Monday, May 10, 2010

Knife Pointers

One of the unavoidable tasks of learning how is cook is to learn to cut meat and vegetables safely. If you don't take anything else away from this article, remember Rule #1: NEVER USE A MANDOLIN WITHOUT A SAFETY HANDLE ON THE FOOD. This rule was reinforced for me rather vividly just recently. Not only did my brief violation of this rule create significant pain, blood, scarring, sleepless nights, missed work, and inconvenience, but it completely subverted the purpose of this blog: it gave my wife a migraine, prevented me from cooking, and created a significant hardship on her. It looks like I will eventually recover, but please take advantage of my experience instead of gaining your own. Given a choice, I would have taken vegetables cut with a knife over what I got.

Rule #2: Never reach in a food processor or blender when attached to a base that is plugged in. Someone mentioned a violation of this rule to me when I was explaining my own situation.

Rule #3: Keep your knives sharp and clean. A dull knife will catch and jump unpredictably when force is applied. Unpredictable is what we want to avoid when putting blades in motion.

Some general advice: An 8" chef's knife may look intimidating, but it is reasonably safe and very effective for appropriate jobs when used correctly. Get a book from the library and watch a few videos (YouTube is filled with them). Pay particular attention to how to hold the non-cutting hand. Different vegetables require different approaches, so be sure to learn about all your favorites. I use my chef's knife to chop and slice vegetables, and to carve or slice large pieces of meat. The only common job I have found to date that does not work well with a chef's knife is breaking down and trimming chicken. The big blade swinging around so much to do fine work can be a little hazardous in this case. I can't tell you how to distinguish a fine knife from a paperweight (America's Test Kitchen, books, retailers or chef buddies can help), but I can tell you that my cheap Publix knife ($8.00) that I picked up as a spare has been more than satisfactory.

Food processors and automated slicers are great too. I often use the food processor to get ingredients together quickly for meat loaf. My young son enjoys this job and the intimidation and danger of exposed blades are eliminated. Frequent users may want to invest in extra bowls/attachments so that a clean one is available even when the dishwasher has not been run.

A final good skill to have is sweet-talking your butcher. If your meat is prepared for your needs in advance by a pro, then your still-developing skills will not hold you back.

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