing so, they have to learn about parts of the animal and how to butcher them.
Many professional chefs, of course, learn the basics of butchering in culinary school. Scores of others learn on the job (and have the scars to prove it). Taylor’s Market in Land Park offers a three-hour Butchering 101 class for $300. The next class is Aug. 15. For a rundown of many butchering techniques used by chefs, “Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques” (Black Dog, $20, 830 pages) is a valuable illustrated reference book.
Like Green with pasta-making, Allyson Harvie of The Patriot says she finds butchering both meaningful and relaxing. When she was going through a transition in her life, she left restaurants for a time and worked as a butcher at Corti Brothers.
OK, maybe you’re unable to buy a whole hog or keep venison in a large freezer, but there are still many reasons to up your butchering skills. One of them is cost. Butchering saves money, even it’s as basic as buying and breaking down a whole chicken instead of, say, packaged boneless chicken breasts from the grocery store.
Watching Harvie cutting up a whole chicken seems simple – she does it in seconds.
“It lays the foundation for being a chef, along with knife skills,” Harvie said. “Understanding which cuts come from where really determines your cooking methods.” For instance, a pork shoulder will be tougher because it’s a heavily used muscle on the pig. Thus, a quick cooking method simply wouldn’t work – the meat would be far too tough.
“We want to notice that and use a cooking method that would be slow and low so you’re able to break down those muscles and those tissues, like a braise or confit.”
One component of being a professional chef is minimizing waste, yet it’s something that that goes largely unnoticed by the general public. Good chefs understand that food costs are crucial to a restaurant’s bottom line. Home cooks on a budget could embrace that lesson, too.
“For us chefs, it’s important that we use every part of an animal.” Harvie said. “It’s about integrity. Even fish, when we use whole fish, I’ll use the collars and the tails. I’ll scrape them and skin them. We use the bones. Bones will get turned into a fumé. The same goes for poultry. We roast off the bones and make chicken stock. Chefs are always looking at where we can minimize our waste and maximize our production.”
Harvie added that butchering isn’t feasible in all applications for the home cook. For one thing, it can be time-consuming. But even a limited embrace of butchering can go a long way.
“Getting a whole chicken or fish and learning to spread it out and see how many meals you can get from one animal. It’s cost effective,” she said.
Butchering doesn’t take a lot of equipment. You can do much with a chef’s knife, a flexible boning knife and kitchen shears.
Pro tip: Harvie likes to cook most of her proteins with the bone attached for maximum flavor. Bones can be removed later if desired.