How naive was I to think I could learn one new skill a week? Having spectacularly underestimated how long it would take to master the art of chopping, I’m starting to realise I might have been over ambitious in my quest, but I won’t be discouraged because my newly acquired blade skills give me everything to play for. It might take more than a few casseroles to get knife-perfect, and future skills might come more naturally, but daily practice has seen me achieve new levels of efficiency and the trusty old cheese grater is getting way less action – I kid you not.
Now for the disclaimer: I don’t profess to be the authority on slicing and dicing – I am but a time-poor mortal with a hungry family. But with the guidance of a handful of pros recruited via Instagram (trained chefs who generously gave their time and expertise to steer me through the basics) and the occasional Youtube tutorial, I’m confident I’ve reached a stage where I’m not going to lose any fingers and happy to share what I’ve learnt.
Step 1: Get your kit in order
A novice like myself needs only three types of knife – I am told: a large chef’s knife (aka the chopping knife), a small paring knife (to top, tail and peel with) and a serrated-edged carving or bread knife.
According to Jamie Oliver, 90 per cent of home cooking requires the eight inch chopping knife, so that’s what I’ve been concentrating on.
Sharpness is everything. With a blunt blade, technique is as good as useless – you might even do yourself an injury. So, if your drawers have accumulated as many rusty old spears as mine, be brutal, chuck what’s beyond saving. And if a chef’s steel doesn’t feature amongst the clutter: get one. “The blunter the knife, the worse the cut” says chef Tay Brandon (@chef_t.b), “because you’re putting more pressure into the cut.”
Hawk eyes will notice I’m notice I’m not exactly in possession of the best set of knives. The dishwasher is like kryptonite to them (the blades are nicked and bumpy) so take heed: it’s warm soapy water and a sponge from now on. To counter the damage as much as possible, I run the chopping knife’s blade down the steel stick as though whittling it (heel to tip) at an angle of about 22 degrees, flipping it about five or six times to sharpen both sides, then rinse off any dusty metal shards and wipe it clean before using it to cut food. Use the same priciples for the pairing knife.
Step 2: Cross chopping
I didn’t enter into this expecting to be able to fillet a fish or butcher a pig; my objective was to prepare veg – maybe the odd cut of meat. For this, there are three go-to techniques, the easiest being cross chopping. But before I go any further let me demonstrate how to hold a chopping knife, because it defies all common sense. Chef Nico Rasile @chefnrasile at Jason Atherton’s Temple and Sons grill sent me some pictures:
In pinching the spine between your thumb and forefinger – as oppose to wrapping them around the handle – you get more control of the blade and you can lift it easier as you bring it up and down for each cut. Got it? Back to cross chopping. This rough and ready technique is handy when you want things cut up fine, like, say, an onion.
First, coarsly chop the food into manageable sized chunks. Then, holding the knife as Nico does above, take your subordinate hand (the left, in my case) and rest it flat on the spine, palm down.
Keeping the tip end of the knife on the chopping board at all times, pick it up and lower it down as you slice through the veggies – it almost feels like it’s on a spring bouncing around. Imagining a clock face on your chopping board, steer the blade between five and three, back and forth as long as it takes for the food to reach the desired texture. If bits fly off in all directions, bring it back to a neat pile using your subordinate hand to pinch the tip of the knife and scrape – like how a plasterer might – to push it all back together.
Step 3: Tap chopping
For slicing (like the carrots above), it’s once again all about the positioning of your hands. Especially the one steadying the food. To combat rollage, square off any round edges that make contact with the board – see the courgette below, so it doesn’t slip and slide.
Next, if you really value your fingers, what you do with your feeding hand – the hand you’re holding the food in, is crucial. Make a claw shape with your fingers so your thumb sits right at the back. Your elbow will stick out to the side like you’re doing the funky chicken.
Sit the ‘claw’ on top of the food with reasonable pressure. Your index finger should be furthest forward and therefore closest to the knife. The only part of the finger to ever make contact with the side of the knife is the knuckle section. All finger tips, I repeat, ALL finger tips should be tucked underneath, out of harms way. Any that aren’t risk being hacked off, so don’t let Tommy Thumb or Peter Pointer creep forward, as my daughter would say.
Going slowly and steadily, bring the knife up and down so it makes a tapping sound against the chopping board, hence its name. Whether you walk your claw backwards or use the thumb at the back of the claw to push the food towards the knife is up to you. “You mainly walk the fingers backwards but, with herbs, you can feed them through,” explains chef Noel Roche (@chefnoelroche). He adds: “never lift the knife above the highest part of the knuckle.”
Step 4: Rock chopping
So if tap chopping works best for slicing solid, heavy duty stuff, what about the wonky, squidgy stuff with a life of its own – things that have shiny surfaces like, say, peppers and tomatoes? Well, for these tough skinned little beauts we have to implement the rock chop. Our friend ‘Julienne’ likes this one.
Keeping the claw you used in a tap chop, set yourself up in the same way and pause: it’s the motion of the ocean that sets this method apart. No tapping here, what you’ll be doing with the knife is more of a roll. You’ll be pushing, rocking the blade forward into the food as you slice, lifting the heel as you bring it back. The action feels a bit like it would winding a pedal on your bike.
This is the sexy little technique that always looks so impressive on telly. The experts can literally do it with their eyes shut. Looking elsewhere, or explaining the components of a Béarnaise sauce, they move their knives with all the pace of a sprint, yet never so much as a nail is sacrificed. While I won’t ever be so cocky as to not look what I’m doing, or go beyond the speed of a jog, the theory is, if you can feel the metal against your knuckle, none of the fingers behind will end up in the stew.
So those are the real basics. Frustratingly, due to technicalities, I haven’t been able to include videos in this post, but I hope it’s useful on some level to more than just me. Frankly, I’m amazed I’ve not maimed myself; but if I can crack it anyone can. On the other hand maybe I’m not pushing myself hard enough? Maybe I should try something really tricky next time. Wing-walking, yeah? ‘Til then.