The Prep Chef at Home

Tips From the Professional Kitchen.

Let’s go back to basics. Many have been thrust into the kitchen preparing more meals than usual without some of the building blocks that make prep work a quick and thoughtful act, rather than a laborious chore. The base of a fluid cooking experience is the setup, which begins with knowing your equipment and how to use it to your advantage.

Knife Types

While there is a knife for every job, there are three essential knives every home kitchen should have. A chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife.

  • A chef’s knife is the most important knife to have. It is designed to be multi-functional and with proper handling, can do the job of all other knives. If there is one knife to invest in, it’s a quality chef’s knife.
  • A paring knife is a small all-purpose knife, usually with a two-to-four inch blade, suited for more delicate tasks like trimming, peeling, coring, or deveining.
  • A serrated knife, or bread knife, is best used for slicing ingredients with different textures on the exterior than the interior, like a tomato or thick-crusted bread. Serrated knives come in all sizes, but the longer ones minimize sawing, which can mangle whatever you’re trying to slice.

Knife Safety & Etiquette

Treat knives well and they will treat you well.

  • Never leave knives in the sink. Clean, dry, and put away.
  • Don’t put straight-edged knives in the dishwasher, they will dull.
  • Never try to catch a falling knife, let it drop.
  • If walking with a knife, with a straight arm press the flat side of the knife against your leg, blade back.
  • If handing someone a knife, put it down and let them pick it up. Or, offer handle first.

Sharpening

Keep knives sharp. A dull knife is actually much more dangerous than a sharp knife as it requires more pressure and has a higher risk of slipping.

  • Use a honer every few weeks to keep knives sharp.
  • Sharpen knives at home with a professional whetstone or an inexpensive but handy sharpening tool.
  • Get knives professionally sharpened once or twice a year. Knife shops, butcher shops, and kitchenwares stores often provide this service for around $5 per knife.

Cutting Boards

Cutting boards are arguably one of the most important tools in the kitchen. They aren’t just for show — cutting boards protect knives and keep counters clean. They are used more than any other piece of equipment, so choose wisely.

  • Choose wood or plastic boards (plastic is best reserved for raw meat and fish).
  • Avoid glass cutting boards, your knives will thank you.
  • The bigger the board the better. Get the largest cutting board your counter can fit. Or, at least use a board that’s bigger than the knife used on it.
  • Stabilize cutting boards with a damp towel, paper towel, or rubber mat underneath.
  • Wash wooden boards in hot, soapy water and dry immediately. Rub with mineral oil regularly to keep healthy and new.
  • When a cutting board has accumulated several deep grooves from repeated use, it is likely harboring bacteria. Time to replace it.

Knife Handling

To properly handle a knife, one must first properly position the body. Stand (don’t sit), with hips square to the counter. The knife should be at the same height or just below the elbows so that the whole upper body, not just the hands, can put downward pressure on the knife.

The Grip

To properly hold a knife, avoid wrapping your entire hand around the handle. Instead, the palm should choke up on the handle, with the thumb and index finger gripping the top of the blade. This grip allows you to use the weight of the knife, the sharpness of the blade, and the strength of your arm to work together to make cutting easier.

The Claw

The position of the other hand, also known as The Claw is the helping hand. It’s called this because the fingertips are curled under with the knuckles pressing down on whatever you are cutting, let’s say a carrot. By doing this, you keep the carrot from sliding and also prevents you from cutting your fingertips. This is how chefs are able to slice quickly without looking because the knife is guided by the knuckles. At home, practice precision and technique over speed. There’s no need to rush, just pay attention, and enjoy the zen of slicing.

Some Pointers

  • Relax your hands and wrist and let the blade do the cutting.
  • Position all 10 fingers so it’s impossible for the blade to cut them.
  • The blade should be parallel to the knuckles, with the middle knuckle guiding the knife.

Knife Skills

For the everyday home cook, knife skills are less about precisely measured cuts and more about ensuring even cooking and reducing waste.

Break it Down to Create a Flat Side

The best way to start cutting into something is to break it down into more manageable pieces first. For a carrot, for example, start by cutting it in half, around where the thickness changes, for very large carrot this could be in thirds. The next step is to cut in half lengthwise, which is considerably easier (and safer) to do with smaller chunks than a whole carrot. This creates a flat side. This is super important. No matter what you are cutting, you need to create a flat side before slicing or dicing. This prevents slipping.

Rock it

Rock the knife from front to back as well as up and down, using the entire length of the blade.

Slice

Once you have a flat side, let your knuckles guide the knife. The key to slicing is smooth, long cuts. Let the knife glide through the item you are cutting with a smooth sliding motion.

Dice

Dicing uses the same technique as slicing, but with a rotation of the sliced ingredients to create cubes. For consistency, create the same thickness of vertical cuts as the horizontal cuts.

Mince or Rock Chop

This technique is best used for garlic and herbs. Roughly chop your ingredients, create a small pile, and place the tip of the knife on one side of the pile. Using your free hand as an anchor on the top of the knife, chop through the pile back and forth in an arch across your board. Regather the pile to continue.

Chiffonade

French for “ribbons,” this technique creates exactly that and is perfect for thinly shredded leafy greens and herbs. Stack leaves on top of each other and roll into a tight cigar. Thinly slice from one point to another.

Cutting Board Sequence

The “Cutting Board Sequence” is a concept that guides you through the order of which ingredients to prep first based on their residue content — residue in the form of juice, stickiness, lingering smell, or risk of cross-contamination. This method minimizes the need to constantly clean or change the cutting board while also preserving the flavor of each ingredient being prepped.

Cutting Board Sequence

First: Fine, dry ingredients

  • Examples: fresh herbs, nuts, dry cheeses, bread
  • Why: These are easier to chop and transfer from a clean, dry board. A quick wipe will easily clean the board. Do these first.

Next: Low residue (hearty / dry)

  • Examples: brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, eggplant, kale, sweet potatoes, zucchini
  • Why: These make clean cuts, you won’t have to wash your board after, just toss the scraps.

Next: High residue (juicy / sticky)

  • Examples: avocado, beets, citrus, melons, peaches, pineapple, tomatoes, winter squash
  • Why: Prep messier at the end but before pungent ingredients so you only have to wash or change the board this once.

Last: Pungent ingredients

  • Examples: garlic, ginger, chilies, onions
  • Why: Anything that goes on the cutting board after this step may take on these flavors. Do this step last to protect previous ingredients.

Last: Animal products

  • Examples: Meat, poultry, fish
  • Why: ALWAYS prep meat last to prevent cross-contamination. Alternatively, use a separate board.

Want to practice your knife skills with a new recipe? Find something delicious at www.mealhero.com and let us know how it turned out. Write to us at culinary_expert@mealhero.com. Happy cooking!

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